If you don’t know the main twist in Gone Girl by now, then I feel sorry for you, because you will undoubtedly be spoiled any minute now, given the level of buzz the film has received. (And definitely by me, if you keep reading.)
David Fincher’s fantastic thriller has spawned countless articles claiming it is everything from another regressive, misogynistic entry in the psycho-bitch subgenre (joining the ranks of Fatal Attraction, Obsessed, Single White Female, and Basic Instinct) to the most feminist film in years. It has prompted debates about women who cry rape, the roles of husbands and wives in a marriage, victims as portrayed by the media.
The debate has also launched discussion of how Fincher treats women in his films. His oeuvre is best remembered by titles like Fight Club, The Social Network, and Se7en, which feature smart, sophisticated roles for males and not a whole lot of women.
But what tends to be left out of the conversation are all the strong female characters that have appeared in Fincher movies. Not every one of his films is a feminist showcase, but on the whole he’s treated women a lot better than many current filmmakers, especially those making the kinds of suspense thrillers Fincher is typically drawn to. With Fincher’s meticulous eye for detail and tendency to do many, many takes of any given scene, pretty much any actor or actress he works with delivers a solid performance that imbues the character with so much more than we tend to get from other studio films.
So here is my definitive ranking of Fincher’s films, from least to most feminist.
Fincher’s best movie is pretty inarguably also his least feminist. The Zodiac killer murders people pretty indiscriminately, with male and female victims alike. A few of the female victims (or near victims) have satisfyingly tense scenes — in fact, they’re some of the most terrifying kill scenes ever seen in a movie. That includes Darlene Ferrin, shot by the Zodiac at a lovers’ lane, who seems to think she knows the killer but dies before confirming that; it also includes Cecelia, whose lakeside picnic is thoroughly ruined by a man covered head-to-toe in black, wielding both a knife and a gun. In both cases, the men survive but the women are killed. Of course, that’s not Fincher’s doing — that’s just what happened.
None of these victims emerges as a major character, for obvious reasons. The only female character truly present here is Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), cartoonist-turned-Zodiac-hunter Robert Graysmith’s wife, but she has only a handful of scenes and basically becomes the naggy shrew wife archetype (though she’s being perfectly rational when she asks her husband to stop provoking a dangerous and unpredictable serial killer). Given that this movie is based on true events and takes place mostly in the 1970s, it makes sense that the film’s central trio would be male (as played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.). I don’t fault Zodiac for being a very masculine film, but it doesn’t help Fincher’s case in relation to the female roles in his films, either. Next!9. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Another (somewhat) true story in which males take up virtually all the major roles, The Social Network does have at least one memorable female who banters Sorkin-style with Mark Zuckerberg in the film’s indelible opening scene. That’s Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), in her breakout performance as the girl who inspired Facebook to happen. That’s arguably a powerful, world-changing position for a female, except Erica Albright is fictional, a device entirely invented by Aaron Sorkin to suggest Zuckerberg’s narcissistic loneliness, and she also doesn’t actually do anything but inspire Zuckerburg to dismiss women. (Facebook is created after a rather misogynistic site that ranks the looks of female Harvard students gets shut down.) The Social Network has been accused of making up all but the broadest beats of its story, but the Erica Albright character nicely highlights how being just a few clicks away from the majority of the population doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any more connected to each other, especially in the fantastic final moments when Zuckerberg just keeps refreshing his Facebook page, hoping Erica will add him as a friend.
At least we get the sense that Erica Albright exits the movie because Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t deserve her — she is solidly in charge of that decision, and declining his friendship early on is probably the wisest thing she could do, given how he ends up treating his other buddies. Beyond Erica, we also briefly meet Eduardo Saverin’s girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who goes into psycho-bitch mode when she feels marginalized, and the cute college girl that clues Sean Parker into Facebook. But the female roles are largely relegated to various hookups or love interests despite Sorkin’s usual knack for writing smart women. The exception is Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones), a lawyer on Zuckerberg’s team who attempts to get through to him about being more likable and fails pretty miserably. Still, all these women are window dressing in a male-driven ensemble about the age of the internet and the advent of social media. Of course, it’s a very male-driven field in real life as well, for which Fincher can’t be faulted.
