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Violence vs. Violence – The Bloody Thematic Concerns of David Fincher


(Warning: Spoilers abound…)

Despite The Social Network‘s recent success branding director David Fincher an erudite master of the docudrama, ‘twas not always so.  In fact, until The Social Network, one word dogged him from film to film: violence.  And why not?  His two most infamous films, Seven and Fight Club, center on human cruelty—the two would not exist without violence.  Any director in charge of just those films would find themselves labeled a violent provocateur, but plenty of additional support exists in Fincher’s body of work.  The bloody xenomorph rampages in Alien 3.  Dwight Yoakam off the lease in Panic Room.  The Zodiac Killer’s matter-of-fact brutality in (what else?) Zodiac.  Heck, the least sedate (read: boring) moments in the PG-13-rated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button occur in the film’s WWI and WWII battle sequences.  You’d have to go into the snuff business to cultivate a reputation like Fincher’s.

All the same, it’s a misunderstood reputation.  David Fincher is so adept at using violence, at capturing the physical and psychic damage it causes, that we overlook how little actual blood and guts he puts in his films.

Alien 3, his first (oft maligned) feature-length production, probably has the most on-screen graphic violence of all his works, yet a) it’s part of the territory for that particular franchise, and b) even for an R-rated Alien picture, Fincher displays remarkable restraint.  Rewatching the film and its making-of features on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set (buy it HERE), I noticed how expressionistic Fincher makes the violence.  He creates realistic gore effects for the set and only shoots them in flashes (like the above photo, courtesy of Ain’t It Cool News), a spurt of blood here, a splatter of organ there, documenting precious little of the cause-and-effect between attack and injury.  The best example is the Newt autopsy scene, where a medical-grade human facsimile appears on-screen as a slight trickle of blood and a series of pained reactions on star Sigourney Weaver’s face.  Fincher’s approach makes us imagine more horrors than he actually gives us.  It’s a good part of why this flawed sequel has such power to disquiet the viewer—he makes us responsible for the carnage.

By comparison, Seven could be a Victorian chamber piece—there are only two scenes of violence and of these, only one shows anyone being killed (a relatively bloodless gunshot death seen in long shot).  The film devotes most of its attention to the aftermaths of serial killer John Doe’s victims, which, upsetting as they are, suggest more than they show.  Fincher does something very canny in Seven.  He gives us the gruesome in the first murder setpiece—the discovery of the “Gluttony” victim—and then sticks (mostly) to verbal descriptions and suggestions for the other bodies.  Showing us that one body sets a high barometer for the savagery of John Doe’s later actions, and we take what Fincher tells (not shows) us and make it so much worse.  This tactic again makes us accountable, and it places the focus of the film not on death but on our hero cops (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) as they try to process death.  The film isn’t about inhuman cruelty, it’s about humanity’s reaction to inhuman cruelty, and Fincher dramatizes Freeman and Pitt’s increasing horror with all the precision his detractors say he fetishizes violence.

Through his treatment of the Pitt and Freeman characters, Seven really introduces the grand theme in all of Fincher’s work—the ways violence upsets the human psyche.  Sometimes it acts as a cleansing agent, forcing characters into self-actualization as a means of confronting their flaws.  Think Michael Douglas’ venal billionaire in The Game.  The spy movie explosions and gunfire comprising a goodly amount of the titular game send him spiraling into paranoia and rip his life apart; however, it was a life fueling his misanthropic whims, and its dissolution allows him to begin to connect with those around him.  Violence-wise, The Game features little blood and no deaths—fitting for a movie about self-help!

Sometimes violence’s power changes Fincher’s leads for the worse.  In Zodiac, the killer’s reign of terror hooks its three leads to obsessive degrees—cop Dave Toschi loses his partner, cartoonist Robert Graysmith alienates his family until they leave him, and reporter Paul Avery falls into drug abuse.  Aesthetically, Zodiac ranks as one of the least violent serial killer movies ever made.  Fincher frontloads all the on-screen deaths into the first twenty-five minutes and shoots them flatly, without a lot of sensationalistic gore.  It’s people Fincher cares about, whether it’s the victims or the investigators they obsess, and not what their blood looks like at 24 fps.

And sometimes, violence is both good and bad.  Fight Club covers the rise of a particularly destructive terrorist cell (they detonate what looks like a whole city at the end of the film), yet the violence they inflict on the world and on each other allows Edward Norton’s unnamed protagonist to take control of a life he thought out of his control.  The brutality in Fight Club is pervasive—I’m talking frequent bloody fights and broken limbs, the grisly pièce de résistance when Norton destroys the face of a rival—though the death count is limited to two because Fincher is more interested in the psyches of those who act so self-destructively and live (the dead hold no secrets).

In that regard, the bloodless Social Network is no different; Fincher’s angry young Geeks may lash out with words instead of with weapons or fists, but those words service destruction (of friendships, of status quo, of ethics), and they leave equal psychic scars.  On the surface, his upcoming remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo holds the potential for violent exploitation—here’s to hoping Fincher gets at the moral rot behind the story rather than just the physical rot.

For a director so labeled “violent,” David Fincher puts more emphasis on the scar tissue than the moment of scarring, and maybe that’s why his films are so troubling.

Maybe that’s why they feel so violent.