Finding Kubrick’s Heir

Acclaimed Hollywood auteur David Fincher’s latest picture, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” is a violently sexual change-of-pace film for the holiday season.

After losing an expensive libel case against the shady Swedish businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, journalist Mikael Blomkvist takes up the 40-year-cold case of a missing woman. In return, he receives incriminating information against Wennerstrom. Full of violent twists and turns set against an eerily beautiful snowy Swedish landscape and featuring an Oscar-worthy performance from Rooney Mara as the eccentric goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is certainly intriguing to say the least and terrifying to say the worst.

But what this film really does is confirm director David Fincher’s standing in contemporary American cinema as the closest thing we have to Stanley Kubrick’s heir.

Since the iconic director’s death in 1999, a bevy of today’s filmmakers have (either consciously or unconsciously) vied for the title of Kubrick’s successor.

David Lynch and Terrence Malick are two famous directors often mentioned in such a sentence, but these two men are, well, David Lynch and Terrence Malick.

Joel and Ethan Coen are two possible contenders as well, but Kubrick rarely directed with a partner. (Roderick Jaynes, the Coen brothers’ shared alias, does not count.)

Then there’s Christopher Nolan, possibly one of the most frustrating filmmakers to study. While his early work (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) showed flashes of Kubrick, his later blockbusters (“Inception” especially) sealed his fate: Nolan is a wonderful cinematic puzzle-maker, more an explosive Coen brother than the successor to one of film’s most meticulous minds.

And if that’s Nolan, then Paul Thomas Anderson is the Coens’ younger cousin. (Try working that one out for a second.)

So what about cinema’s other big names?

Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen have made their own reputations themselves. Roger Corman couldn’t care less what people think. Mike Leigh hasn’t been relevant in years. Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarentino, and David Cronenberg are too weird. Tim Burton thinks he’s too weird. Alexander Payne and Steven Soderbergh are slightly overrated. James Cameron is supremely overrated. Darren Aronofsky is an older Paul Thomas Anderson. Jim Jarmusch is an older Aronofsky. Werner Herzog is crazy. Ridley Scott hasn’t struck gold in a decade. Roman Polanski should probably be in jail. Spike Jonze is indistinguishable. Spike Lee is too angry. Ang Lee isn’t angry enough. Coppola is Coppola. Scorsese is Scorsese. And George Lucas wouldn’t be famous without Spielberg. (Did I miss anyone?)

That just leaves David Fincher.

Kubrick’s films were reflections of his perfectionist nature and explored themes of rampant mechanization and “man’s inhumanity to man.” He was a meticulous stylist, a technological innovator — his films were watershed points for America’s baby boomers.

Should we say that Fincher is that man for today’s generation? In a way, we can.

What makes Fincher special is what also separated Kubrick from his peers: he possesses a strong sense of style and originality while calculating every move, shot, and line of dialogue with extreme precision. He isn’t afraid to shoot the same scene a hundred times, and he demands trust from everyone around him, trust bordering on blind obedience.

Starting out as a young MTV filmmaker in the ’80s — directing Grammy-winning music videos for George Michael, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna — Fincher got his first shot with the ambitiously underwhelming film “Alien 3,” which won acclaim for its special effects but was razed critically by moviegoers. Blaming its producers for getting in his way, Fincher returned to music videos until releasing his do-or-die visionary film “Se7en.”

It was an instant success, throwing enough weight behind Fincher’s name to direct the contemporary classic “Fight Club.” Since the new millennium, Fincher has released “Panic Room,” “Zodiac,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and “The Social Network” — all critically acclaimed, all popular, all strong credentials.

With these movies under his belt, Fincher has indirectly made himself in Kubrick’s image, but with a certain twist. All of his movies are strict productions of his mind, but his subjects seem darker, more violent, more sexual than Kubrick’s restrained masterpieces (think “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Shining”). Fincher is almost Kubrick unleashed, modernized and in tune with contemporary audiences.

Fincher is obsessed with violence, sex, and violent sex. His most memorable characters are loners, trading blows with dark entities in a darker environment. But his pace is quicker, his energy more frenetic. With Kubrick, you are in for subdued brilliance; Fincher takes you on a wild ride.

Perhaps these fundamental differences are not so surprising. Fincher is for us what Kubrick was for 30, 40, almost 50 years: a shrewd manipulator and an engaging filmmaker. They both pushed the envelopes for their audiences, but Fincher is making movies for the new generation, one apathetic and unused to the slow and ceased.

What’s most interesting is that Fincher is only now starting to become prolific. He has just a handful of films under him, but his success is beginning to garner him the same studio support that Kubrick enjoyed in his heyday. In 10, 15, 20 years, where could Fincher be, especially in today’s world? The potential is limitless, the expectation sky high.

Make way and watch out. Kubrick has a wild, wild heir.

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