🎬 #31 The Art of Darkness AKA Fincher Friday!
When I started to write this week’s newsletter I had the intention, like always, to recommend two films but I quickly realised that writing about just one of this filmmaker’s films takes up the length and effort normally reserved for two. So from next week expect regular programming but this week I’m recommending you visit/ revisit just one film.
There are few directors who can conjure up an exacting atmosphere of constant unease and dread as effectively as David Fincher. Every film he makes is made within an inch of its life - performances are explored to the end to unearth the reality he’s looking for, camera operation is handed over to motion control rigs even when there is no visual effects requirement. Every tool he uses is used to illicit a specific reaction in the audience. In this example of the motion control rig it’s to conjure the-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-why-this-is-inspiring-anxiety feeling. Because its movement is unbound to the rules of our reality and too technically precise, hence the creep, the unease.
Spielberg once said ‘there is every other film and then there’s 2001.’
The same might be said here - ‘there is every other director, then there’s David Fincher.’
1995 Dir David Fincher
I saw Se7en this week on a big screen in 35mm. Two thoughts were apparent - one, no matter how many times I see this film it loses none of its power and, two, what must it have been like to be sitting in the audience in 1995 opening night, not knowing what you were about to see? My older sister was one of those people and I remember her, even when I was young, saying how she saw this film and had nightmares for weeks. I don’t think she’s seen it since.
The 10 year old me was intrigued - I thought only horror films could give you nightmares, but this was a ‘police film.’ Since then, David Fincher’s films have had a profound impact on my taste and accelerated my interest in filmmaking beginning around that time.
I remember seeing Se7en for the first time in my friend’s house and having to cover my eyes during the ‘Sloth’ scene, then later I remember pestering my best friend’s older brother about Fight Club because he’d just seen it at the cinema, in fact the special edition DVD that later came out might have been the first one I’d bought.
Thinking of these two films in particular might have been the first time that I connected a ‘mood’ or what you might say ‘a recognisable, related vision,’ across two distinct films. It was the first time that I sensed someone with a strong POV and I realised that’s what the director does. And Fincher does it more distinctively than most.
Only his second film after the divisive, and more often than not, derided Alien 3 is as strong a sophomore effort as there might ever have been. Just 32 at the time, he took an excellent script from Andrew Kevin Walker and made one of the darkness but most beautifully brutal films of the last 50 years. The cinematography by Darius Khondji renders the unnamed city and the characters within it as stark graphic figures. Kinoflos and overhead lighting, with black blacks, texture the grim reality with a feeling of a late 20th century hell scape - as if Gustave Dore painted the bleakest, most fatalistic realities of living in a modern mega city shrouded in the apathy that anonymity can conjure. When you realise that Andrew Kevin Walker based it on his experience of living in a 'depressed period’ in 80’s New York - the dark, hopeless mood feels all the more relatable and more tangible.
Seeing and hearing the film the way it was originally intended with the full mix on a proper cinema sound system made me realise just how pervasive the city is. Every single scene, bar the end of the third act is hammered by the ever present atmosphere of a busy, angry city. Its presence felt beyond the frame by the traffic, thunderous groans of its own unique climate and shouts of the residents. The physicality of the city’s impact on the people who live there is highlighted at every turn - literally in David and Tracey Mill’s apartment. Where a passing subway literally shakes their world. An amazing moment of levity for the characters and the audience.
The city is felt even before the opening scene as it soundtracks the New Line logo. Then at the climax of the first sequence, Somerset attempts to put some order to the chaos of the city spilling through his window and seeping through his walls. He starts the tick of a metronome - this fades into the booming reworked version of Closer by NIN which soundtracks the title sequence by Kyle Cooper.
Metaphorically this symbol of sonically imposed order is consumed by something much darker and inevitably destroyed. And later it’s literally destroyed, as Somerset throws the metronome across the room in a moment of frustration. The film is opened and closed with music made with or by NIN, their version of Bowie’s The Heart’s Filthy lesson closes out the titles at the end; a taster of the relationship Fincher would develop with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as his go to composers beginning with The Social Network - for which they won the Oscar.
The city haunts everyone in the film. References to the acts of violence that occur off camera in such close proximity to the police station, the conditions of the schools that we hear about but don’t see. Like most of the ‘violence’ in Se7en, the power is from the fact that it happens off screen, it’s not within anyone’s control - neither we, nor the protagonists can do anything about it.
And that is one of the genius strokes of structure that Andrew Kevin Walker based his script around. These deadly sins have already happened - there is a system at play beyond what the detectives are aware off, there is a masterplan that they can barely glimpse and the payoff in the final scene is one that constantly satisfies. It’s only after watching it numerous times that you appreciate how original and powerful that ending is. The film is deeply satisfying on all levels - the brutal genius of the screenplay being the one that kicked it all off.
It had gained notoriety in the development circles of Hollywood before an early version, not the latest, arrived in Fincher’s hands. Fincher explains on the commentary that the ending and structure had totally changed in the latest version, that it became a more traditional cop/killer chase movie. When he signed on to do it, he got Pitt and Freeman to put their clout behind doing the original script and ending as it was intended.
Fincher is a huge Ridley Scott fan and his employment of Scott’s favoured production designer, Arthur Max, is testament to that. Max brings a tactically and reality to the film that is incredibly detailed, even the infamous notebooks were filled with details that largely went unseen in the film. Everywhere feels like it’s covered in a silt or grime - spewed from the city, resulting in a brown, black, tobacco-yellow palette. The pops of red neon light, and dark red blood appear all the more unsettling in the muted context.
The murders traverse all levels of the city, from the deep dark pounding music scored hell of a sex club to the high rise office of an eminent attorney, to the dingy hole apartment of an obese shut in. And when the killer finally shows up in a rare glimpse of sunlight, we might be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief.
But this is great storytelling, we want to believe that as we leave the hell of the city, the darkness and rain, that we leave the horror behind. But it’s only as we drive out into the great expanse of desert, into blinding sunlight that the real lasting terror is revealed.
Evil doesn't live in one place, it’s in the hearts of men.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 7 mins of my precious life watching this? Perhaps the definitive ‘serial killer’ film that takes so many structural chances and pulls off so many surprises so as to make the genre feel completely fresh again. Its aesthetic has been often copied by it will never be outdone - David Fincher’s film is too smart for that to happen. As patient, perfect and exacting as a film can be.
*Available to stream on Netflix and for a small rental fee on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Sky Store.
Fact: The cast and crew list is a veritable name check of future Fincher favourites. Claudio Miranda was the gaffer on the film, he would go on to shoot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and most recently Top Gun: Maverick. Harris Savides has a cameo as the 911 room operator, he would shoot Zodiac and The Game. Ren Kylce, the sound editor, would go on to work on the sound on most of Fincher’s films.
Bonus: Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker started his cameo career as the body in the first crime scene and would continue as the unnamed man in the apartment across the street in Fincher’s Panic Room.
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