The Best Performances in David Fincher's Films
David Fincher is not known as an actor’s director. He has a notoriously love-hate relationship with most thespians, and wherever a film goes, the stories of on-set tension wrought by the filmmaker’s perfectionism usually follow.
But while demanding 102 takes of a scene that ends up getting cut might not be the foundation for a warm-and-fuzzy relationship (except maybe with Brad Pitt, who has worked with Fincher three times), it does often elicit stunning performances. No performance in a Fincher movie has ever won an Oscar, but he has recorded some of the most memorable turns of the last quarter-century.
Is his approach worthwhile for actors? Has David Fincher ever drawn out a career-best performance?
Let’s find out.
The Discoveries and Breakouts
Kristen Stewart, Panic Room
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
For a guy with such a prickly reputation, Fincher can work wonders with young actors without oodles of stage or screen experience. This is the point where I tell you that yes, 12-year-old Kristen Stewart had already played “Ring Toss Girl” in 2000’s The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (uncredited, which I’m pretty sure makes it a form of illegal child labor). So these aren’t necessarily first roles, but the early-career performances that took an up-and-coming actor and introduced them to the world.
For all the shit he gets, Fincher hasn’t received a single complaint for his treatment of child actors. This suggests that as a director, he modulates his behavior on-set: only push an actor as far as they can handle to get the best out of them. As a 12-year-old, Stewart slipped disconcertingly easily into the mind of the trapped, terrorized Sarah Altman, drawing the audience’s attention and sympathy just as much as her legendary screen partner, Jodie Foster.
Eight years later, Fincher thrust Andrew Garfield front-and-a-bit-off-center in The Social Network as the tragic Eduardo Saverin. Garfield cut his boy-ish good looks and hangdog eyes with an intermittently revelatory sharp edge, bringing a mixture of naivete and frustrated bewilderment that shaped his character. The combination of this performance and his heartrending performance in the same year’s Never Let Me Go likely combined to make him the next Spider-Man just two years later.
Finally, after featuring her in The Social Network’s ping-pong opening scene, Fincher dropped Rooney Mara into his next movie, 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in the titular role. It was the perfect transition role for an actor whose highest profile role had been as Nancy Holbrook in a reimagined A Nightmare on Elm Street, but who was clearly interested in more serious, dramatic fare. And it gave a quiet young woman space to reveal her darker side as a performer - and even garnered her an Oscar nomination.
Though all of these helped launch careers, none of them are career-best performances.
Kristen Stewart: Personal Shopper
Andrew Garfield: 99 Homes or Under the Silver Lake
Rooney Mara: Carol
The Early Career Dazzlers
Edward Norton, Fight Club
Brad Pitt, Se7en
Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac
Norton had The People vs. Larry Flynt and American History X. Pitt had Thelma & Louise, Interview with the Vampire, and Legends of the Fall. And Ruffalo had You Can Count on Me and 13 Going on 30.
These are the up-and-coming actors. The ones who’d shown promise and potential. The early-career performers who Fincher could mold, to a certain degree, and who would, in turn, bring a certain measure of star power to his films (and in Pitt’s case, get them made in the first place).
So let’s start with him. As the tortured, brooding Detective Mills, Pitt’s performance is perfectly calibrated to match the not-quite-neo-noir energy of Se7en - the first sign of a director and actor completely in-sync. And though it has been parodied a million times over, Pitt’s delirious breakdown in the final act is genuinely haunting.
A few years later, Fincher tapped the next “it kid” in Hollywood, Ed Norton, to lead 1999’s Fight Club as its unreliable narrator. It came at the tail-end of a 12-month run for Norton playing a spate of unlikeable, slimy anti-heroes - in Rounders, American History X, and then Fincher’s portrait of masculine toxicity. Norton sinks into the role with typical gusto, a mass of jumbled flesh and slowly released id.
