The Detectives of David Fincher

In another life, David Fincher would make an excellent detective. It’s no coincidence that the protagonists in his films often brandish the fedora and trench-coat (some literally, others spiritually) or are prone to endless brooding as they piece together a complicated world. But it’s not the fact that they investigate that’s so compelling, it’s that they obsess. For a director himself who will shoot 100 takes of a scene, or refine the junk in a character’s apartment to an exact science, or pore over every line and molecule of the script; this storyteller-character pairing is as self-reflexive as it is madly engrossing.

This, of course, depends on how you like your heroes. Some like ‘em squeaky clean in every moral facet i.e. won’t take a nickel off the street, or aren’t above arresting every rule-breaking offender out there including jaywalkers. I like my detectives the way Fincher does, weathered and broken and a little fucked up.

For the purposes of this discussion (because I could go on and on with this archetype in ALL of Fincher’s movies), I’ll be taking a look at the detective pairs in Se7en, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and how each buddy-pairing informs the other. If work is murder then work shouldn’t be so damn entertaining, but in these cases it most definitely is.

*I’m excluding Detectives Rhonda Boney and James Gilpin from Gone Girl because as much as I love their back-and-forth sass, they’re not the main protagonists.


SE7EN – Detectives Somerset & Mills

William Somerset and David Mills are two sides of the same coin – one a storied veteran, the other a newbie hotshot set to inherit the mantle. Better yet, they’re a mirror. This saga of grotesque murders set to the seven deadly sins will play out in a week’s time, and in these seven days we get a sense of the detective Somerset used to be, and the tortured man that Mills is doomed to become.

The mileage may set them apart but they are both aces at their jobs: assessing the scene, probing the motives, fixating on “the one thing” (in Somerset’s own words) that cracks the case. Where they truly differ are in their attitudes of the job. The idealistic Mills wants to be preemptive and stop these murders from happening. The cynical and seasoned Somerset knows better. For Somerset, this skillset has shone a light on the darkest that humanity has to offer. Mills, however, believes a better world is possible so long as there are people like them to take out the trash.

Whether they’d cop to it or not, they enjoy the rush of stumbling upon clues that no one else has found, by looking in places no one else would think to look. Their obsession propels the plot of the movie, even if it doesn’t exactly thwart the killer John Doe’s master plan.

This is the most common and valid critique on Se7en because John Doe’s labyrinth is already in place and the detectives are simply along for the sinister ride. (Counter critique: they’re the ones who knock on John Doe’s door, forcing him to rethink the second half of his murder spree— though we’d still arrive at the same tragic end.) But one could also argue that John Doe’s breadcrumbs aren’t any good without detectives like Somerset and Mills to find them. It’s because of their persistence that the game is possible, just that it’s one played by John Doe’s rules.

Their obsession steers them on a path and puts them in lock-step as partners, but it will inevitably lead to their emotional unraveling. Mills’ starry-eyed ambition collapses into the downtrodden and apathetic worldview that he initially criticized of Somerset, while Somerset realizes their do-gooding due diligence is all they have in the end.

Se7en is perhaps Fincher at his most hardboiled, arguably him at his most pessimistic as it ends with an Ernest Hemingway quote about the world being “worth fighting for.” Because John Doe wins, and Somerset’s broken worldview is made manifest. And what are detectives like Somerset and Mills really doing as they tag evidence and bag dead bodies other than sorting the city’s muck into its proper filing cabinet?

It takes an obsessive eye to see through the world’s mess. And my, what a messed-up world this is.


ZODIAC – Detective Dave Toschi and Cartoonist Robert Graysmith

Fincher draws from real-life figures in his next serial killer feature, Zodiac. Finding the infamous Zodiac killer will span a decade-long search filled with frustrating hang ups and stranger red herrings. What happens when an obsession stretches on for that long? What does that do to a person’s life?

Detective Dave Toschi is the primary hero in Zodiac’s first half. He has an actual partner in Bill Armstrong, but the pairing I want to focus on here is between Toschi and Robert Graysmith— more a narrative handoff than a serial partnership. They both want the same thing: closure.

Toschi is our compass point through the terror that sprawled across all of southern California, a cultural fear heightened by taunts in the press. This was a unique manhunt that called curious details into question, from handwriting (in account of the letters), to fingerprints and boot-prints, to a crucial tidbit about a basement; there’s even a bit of plot overlap with Se7en involving a list of library books. Each suspect initially seems like a slam dunk going onto the next one, but aligning the pieces together subsequently disqualifies them, and thus the search becomes all the more convoluted over time.

Like Somerset and Mills, Toschi is good at what he does, but through the character’s disgruntled angst we see the job taking its toll on him in real-time. Professionally, Toschi butts heads with a very by-the-book captain. (Not his fault; the captain is just making sure due process is maintained so the DA can prosecute.) Then Toschi eventually loses a partner as the investigation grows beyond the murder of a cab driver and into a series of escalating threats in the media— which in turn changes their list of suspects. He may outlast those in his bullpen, but not even he can maintain the stamina after 8 years.

The late nights bleed into early mornings, and this 24/7 obsession bleeds into Toschi’s marriage. His wife is well aware of the routine, but this hardly means she’s approving of it. And though Toschi mentions having kids, we never see or hear from them, ever. His tunnel vision becomes our tunnel vision, just as it will soon become Graysmith’s.

The narrative handoff occurs in a chance meeting at the cinema of all places, while watching a movie that hits a little too close to recent events (illustrating how easy it was to be consumed by the headlines, and all the more impossible to escape them). Where the case fizzles out for Toschi, Graysmith picks up the baton – he who’s not a detective or a reporter, but a cartoonist.

