David Fincher began by directing commercials for clients like Nike, Pepsi, and Coco-cola, and soon moved into making music videos for Madonna, Sting, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, George Michael, Iggy Pop, The Wallflowers, Billy Idol, Steve Winwood, The Motels, and most recently, A Perfect Circle. However, he is really known as an Auteur for his work in blockbuster films. His use of weather, especially rain, shadows to conceal figures and faces, fluid tracking with a camera than seems to go everywhere, single frame inserts, and a tendency to shirk traditional Hollywood endings all represent a strong and unique style evident in three of his most popular films: Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room.
In all three films rain is used to mark the mood, or set up a climactic event. In the case of Se7en, the general feeling of the city of is one of bleak despair, which is heightened greatly by the never-relenting rain. Rain beats down on the two protagonists, police detectives, played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, as they follow the twisted work of an intelligent and deranged killer. In one of the more noteworthy scenes, Brad Pitt’s character is attacked by the murderer, and nearly killed in an alleyway, as water splashes up and over his body, creating swirls of mud and blood around his injured form. This marked use of rain is specialty of Fincher, which he continued to use in Fight Club.
The downpour in Fight Club is used to mark one of the films most dramatic moments. During the scene the characters played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are having a heated argument, when Pitt’s character steers the vehicle into oncoming traffic, eventually causing a terrible accident. The car rolls off of the road, killing the two minor characters in the back, leaves the two main characters, addled and bleeding in the rain.
Fincher’s latest movie Panic Room takes place almost entirely indoors; however, the scene which begins the conflict and the scene which brings to the confrontation to a close take place in a severe storm. When the three antagonists are introduced they are standing in the rain, silhouetted against the house which the house which they intend to rob. Near the close of the film, the remaining intruder attempts to escape in the storm, with his ill-gotten gains, as police surround him and shatter the darkness with spotlights. In a final touch of drama, the cornered thief throws his looted bonds into the air, letting the wind and rain sweep them away.
The use of darkness to conceal characters and facial traits is usually exploited to hide the identity of the antagonist or to obscure the face so that the viewer focuses on the action at hand. This is exemplified very well in Se7en, where the identity of the killer is kept a secret until the end of the movie, despite his being on camera several times until then. Anytime the figure appears, his face is either hidden in shadow, or he is silhouetted in such a manner as to distort his face.
Darkness and Silhouettes are used to obscure figures and faces throughout Fight Club. By concealing the eyes and faces of characters in the movie, the audience focuses more on the action at hand, and less on the expressions of the individuals involved in the scenes.
In order to make the three intruders more ominous, they are originally presented as silhouettes, and throughout the film, their eyes and faces are obscured during scenes of action. When the burglar played by Dwight Yoakam is attacking Jodie Foster’s character, his eyes are obscured by shadow, and when it is not his eyes are obscured by shadow. The use of shadows works very well with Fincher particular type of liquid camera work.
As the camera follows characters through walls, pipes, and even trashcans Fincher takes an idea initially used by Kubrick to a whole new dimension. Using Photogrametry, a technique actually created by Fincher, he takes advantage of digital advances to create the illusion of a camera that can go through objects, or exist in impossible small scales. In Se7en this is used on a very limited basis, due to its 1995 release, and is really just a wide panning shot.
However, in Fight Club, photogrametry came into its own as it was used to go through digitally rendered buildings and other surfaces. A particularly well-made shot, involves the camera slowly backing out of a trash-can, surrounded by digitally rendered garbage. The camera moves in what could easily be termed a fly’s perspective, and appears dwarfed by the surrounding objects. In the most dramatic use of photogrametry, the camera flows down into a the compressor on a refrigerator, before the until activates, igniting gas in the apartment, leading to an impressive display of pyrotechnics.
In Fincher’s latest film, Panic Room, the technique is used in less flashy, but no less impressive ways. The camera follows the intruders seamlessly through the house, going through walls, floors, and even steel piping with immunity. In the initial scene, the shot marks the arrival and entrance of the burglars and shows them progress through the house in a single long take, flying through items like coffee cups and doors to do so.
Amidst Fincher’s exceptionally long takes, observant and wary viewers can sometimes catch single-frame inserts, sometimes carrying hidden messages. At the end of Se7en Brad Pitt’s character receives a box from the killer. As his partner kneels to open the box, there is an image of his wife’s face which flashes across the screen for a split second. This bit of for-shadowing alerts the audience to the situation which is about to occur. After opening the box Pitt’s partner tells him not to come any closer and not to look in the box, as the box contains his wife’s head, which is the driving force of the movies last conflict.
In Fight Club, the single-frame insert is used as a major plot device to hint at the personality diffusion suffered by the main character. The character’s closest contact in the movie is Tyler Durden, who is frequently accompanied by the sudden flashing of images. Additionally, the character appears in several scenes as a single frame image throughout the movie, hinting that the figure may not actually exist. This is Fincher’s most extensive use of single-frame inserts and the only time it contributes to a major aspect of the story-line.
In Panic Room the use of single frame inserts is very limited, as it is only used once. During the opening credits the words “Face Your Fears” flash for a single frame across a teletron screen.
In general Fincher deviates from what could be termed a “Hollywood” ending, and is unafraid to offer controversial resolutions. At the end of Se7ven Brad Pitt’s character executes the man who killed his wife, to the horror of his partner, and ends up mentally broken. In a similar fashion, Edward Norton’s character finds redemption from his mental dementia by shooting himself in the face, and despite his salvation the city erupts into a fireball around him as a result of his alter-ego’s action. Panic Room ends with the “good” thief saving the life of Jodie Foster and her family when he kills his violent partner. Despite his good act, he does not escape the house and is arrested by the police.
David Fincher’s unique methodology for film-making strong supports the Auteur theory and distinguishes him from other film makers. Whether it is his use of weather, shadows, his unique camera movements, single-frame inserts, or his pension for non-generic endings Fincher has a style all his own, and is not likely to be confused with other directors.