And then there’s Ruffalo. The then-40-year-old actor shed his sensitive, vulnerable skin for something deeper and darker in 2007’s Zodiac, shoving the identity he’d developed over the last decade beneath the surface, but letting it simmer there, recognizable but just out of reach. It’s easy to trace Ruffalo’s more intense turns in later years to this performance - Spotlight and Shutter Island, particularly, thrive on the controlled but chaotic energy that he brings to his characters.
You can make an argument for each of these three as career highlights, but for my money, all of them fall just a bit short.
Brad Pitt: Ad Astra or (see below)
Edward Norton: American History X or 25th Hour
Mark Ruffalo: You Can Count On Me or Spotlight
The Height of Their Powers
Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac
Ben Affleck, Gone Girl
Outside of his career-long relationship with Brad Pitt, Fincher isn’t particularly interested in casting actors at the apex of their careers. He’s done it a few times, to varying degrees of success. But when it works, it works.
In Zodiac, Fincher relies on a Jake Gyllenhaal directly off 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, itself coming after a half-decade breaking into Hollywood with films like October Sky, Donnie Darko, Bubble Boy. Fincher and Gyllenhaal worked to play off his innocence, using it for the first half of the film, undermining it in the second, when Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith tumbles down the rabbit-hole of amateur detective obsession. As with Ruffalo, you can draw a clear throughline from Zodiac to Gyllenhaal’s darker phase that hits a half-decade later, in which he does Prisoners, Enemy, and Nightcrawler in a 12-month period from 2013-2014.
And Fincher clearly works best with stars when he’s able to play off their established persona. Nowhere has he reveled in that task more than with Ben Affleck in 2014’s Gone Girl. Though Affleck’s subsequent fall and rebirth has been much-covered, he was cast at perhaps the zenith of the second wave of his career: Gone Girl came two years after Argo, four years after The Town, and a short two years before his first appearance as Batman. In an eerily prescient bit of casting and acting, the moment when Affleck’s character smiles at a press conference for his missing wife would define the actor’s next half-decade in the real world.
Both gave memorable performances, but in relying so heavily on their established personas, Fincher deprived them of the opportunity to extend to their full range.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Brokeback Mountain or Nightcrawler
Ben Affleck: The Town or The Way Back
The title says it all: these are the trio of performances directed by David Fincher that saw actors digging deepest and shining brightest. They aren’t necessarily the three best performances in Fincher films (though they’re up there); they are the three performances where actors achieved their finest work to date.
Brad Pitt, Fight Club
Playing on his image as America’s pretty boy, Pitt and Fincher weren’t afraid to get dirty in 1999’s Fight Club, successfully turning Tyler Durden into an entire society’s alter-ego. As Durden, Pitt tap-dances on a knife’s edge for 139 minutes, alternatingly teasing and taunting us, pulling us in with his allure and then leaving us turning our heads in disgust. Fight Club’s eventual cult-like status obscures how much of a risk this was at the time, but it was one that paid off for Pitt, and one that he’s been trying to match in the two decades since.
Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac
Before Tropic Thunder and Iron Man, Fincher helped Robert Downey Jr. put an exclamation point on his career comeback in 2007’s Zodiac. Downey Jr. channels the inner demons from his own struggles with substance abuse to add numerous layers to what could have been a caricature in another’s hands, depicting crime beat reporter Paul Avery with a troubling cocktail of brashness and self-destructive myopia. It’s a combination that RDJ would tweak to great success in his decade-long role as Tony Stark / Iron Man.
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Gone Girl doesn’t work without Rosamund Pike. It’s that simple. Pike’s performance sends thrill chills down your spine, and it has to, because the film, like the book, rests on its ability to keep the audience enthralled with this enigma of a woman, Amy Dunne. Pike’s eyes help her turn on a dime - from innocent to charming to cutthroat - and she modulates her voice to match whichever personality suits the moment. It’s the best performance of her career, and likely the best performance in a Fincher movie to date.