Allegiances are never simple in a Fincher film.
David Fincher makes some seriously memorable films. That’s like saying water is wet, but his movies are impeccably crafted without seeming ostentatious or painfully clinical. Arguably, the best part about his films is the talking. You won’t find a film of his where character dynamics aren’t laid bare in the form of a lengthy conversation. Literally putting words on screen has been a landmark of his since the beginning of his film career.
Notably, many of Fincher’s movies crescendo to significant arguments and interrogations, and it is never just run-of-the-mill grilling. He has the ability to make talking – for want of a better term – interesting. Part of what makes his interrogations so enveloping and immersive is the insistent, intimate focus on the subjects at hand. Characters are thrust into settings but also command them in cinematically satisfying ways:
Fincher gives us just enough of any given setting, and the details are always overshadowed by the manner in which the characters move and interact within them. (Jones, 44)
Fincher has a new Netflix series coming out in a couple of months; one which will undoubtedly feature some of his signature wordy conversations. While awaiting the release of Mindhunter, we examine what it takes for him to put together the perfect interrogation scene.
On the outset, there isn’t much action in Zodiac. Instead, Fincher builds suspense exclusively around relationships and interactions, and he encourages audiences to believe everything they are seeing before their eyes. There’s a frankness to his filmmaking in general, but none more grounded in reality than in Zodiac:
…the action seems both immediate and legendary, as if it has happened and is happening at the same time. Fincher’s grasp of the world of his story is so firm that he does the thing filmmakers never do with stories set in the past: he empties out the action and the frame, in order to concentrate on the essentials. (Jones, 44)
It’s cinematic trickery without gimmickry. Despite the deceptive simplicity of conversation and the typical dramatic beats of the film as a crime drama, it still has audiences on the edge of their seats. It appears like the San Francisco Police Department makes a huge break in the case after identifying Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) as a prime suspect and all the pieces seem to fall into place. Viewers – who are finding out new information at the same time the officers and journalists in the film are – are invested in the process because they are directly involved.
Fincher constructs the interrogative showdown between Allen and officers Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and Mulanax (Elias Koteas) to begin one way and end in a complete flip-flop. The camera studies all players at first in a medium shot, with the officers’ backs to the audience. Allen seems outnumbered here. He faces the camera but sits furthest away from the audience, and is very much surrounded.
The scene progresses with the officers and the audiences examining Allen’s mannerisms and appearance through a number of close-up shots. Allen seems understandably nervous and overwhelmed by the situation. He tries to pre-empt incriminating questions, volunteering information about knives covered in blood and stating he has an alibi that cannot be confirmed. The three officers individually tune into Allen’s behavior during the interrogation, and overall the evidence feels pertinent but too easy attained. Nevertheless, any sense of disquiet accompanying this seemingly straightforward scene is muted because Allen backs up the officers’ presumptions anyway.
The scene also employs close-ups, cut like shot-reverse-shots, to exemplify the heightening pressure placed on the subject of the interrogation. The viewer has nowhere else to look except at the faces of either the officers or Allen. It puts them in a position to identify with people on both sides of the conversation, resulting in a chilling confrontation regarding perspective and allegiance. Furthermore, Allen coldly retorts, “I’m not the Zodiac. And if I was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you,” as he faces the audience. He sinisterly speaks to the officers and viewers directly.
This interrogation is built in an unsettlingly intimate manner. We get to see that Allen is not as impressionable and nervous as he seems and that the officers don’t know as much as they think they do. A final shot depicts the officers to be trapped as their favorite suspect walks out of the break room unscathed. Toschi says, “So does anyone think this suspect warrants further investigation?”
Of course, the audience agrees because we’ve witnessed first-hand just how odd and suspicious Allen is. We want him to be the Zodiac as much as others in the film do. But having the officers literally boxed into that break room behind window grills, appearing ‘imprisoned,’ is foreboding of future circumstances in the film. The tables begin to turn.
The interrogations in Gone Girl are constructed around strongly-held beliefs and stereotypes about suburbia – a mythos built by Amy (Rosamund Pike) to specifically incriminate her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). But the main perpetrator in the film controls the sequence of events from afar. When Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) first arrive at the scene of Amy’s disappearance, they immediately pick up on what is amiss in the house. Boney points out the warm iron right off the bat and later alludes to having noticed mistakes in the disarray of the living room during the initial investigation.
As they interrogate Nick on Amy’s first day gone, it becomes clear that he is an absent husband who is unaware of his wife’s comings and goings throughout a regular day. Boney tricks Nick into feeling flustered over not knowing his wife’s blood type. Gilpin later asks, “Should I know my wife’s blood type?” and it’s clear that the answer is no. It is a ploy for laughs from the audience while unnerving Nick in that setting. He simply comes across as a bumbling guy here.
That is until we find out some more unsavory details of Nick’s private life. His affair with a much younger Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) as well as his “box of hate” in which he accumulates evidence of Amy’s supposed wrongdoings towards him reveal his weaknesses and particularly, his spitefulness.
At Amy’s memorial, it is revealed that she had apparently been pregnant at the time of her disappearance. Nick is chased back into his house and Boney and Gilpin put all their cards on the table. They interrogate him in his home, but he still seems comparatively small and defeated as he sits at his kitchen counter, drink in hand. Nick is confined to his seat as Boney takes charge, walking from the kitchen to the living room and back, countering Nick’s frantic explanations. As pressure mounts, the looser mid-shots zoom into close-ups of the individuals in the house. When Boney and Gilpin tag-team the interrogation, it changes to a two shot with the focus switching between both characters depending on who is talking. It ups the tension without much action present.
