Department of Theatre and Film
David Fincher and the Purpose of Violence
By Tom Hurst
David Fincher incorporates darkness, psychological themes, and violence into his films, separating them from other films of the Neo-noir genre. Neo-noir comes from incorporating noir themes, styles, and devices and re-contextualizing the noir setting of 1940’s America. Some criticize the violence in Fincher’s films for being too extreme and gratuitous in terms of shock value. In comparison to more recent films such as Hostel (2005) and Saw (2004), whose market niche is excessive violence, Fincher’s films include violence to communicate themes, not simply for shock value.
With the increasing number of films concentrating on shock and gore, film audiences find Fincher’s use of violence innovative, as it is used as an element that transforms his characters on a psychological level. Darkness is Fincher’s stylistic staple: he uses darkness to bring attention to the characters’ nature as well as creating an appropriate mood. It is through the darkness of man, manifested in mental disorder and physical violence, that Fincher shows that the dark side of human nature can force a personal transformation.
In Fincher’s Seven (1997), physical violence is the catalyst which leads to change in the main character. The film highlights seven days in the life of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). In the film, these two detectives attempt to capture a homicidal maniac, (John Doe), who suffers from a delusional disorder and believes he is an instrument of God, inspired by the seven deadly sins. From many years of experience on the force, Somerset has learned not to care about people, because becoming emotionally involved brings him pain. His stance of apathy, that he should not fight evil because people are inherently evil, is a way for him to protect himself from the emotional pain that comes from seeing human suffering. Somerset’s state of emotional apathy is displayed through his interaction with another detective by the name of Tracy. It is revealed here that Somerset chose not to become a father for fear of emotional investment, and instead chose apathy. Somerset generalizes human suffering. Crowley notes this in his article stating, “but when he becomes emotionally attached to Mills and Tracy, and they suffer, he suffers because they suffer, his relationship to suffering is altered” (Crowley, p. 3).
Finch not only employs violence to communicate themes but subtracts violence as well. The brutal killings committed by John Doe are of no consequence to him, because he has no personal involvement with the victims. The intellectual realization that he has a flawed philosophy is brought to Somerset’s attention by Mills in the scene in which he states: “You say ‘the problem with people is that they don’t care, so I don’t care about people.’ .That makes no sense.” None of the John Doe killings take place on -screen, representing Somerset’s apathetic and disassociative perspective. In doing this, Finch attempts to disassociate the audience, effectively putting the audience in Somerset’s psyche, being that audiences can only associate with characters visually. Fincher removes the violence to focus on Somerset’s psyche and the emotionless style in which Somerset handles the crime scenes even in the end when the killing of John Doe takes place, Fincher does not focus on the act of killing, but on the effect it has on Somerset.
Fincher filters the amount of violence that occurs onscreen, which affects the state of the characters exposed to it. In Seven, Fincher relies heavily on the aftermath of the violence: by limiting the audience’s perspective to that of the detectives (who never see the acts committed), Fincher attempts to connect the audience with the protagonists. Due to the detailed explanation given by the forensic experts, the grisly nature of the crimes is revealed.
Fincher uses violence to convey themes of disgust. Not just disgust in the context of repugnance but also in the context of inhumanity. Fincher elicits this feeling of disgust as a way to emphasize Somerset’s indifference: a subtle way for Fincher to show how jaded and apathetic Somerset has become over his career. Somerset only truly understands how disgusting his apathy is after the death of Tracy. In the end Tracy’s death causes Somerset to re-evaluate himself and he decides to remain a detective, because now he believes the world is worth fighting for. Without the experience of losing a close associate and therefore someone who does have a personal involvement with him, he would still have the same apathetic view of the world. Fincher exemplifies his themes by interlacing violence in the worlds of characters with psychological flaws: the mental paradigms of the characters affect the way in which they view the world. Fincher uses violence as an apparatus to develop character along with psychological dialogue. Violence is what links that characters in Seven and other Fincher movies like Fight Club.
In Fight Club (1999), Jack (Edward Norton) delves into a world of underground boxing, where violence becomes a cathartic act of self-realization. When his apartment is destroyed, he moves in with a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who introduces him to the world of “fight clubs.” Violence gives Jack opportunity to come to terms with his alternate personality.
Jack, the narrator of the film, overcomes primary insomnia only to discover he has dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) in the persona of Tyler Durden through the source of violence. He fights members of the club and they pummel each other to a bloody pulp in order to gratify themselves physically and psychologically. For Jack, Tyler Durden is the representation of that psychological pleasure, Jack’s id, “the part of the psyche, residing in the unconscious that is the source of instinctive impulses that seek satisfaction in accordance with the pleasure principle.” Tyler is Jack’s uninhibited, hedonistic alter ego.
Through violent fistfights, Jack reconnects with his emotions and realizes his masculinity. The manifestation of Tyler in Jack’s psyche compensates for Jack’s lack of ego. Tyler personifies Jack’s emotional side, as he says “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me.” While Tyler may inspire Jack to violent action, the true conflict is between him and Tyler, and therefore is simply a conflict between his ego and id. In this way Fincher uses the physical violence to illustrate this type of psychological battle between the id and ego. In the film’s final flashback sequence, Tyler’s image morphps into Jack. All of Tyler’s actions are committed by Jack., establishing that the image of Tyler is only in Jack’s imagination.
Utilizing the same technique used in Seven, Fincher rarely reveals explicit violence in Fight Club: the violence is typically briefly shown before the camera focuses on the other characters’ reactions. For instance, while Jack punches Angel Face, quick shots show his bashed face, while slower, longer shots reveal the reactions of the crowd and Jack’s expression. Another example is when Jack fights himself in front of his boss, and Jack’s struggling figure hurtles across the frame, while the camera focuses on the boss’s reaction. Fincher reveals how important violence is off the camera axis as it is on-screen.
In conclusion, Fincher’s focuses on the effects of violence on his characters rather than the violence itself. Fincher also employ violence as a mechanism to communicate subtle or prevalent themes in his films. The psychological defects of each character add to the emotional depth and darkness that the use of violence has in his film.
Works Cited: Lee, T. “Virtual Violence in Fight Club: This Is What Transformation of Masculine Ego Feels Like.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 25.3/4 (2002), 418-423.