February 21-27, 2007

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Cult Leader

Suicide Solution: What is David Fincher's deal?

By Steve Palopoli

IN PRODUCER Art Linson's memoir What Just Happened?, he describes his first meeting with David Fincher, five years before the two of them would work together on Fight Club. Fincher pitches him a story that opens with a guy breaking into an apartment and shooting three other guys with a dart gun, then lining them up, slicing them open and removing their organs.

"So," asks Linson rather naively. "Who's going to get this guy?"

"No one."

"He gets away with it?

"No. No," corrects Fincher. "He's our hero."

Linson high-tailed it out of there, but really, he couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the dark and twisty world of David Fincher. That world is orbiting back around now that his new film Zodiac opens March 2. The New York Times even did a long feature on him last weekend, in which they called him "Hollywood's reigning bad-boy auteur." Yeah, right—he wasn't even the reigning bad-boy auteur in Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, placing well behind Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson in terms of attitude.

Still, Fincher is definitely among the most interesting directors working today, especially for the trio of films he directed as the last century came to a close: 1995's Seven, 1997's The Game and 1999's Fight Club. To me, the fascinating thematic thread that links these three films is even more astonishing because of one key fact: Fincher didn't actually write any of them. Seven was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, The Game by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, Fight Club by Jim Uhls from the book by Chuck Palaniuk. And yet, they have a unifying concept in their endings that makes them seem to have been written by one person, under one guiding philosophy.

The best way I can think of to describe the idea that links all three endings is: In order to really live in the modern world, you must first kill yourself.

Let's look in reverse chronological order at how this suicide theme plays out in the three films in question. Fight Club, easy. The modern world has literally torn apart the Narrator (played by Edward Norton). Fincher uses not only Palaniuk's prose but multiple visual exhibits (such as the famous "catalog" scene) to build his case against the evils of modernity. Finally, he reveals that the Narrator has split—Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) is his own psychosis spun off into a second personality. In order to heal himself, he must commit a suicidal act: shooting a bullet into his own head. In a twist that almost wanders into magical-realism territory, this suicide doesn't appear to result in his own death, but in a new life (including the collapse of skyscrapers, representing the downfall of the corporate structure that had enslaved him in the first place).

In The Game, the device is even more obvious. Driven to utter hopelessness by the conspiracy he perceives against him, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) commits suicide by throwing himself off a building. But the suicide is actually a setup organized by the people who care about him. They realized that his wealthy corporate life had left Nicholas a shell of himself emotionally. Thus they conspired to teach him a very complicated lesson which culminates in his total surrender to death. After he comes out unscathed, both Nicholas' supporters and Nicholas himself believe he has been reborn, with the new ability to live in the world like a whole person.

In Seven, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) basically commits suicide; he sets up a situation in which he hopes Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) will murder him. (In real life, of course, this phenomenon is called "suicide by cop" and isn't all that uncommon). He gets his wish, and unlike the characters in Fight Club and The Game, he does really die. But remember what he tells Mills before he's shot: "What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed ... forever." Doe believes that after his suicidal act, he'll achieve a certain kind of immortality. He thinks the modern world needs him, and because of what he's done for it, his life will take on a new importance the moment he dies.

The weirdest twist of all would be if Fincher himself never noticed the connection between these three endings, but I have a hard time believing that. I can hardly wait to see what kind of ending he's dreamed up for the Zodiac Killer, whose continued cultural currency only goes to show that John Doe's parting words weren't far off the mark.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite 'Fight Club' quote here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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