David Fincher knows how to direct actors. More specifically, he knows how to give a character actor a great, meaty role. Unfortunately, many such performances are often out shadowed by the actors who headline Fincher’s films. Despite this, each of the roles below deserve specific praise. And although I’ve already highlighted many of these performances in my In Character column, this work merits continued discussion.
10. Julia Ormond in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
as Caroline Fuller
I love Julia Ormond’s work as Caroline because she really makes us believe that she’s, well, waiting for her mother to die. The anguish, the frustration, the guilt (as in, you can tell she feels guilty for wishing, in part, that her mother would let go). It’s all here. There’s something about Julia Ormond that I’ve always been taken with. She has a grace to her work that I find immensely compelling, and it is certainly on full display here.
9. Zach Grenier in Fight Club (1999)
as Richard Chesler
First off, there’s the fact that Grenier plays the part of a boring boss so damn well (which, trust me, is a lot harder than it sounds). But moreover, it’s the way Grenier so effortlessly sells his character’s utter bafflement as his employee, “Jack,” slowly begins to lose his mind. Watching the scene where “Jack” beats himself in Chesler’s office, and you just can’t help but feel sorry for ol’ Chesler.
8. Deborah Kara Unger in The Game (1997)
Unger was killing it in her career when The Game was released, and her work as Christine proved to be one of her most substantial roles. It’s Unger’s duty to convince us that Christine isn’t in on the fun, but because Unger is such a dynamic actress, we’re never really sure if she’s on the level. Which, of course, only heightens the overall mystery.
7. Goran Višnjić in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
as Dragan Armansky
I suppose I like Dragan Armansky because he’s actually nice to Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth has been shit on her whole life, and, because of her thick skin, I doubt too many people take kindly to her. Dragan is different. He speaks about Lisbeth with a sense of pride. He defends her, stands up for her. He’s nice to her for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. No hidden agenda. No villainous intent. He’s just a genuinely good guy, and Višnjić inhabits that protectiveness perfectly.
6. James Rebhorn in The Game (1997)
as Jim Feingold
Good old Jim Feingold. The man who is able to crush the elitist mentality of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) with nothing more than a greasy container of Chinese food and a lengthy questionnaire. Rebhorn was a master of playing straight-laced blowhards, and Jim Feingold was surely one of the best. The way he delivers the film’s title line always gives me chills of joy, and that zany dance at the end of the film is pure bliss.
5. R. Lee Ermey in Se7en (1995)
as Police Captain
Few actors are able to simultaneously provoke fear and laughter better than R. Lee Ermey. The man is a quintessential hard ass, but one with a damn good sense of humor. His turn as the Police Captain in Se7en is some of his best work. A crass no bullshitter who backs his men up, but lets them have it when need be. And that goddamn phone call (“This not even my desk!”) is still one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a David Fincher film.
4. John Getz in The Social Network (2010)
It’s the job of every actor to convince the audience that they are their character. When I watch John Getz in The Social Network, it feels like I’m actually watching a high priced lawyer in action. There’s a seamlessness to Getz’s work that makes him blend in; he is Mark Zuckerberg’s attorney, no question. Lawyers are so often portrayed as clowns in movies – the ceaseless wiseass who always says the right thing, and always fares well with the ladies. Thankfully, there are no silly theatrics in Getz’s performance as Sy. He’s just a guy there to do a job, and do it well. (Side note: I still can’t believe this is the same guy who played the scum bag in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead.)
3. Elias Koteas in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
as Monsieur Gateau
The Monsieur Gateau sequence that opens The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could serve as its own standalone short film. The scene is singular and unique, and led by such an immensely talented actor, that it remains my favorite part of the entire film. Monsieur Gateau is a blind clockmaker who, after losing his son to World War I, creates a large clock that runs backwards. His intention, he gently says, is that by having the clock run in reverse, perhaps America’s fallen soldiers will be brought back to live full lives. It’s a touching sequence that Koteas does wonders with.
2. Everyone in Zodiac (2007)
Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. have always earned just praise for their respective performances in Zodiac. As has John Carroll Lynch, who inhabits Arthur Leigh Allen in a most haunting fashion. But noting that, there are plenty of performances in the film that sadly get overlooked. Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, and Donal Logue as eager lawmen-turned-tired sad sacks; Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, and John Lacy as Zodiac incarnations; Charles Fleischer as a poster artist with a creepy basement; Brian Cox as a famed lawyer; Philip Baker Hall as a handwriting expert, and on and on.
And lest we forget the women. The horror displayed by Pell James as she’s stabbed mercilessly by the Zodiac, the frustration in Chloë Sevigny’s eyes, the fear in Ione Skye’s shaky voice after she accepts a ride from a mysterious man. Zodiac is Fincher’s best cast film to date. It’s full of tremendous character performances that deserve equal praise to the film’s stars. They’re much to thank for why the movie is so accomplished.
1. Rooney Mara in The Social Network (2010)
as Erica Albright
Look at Rooney Mara’s career pre-Social Network. A quiet, unassuming girl who occasionally popped up in indie films and single episodes of TV shows. More specifically, she was Kate Mara’s younger sister, doing what she could to break in. Then came those first few minutes of The Social Network. The opening scene of the film is more than enough to warrant her inclusion on this list. Her confidence, subtle pride, and complete unwillingness to back down to her asshole boyfriend, Mark Zuckerberg, is simply breathtaking. A few moments later, we watch as Erica discovers that Mark has written some horrible things about her online. It’s my favorite single moment of the film (screen capped above); it says everything about Erica (and, for that matter, Mark) that we need to know.
Now, of course, Rooney Mara’s 10 minutes of screentime in The Social Network helped her land the lead role in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and because of that performance, Rooney Mara is now Rooney Mara. Her work as Lisbeth Salander is one of my favorite Fincher-directed performances, period. But it’s important to go back to the source and remember that fiery Boston University undergrad who wouldn’t dare back down.
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