Se7en is another movie with a virtually all-male cast, centering on the detective duo played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman who eventually square off against a male killer played by Kevin Spacey. The film’s treatment of women — and all of humanity, really — is dark, as the female victims are a prostitute who is raped to death by a killer sex toy and a model who chooses to commit suicide rather than live as a disfigured woman. Of course, all of the killer’s victims are meant to come across as morally depraved in some way, representing lowlifes who abuse one or more of the seven deadly sins.
The lightest and most likable character in the movie is Detective Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who strikes up a secret friendship with Detective Somerset after moving with her husband to a big city where she doesn’t know anyone. In most such thrillers, “the wife” is a barely-there presence who tends to nag her husband about working too much and not spending time with the family. Here, however, Tracy is a fully fleshed-out character who confides in Somserset that she’s pregnant and unsure about whether or not she should keep the child.
This might seem like a curious detour for a grim procedural like Se7en, but as it turns out, being sympathetic to Tracy is key for the film’s shocking denouement, when the killer has a delivery man drop off a special “package” containing Tracy’s pretty head. (That’s the reason Se7en ranks as a favorite amongst Gwyneth-haters.) Because we got to know Tracy so well, the moment feels like a true tragedy, and we’re right there with Mills as his grief at the loss of his wife and unborn child causes him to kill the unnamed murderer. It’s gloomy stuff, but certainly not the last time Fincher dares to go where other filmmakers are less likely to. Unfortunately, the fact that the only female character in the film ends up decapitated doesn’t really give Fincher much credit as a feminist filmmaker, so, moving on…7. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Fincher’s most widely derided movie is also the one that is his least Fincher-esque. At first glance, it seems too heartwarming and benign to come from the man who made Fight Club and Se7en, but The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button has its share of grim moments and is all about death. Though Brad Pitt is the star, in a lot of ways the movie belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who ends up taking care of the reverse-aging Benjamin as he becomes an infant (in much the same way a woman might need to take care of an aging man as he grows senile). She’s the one reading Benjamin’s diary from her own deathbed in the film’s book-ending device (which unfolds as Hurricane Katrina rages).
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button also has strong female roles for Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson (who was Oscar-nominated for her work), but none of them escape the overall storybook quality of this movie, which is more about sweeping themes than characters who break any sort of mold. The female characters are all pretty typical, functioning more as foils for the male protagonist than they do as women with their own agendas and inner lives. Still, as usual, Fincher tends to work with actresses who can elevate the material, and Cate Blanchett is more than capable. The decades-spanning story allows us to see a woman’s whole life unfold — but that life that largely revolves around Benjamin. 6. THE GAME
The only major female role in 1997’s The Game is Christine, played by Deborah Kara Unger (a role originally intended for future Fincher collaborator Jodie Foster). At first, Christine seems like a hapless victim of “the game” unleashed upon the wealthy Nicholas Van Orton by the shady and elusive CSR as part of a bizarre gift from his brother Conrad. However, Nicholas soon comes to suspect that Christine is in on it — and she is. Christine and Nicholas briefly join forces as she explains that CSR has relieved him of his finances, but then he realizes she’s drugged him and he’s back to suspecting her of foul play. In the climax, Nicholas holds Christine at gunpoint as she tearfully pleads with him to realize that this is all an elaborate put-on — which is also a put-on, because Nicholas arriving with a gun was also a part of the ruse.
Christine ends up being our main source of information (and misinformation) about the culprit behind Nicholas’ wacky birthday present, and we suspect her of being both a victim and a villain multiple times before the final truth is revealed. It’s a fun twist on the typical girl sidekick/love interest archetype we often see in such films, but she’s not exactly the femme fatale either. She’s a woman doing her job, and doing it pretty damn well, and Deborah Kara Unger and Fincher keep us guessing about her allegiances all the way through. It’s a more complicated female role than anything Fincher offered up until his recent book adaptations.5. FIGHT CLUB
Of all Fincher’s movies, Fight Club has to be the most masculine, because it’s all about men beating each other up to prove that they’re men. Our narrator, played by Edward Norton, feels emasculated by too much luxury and a cushy office job. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) enters his life to shake him out of his stupor, inspiring him to cause crimes and start an underground fight club where men ranging from pretty boy Angel (Jared Leto) to big-titted Bob (Meat Loaf) can duke it out ’til they’re left bruised and bleeding on the floor. But oops! The group also has a secret anarchist manifesto bent on totally rewiring society.
