5. Time, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
In a movie about a guy born as an old man who ages in reverse, a byproduct of his disease is Benjamin (Brad Pitt) must “blend in”, experiencing his childhood in an old folks home where death is routine. Benjamin Button lives outside of time, breaks the rules of time, and in the process explains the ravages of time. Throughout the film we watch everyone around Benjamin die: From war, from old age, from disease, and finally, from being born in reverse. It contains the most stunning and heartbreaking kills in Fincher’s filmography because they are not a product of a sicko’s grand design, but simply nature taking its course, harrowing in its obvious, matter of fact inevitability.
4. Edmund Kemper, Mindhunter (2017-2019)
The breakout star of Mindhunter, Edmund Kemper was the Co-Ed Killer—a hulking monster who killed many people and occasionally had sex with his victims’ decapitated heads—and in the show, he’s the catalyst for the birth of the behavioral science unit. Cameron Britton plays Kemper as a verbose, precise, calmly menacing giant with thick frames and a trim mustache. He’s the most Fincheresque antagonist in the series. Kemper is lucid and clear-eyed, incisive, articulate, and occasionally even funny. Understanding what he’s done—and exactly why and how he did it— is critical to the protagonists’ mission, and Kemper understands this, which makes him that much more terrifying.
3. Amy Dunne, Gone Girl (2014)
Another meticulous, disciplined Fincher avatar who has checked every box and arranged for every contingency. Amazing Amy is a feminist archvillain exploiting misogyny to liberate herself from the American prison of marriage and the cool-girl wife’s role therein. She’s a deeply petty scorned woman of iron will, expert at manipulating the public, the authorities, staged crime scenes, and her husband.
2. John Doe, Se7en (1995)
The film, and the killer, that has in many ways defined Fincher. Speaking to Esquire, before releasing Zodiac, the director said, “I don’t want to make a film serial killers masturbate to.” The line was an obvious dig at his own second feature, which is pure serial-killer porn and would set the template countless lesser movies would aspire to going forward. John Doe is a true mastermind who executes creative, horrific, gimmicky murders inspired by the Bible’s deadly sins. But most importantly, he’s always a step ahead, always smarter than the cops coming after him, and his win at the end is absolute. Morgan Freeman’s terrified exclamation at the film’s climax sums up the plot of the whole film: “John Doe has the upper hand!”
1. “The Zodiac Killer”, Zodiac (2007)
In Fincher’s masterpiece of form and statement, he’s at the height of his powers, revisiting the serial killer as a “celebrated” cultural figure and a malignant expression of society, and what he comes back with is maddening emptiness. Instead of a running inner monologue, we’re given nothing—not even the killer’s identity (or identities.) The first half is a painstakingly made and researched film, scrubbed of all romance and sentimentality, that comes as close as fiction can to mimicking the endless, mundane texture of reality. Then, the killer dissolves.
To Fincher, the Zodiac Killer isn’t a person, but an idea, an unanswered question, an unresolvable puzzle. Although different actors show up playing people who might be the culprit, the Zodiac haunts the film mostly as an absent menace. Conflicting motivations and theories are thrown at the viewer and it’s impossible to sift what circumstantial evidence is real from bullshit. Some characters favor one suspect, some another, nothing ever adds up, and no one is ever proven conclusively right or wrong. Years pass, people fall in and out of life, they succumb to their demons. Only devastating, lonely obsession remains.