Unlike Zodiac, despite the scene ending with Nick smashing his glass on the ground and asserting his right to a lawyer, we remain confident that the officers are the ones in the right. This is further evidenced when Nick is interrogated again very soon after by his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon) – the only person he seems to trust unequivocally and vice versa. But after the mess at Amy’s memorial coupled with her knowledge of Andie, it seems like her trust in her brother has dwindled to something more measured. She stands apart from him as he tries to convince her that having children was never part of Amy’s plan; it was actually his. Even if she does concede to perhaps believing him, she keeps her distance as she continues to question him.
We don’t see the puppeteer orchestrating Nick’s downfall just yet. So, when Margo insists that Nick has to be honest with her and he immediately jumps to the conclusion that she, too, thinks he murdered his wife, we have no reason to discount that. Margo declares she “would never ask [him] that,” and later on in the film, Boney herself proclaims there is just something too fishy about the case in its neatness. But Fincher’s subtlety and manipulation allow the audience to inhabit his worlds thoroughly enough that we experience each moment fully with the characters. Doubt feels more profound and believable. In this moment, you could peel back layer and upon layer of questionable behavior and believe that even if Nick hadn’t murdered his wife, he was at least dangerous to her.
The Social Network
As expected from an Aaron Sorkin script, The Social Network is verbose – full of mini-interrogations, even from the very first minute of the film. There is no liminal space in the writing and every word counts although it seems like a character is just rambling for no reason.
Fincher makes this cinematic by compartmentalizing multiple timelines. It forces the audience to be alert to time jumps, setting shifts and subtle differences in character dynamic even though they all essentially look the same each time. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) dons casual clothes and flip-flops. Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is always in an impeccably tailored suit. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer times two) are only distinguishable by how they part their hair.
However, each deposition scene, as well as each preceding contextual scene, has their own footprint and flavor. As it is in Zodiac, viewers look through multiple lenses but are encouraged to root for certain people depending on the circumstance. Sometimes it’s Mark, most of the time it’s Eduardo, and it’s probably never the Winklevosses – among others. Fincher positions all their relationships and conversations as power struggles.
What separates Mark’s apparent ruthlessness from blank canvasses like the Winklevosses’ is that he is an enigma whose allegiances confuse viewers. Does he really care about his friends? Is he only in it for the challenge of creating something new and exciting? Or does he simply want to prop himself up and attain ultimate glory above peers he sees as lesser than himself? It’s a rather changeable mix of all of the above:
Mark would not be an antihero if he didn’t possess an inherent magnetism. …this makes Mark far more intriguing – weirdly charming, distressingly misguided, woefully sad-eyed – than his college business rivals. It also intensifies the pleasure of his “computer person” retorts to his dunder-headed enemies. (Tyree, 50)
It is admittedly difficult to separate a single instance of interrogation in The Social Network, given how tightly woven the entire movie is. The common denominator happens to be Mark, stoic as ever with hardly any cracks to his façade. These depositions, while not as intimidating as a typical police interrogation given Mark’s blatant disrespect of almost anyone sharing a room with him, are combative and defensive.
None of the deposition scenes seem to set up to ambush Mark. He has a powerful legal team of his own and there is always a sense of balance between either party in the rooms. They sit across from each other and dole out questions and quick responses. However, the barrage of snark (most of it coming from Mark) ends up making these interrogations one-sided and viewers are mostly encouraged to view him unsympathetically.
While many of the unflattering assumptions made about Mark during these depositions turn out to be true, it is revealed that derision towards his character may not be totally accurate. When questioned whether Mark knew the Winklevosses were “from a family of means,” Mark feigns ignorance at first. But when pressed further, he responds with surprising emotionality: “I went to my friend for the money because that’s who I wanted to be partners with.” He calls Eduardo his best friend in the heat of the moment as the camera cuts to a shot of an empty chair at the end of the table. He is visibly pained at the reminder that Eduardo is also suing him. This reveals something of his drive and personality that his actual exchanges with Eduardo do not. But it is also a point of weakness that he swiftly rectifies.
As that particular scene in the deposition room goes on several cuts later, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ iconic track, “Hand Covers Bruise,” plays ominously in the background. There are only three instances of that refrain throughout the film – the first when Erica (Rooney Mara) breaks up with Mark, the second during this deposition, and one final time when Eduardo declares their friendship null and void.
It is through “Hand Covers Bruise” that we see the dynamics shift between all parties in the deposition room, and indeed during either of the remaining two, oft-quoted interrogations. Each of these interactions changes Mark, but we cannot say it is for the better. He carries on regardless.
“Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” may be Mark at his coldest, but it is also him at his most powerful. The Winklevosses and their representation may think they have the most grounds to bring on a fatal attack, but Mark is still the founder of Facebook. It is still a mega-successful company, and anything they could ask of him pales in comparison.
Mark is an outsider, like Allen and Amy (even when she is offscreen). The subtle differences between these characters depend on where they sit on the spectrum of villainy or anti-heroism. Regardless, Fincher’s interrogations ask us as viewers to question our default loyalties to characters in stories. He breaks tropes without cheapening them with obvious ‘aha!’ moments. Fincher’s ‘twists’ are instead naturally cinematic by reaching into an audience’s core beliefs and disrupting them entirely. It is the true staying power of his films.