The reason Fight Club ranks so highly amongst Fincher’s feminist films is because it has one truly awesome female character — the chain-smoking, terminally depressed Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who is perpetually on the verge of killing herself. We meet Marla at a support group for survivors of testicular cancer, and the lady does have balls — she tosses off quotable gems like, “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school!”
It appears for a while that Marla has ditched our hero to fuck around with Tyler Durden instead, but when Tyler ends up being our narrator’s imagined alter ego instead of a flesh-and-blood character, we realize it’s his erratic behavior that’s been hurting Marla, not the other way around. The finale of the movie, featuring Marla and the narrator holding hands and watching a city crumble to pieces around them, is one of the weirdest and most memorable romantic climaxes ever put to film.
Is Amy Dunne a regressive character? Or have we finally just progressed enough to let women be devious psychopaths, too? Gone Girl plays on gender stereotypes by posing a whodunit that automatically revolves around male suspects, because that’s how we’ve come to expect these things to play out. Men are the killers and women are their victims. Amy knows that, too, which is how she’s able to be so successful at playing the police and the media, allowing them to come to the conclusion that it must have been Nick Dunne who did away with his wife.
Of course, it’s Amy who did away with herself, but when Nick starts playing along with her games, Amy changes her tune and decides to pin the blame on another former lover instead — Desi, who is graphically killed during an intense sex scene that leaves her covered in his blood. That Amy would go to such extremes — having sex with Desi just so she can claim he raped her — raised a lot of questions about real-life rape accusations. Is this Fincher’s view of women — Type A control freaks who will cry rape, kill, send men to prison, or trap men in a marriage just to project the perfect image of domestic bliss? No. Amy Dunne is a horrible person who expends most of her energy getting revenge against men she perceives to have wronged her (though those wrongs aren’t always so severe). But Nick ends up returning to her, not because he’s trapped (as some seem to believe), but because their partnership in deceit begins to make a weird kind of sense to him. In the end, Nick and Amy’s relationship is a true marriage of equal partnership. They are both willfully partaking in a public deceit.
Deliciously portrayed by Rosamund Pike, Amy is far from the first female psycho-killer to grace the big screen, but the fact that she gets away with it in the end is much more novel. The killer in such films is no longer the lusty single woman who threatens the male protagonist’s family — she is the family herself. The reason Gone Girl gets away with making Amy such a total psycho is that writer Gillian Flynn grounds with film with an array of other colorful female characters, some wicked, some virtuous. (The film’s de facto hero Detective Boney is a woman, and Nick’s twin sister Margo is a surrogate for the audience.) Fincher has fun playing with stereotypes here, marrying the icy Hitchcock blonde archetype and the knife-wielding psycho in a movie that makes the villain and the victim the same person. There’s no question that Amy is driving this story — she’s a woman you don’t want to fuck with, in any sense of that word. At its most basic level, Gone Girl can be read as an exploitation of men’s fears of rape accusations and controlling wives, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Alien3 is the weakest of the Alien series, and one of Fincher’s least-liked movies, largely because it feels like a betrayal of James Cameron’s spectacular Aliens to kill poor little Newt off-screen. Due to the mother-daughter bond between Ripley and Newt, the butch supporting player Vasquez, and the fact that the big bad villain, the Alien Queen, is also a female, Aliens definitely scores as the more feminist film in the series. (As does Alien Resurrection, which added Winona Ryder to the mix. And we can’t leave out the 1979 original, which made Ripley a lone survivor in the first place.) Alien3 sports the most masculine Ripley, head shaved and a sour attitude, the sole female amidst a ship of prisoners who face off against the aliens. Ripley eventually sacrifices herself because she’s carrying an alien inside her, another dour and disappointing plot beat after Ripley has come so far in the series.
However, it can’t be denied that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is absolutely the most badass action movie heroine of all time, and she still manages to kick plenty of ass in the third installment, even if we end up liking her better in the first two movies. Fincher can’t take too much credit for Ripley here, as the character was kicking ass long before he sat in the director’s chair, but he benefits from jumping into an awesome feminist franchise for his directorial debut (!). Alien3 might score a tad higher if it didn’t undo so much of the good work done in Cameron’s Aliens in the process. 2. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
At first, Fincher’s decision to cast the girl who played Erica Albright as the autistic punk Lisbeth Salander in his adaptation of Steig Larsson’s bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seemed like madness. But as usual in Fincher’s films, the casting ended up being perfect. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is tough, resourceful, and has no patience for politeness due to a rough upbringing that left her well-being in the hands of some shady government officials. In a controversial moment, Lisbeth’s guardian ties her down and forces anal sex on her, and Fincher lingers in the moment longer than other filmmakers might in order to depict the extent of her suffering. But Lisbeth is no mere victim. She exacts her revenge in a scene that is equally graphic as the rapist becomes the victim. Many directors wouldn’t handle this material with the right touch, but the way Fincher depicts it, it feels icky in all the right ways and none of the wrong ones.
Any faults with the sexual politics in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo stem largely from the source material. Fincher’s adaptation actually tamps down some of the problematic elements in the novel, like how just about every female in the book throws herself at the male protagonist. (He’s played by James Bond, AKA Daniel Craig, but he’s supposed to be a down-on-his-luck middle-aged journalist, so it’s not quite so sexy.) Did this story really need Lisbeth to jump Blomkvist’s bones and, in the end, grow jealous when seeing him return to his editor and lover (played by Robin Wright)? Not really, but it’s in the book, and it’s kind of cool that Lisbeth takes charge and dispenses with any foreplay or niceties when she decides she that wants him. She just goes for it. Get it, girl!
As portrayed by Rooney Mara, Lisbeth Salander is pretty badass; despite her Oscar nomination, the film wasn’t exactly a runaway hit, which means we probably won’t see Fincher and Mara reteam for the book’s two sequels. (This one ends on a downbeat note that clearly assumes the story continues.) Larsson’s follow-up books are even more problematic than this one, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that this could be the bittersweet end of the girl with the dragon tattoo.1. PANIC ROOM
Didn’t Kristen Stewart learn anything from Jodie Foster? Before playing Bella in the regressive Twilight series, Stewart played Foster’s daughter in Fincher’s Panic Room, a female-driven suspense thriller. Jodie Foster has been defying gender stereotypes since childhood, so it’s sort of fun to see her as the mother of a tomboyish daughter here. Foster is Meg Altman, who sure isn’t hurting financially after a divorce that left her with enough bank to purchase an enormous four-story brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Seriously?)
As luck would have it, Meg and Sarah end up being robbed on the very night they move in by a trio of guys looking for a payday located somewhere in the house. Fortunately, the house comes complete with a panic room. Meg and Sarah lock themselves in as the robbers attempt to flush them out. Complicating matters are Sarah’s diabetes and the fact that the money the bad guys want is in the panic room. It’s a woman and her daughter versus three big, bad men.
As usual, Jodie Foster plays a competent, compelling character. She’s also a relatable mother who is fucking terrified by the fact that there are dangerous men in her house. She’s cool under pressure but just barely, the way we like to think we’d all behave in a similar situation. Foster eventually manages to kick some ass, but this never falls outside the realm of believability, and when she calls her ex-husband for help, he shows up and becomes just another victim that Meg has to rescue. (A lot of movies would have had the male swoop in to save the day.) It is a change of heart from one of the robbers (Forest Whitaker) that ultimately saves Meg from the most murderous of the trio. Still, Foster’s paradoxical tough fragility totally owns this film, and anyone who says Fincher isn’t a feminist would have a hard time explaining this one into such an argument.