Toschi’s pursuit causes a ripple in his home life, but Graysmith’s obsession causes an irreparable rift. At first he collects news clippings of the Zodiac like baseball cards. When he decides to write a book about the killer – enabling himself to play detective minus the latitude of one – he’s consumed to the point that he’s no longer present with his family at the dinner table. He could easily be misconstrued as a fan; why else would he want to be part of a murder investigation? It’s through his kids that we discover he and his wife aren’t sleeping in the same bed anymore, a lone detail that speaks volumes about Graysmith’s descent.

Fincher isn’t interested in the killer’s identity (or why he kills) than he is with these characters’ preoccupation with Zodiac; he’s obsessed with their obsession. Fincher fixates on each character’s behavior right down to their own handwriting— implicating them of their compulsion to the case. The director himself grew up in San Francisco at the height of the Zodiac paranoia. This project essentially enabled Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt to play detective. They spent 2 years researching, deep-diving through case files, and interviewing surviving players before the cameras started rolling. It’s no wonder ‘70s San Francisco is so achingly recreated along with the finer and weirder details of the case.

The whodunit is solved rather neatly by the end as Fincher points the finger at Arthur Leigh Allen. Zodiac is really a why-dunit. This is easier to answer with Toschi because he’s a detective and it’s his job. So why did Graysmith, a cartoonist, become so personally invested in the case? Why did he persist even when he kept getting strange calls in the middle of the night? And moreover, WHY did he go into the basement??????

I believe Graysmith when he says he needs to look the Zodiac killer in the eye and know that it’s him. But I don’t believe it (and neither does he) when his wife asks that crucial question of why and he answers: “Because no one else will.”

It’s left for us to decide what Graysmith sees when he gets his first and final look at Arthur Leigh Allen, but it’s abundantly clear what became of Graysmith throughout. Toschi, having finally let go of the obsession, got to rebuild his life at home. Graysmith’s life, by the time the book comes out, is in tatters— now twice divorced with more kids to his name and left with an empty home.

Obsession has an all-consuming allure, and that allure has consequences.


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Mikael Blomkvist & Lisbeth Salander

This isn’t to say the work can’t be fun from time to time. I dare not mix “fun” with the subject matter in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but investigators Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander cut loose in ways the others can’t. They fuuuuuuuuck.

There’s a grey area inherent in all three movies. Somerset calls in an illegal favor from a friend at the FBI which leads them to John Doe’s apartment, and Mills will later bribe a passerby to justify kicking down Doe’s front door. Toschi, too, teases the self-possessed Graysmith (who’s a civilian) with bits of privileged information Deepthroat-Watergate style. And Blomkvist enlists Salander’s trade as a virtuoso hacker, blurring a line in which they’ll literally be in bed together. These are shady moral avenues they all exploit to arrive at the same endpoint: the truth.

The investigation at the heart of Dragon Tattoo is a fusion of both Se7en and Zodiac, of vile murders (some biblical, others just plain misogynist) spanning decades in the Vanger’s financial empire. Blomkvist is our detective to start, but he can only get so far perusing through old boxes. It’s through Salander that they uncover a far bigger sprawl of violence perpetrated towards women that may not have anything to do with the missing Harriet Vanger, or everything.

As a hacker, Salander has the latitude of a detective and then some. (In Lisbeth’s case, her hair IS her fedora.) If everything in the 21st century leaves a digital fingerprint of some kind, then it’s all at her fingertips. The ensuing search for Harriet will require a combination of keyword searches and in-person digging through archives.

SIDEBAR. For your viewing pleasure, Daniel Craig wearing glasses:

The hat trick of Dragon Tattoo is that we never see any of the murders happen. (Though we do hear a brief unsettling shriek of a victim in Martin Vanger’s home early on.) The crimes have long been committed, and Blomkvist and Salander are merely connecting the dots via crime scene photos. Zodiac, which has three murder sequences, seems gratuitous by comparison, while Se7en *technically* only features one kill.

Dragon Tattoo may not be among Fincher’s strongest movies, but it marks a specific turning point where he’s less interested in violence and more enamored with behavior. Perhaps he’s been building up to this. Consider how he paints a sinister Jackson Pollock out of Martin Vanger’s psychopathy using no blood and all of the character’s sadistic fetishes.

Fincher, more specifically, zeroes in on the behavior of his detectives and how it makes them heroes in some cases, or blatantly naïve in all the rest. Just as Graysmith walks into a basement when he knows he shouldn’t, so does Blomkvist. To hear the actual Robert Graysmith describe why he pulled a big horror movie no-no (Graysmith said he didn’t want to be rude), it’s easy to see why Fincher probes such peculiar tendencies in human behavior.

“It’s hard to believe the fear of offending is greater than the fear of pain, but it is,” Martin says, as Blomkvist is tied up in his basement. It’s a curious thread from Zodiac that works its way into Dragon Tattoo’s climax. Whether Blomkvist or Graysmith will admit it or not, they are obsessed with the very killers they’re tasked with finding. They’re in search of a proverbial boogeyman, and when that boogeyman is revealed to be human after all, the revelation isn’t enough. They need to witness the phenomena for themselves. Like aligning a police sketch or a mugshot. Or seeing the final puzzle piece fall into place.

That sneaky little devil revealing the killer’s true identity, in the end, lies in the details. It could be someone’s library history, a person’s handwriting, or in Dragon Tattoo’s case, the insignia on a school jacket. It takes an obsessive eye to see through the lurid crime scenes and the sprawl of potential suspects – sometimes for years on end – to inevitably find your man. It’s a compulsion, an addiction they have. A strength, or a fatal flaw. Some detectives get lost in the shuffle. Others end up losing themselves.


For most directors, it’s the action component of high-speed chases and stylized shootouts that either make or break great thrillers. In’s Fincher eyes, it’s the complicated, yarn-spinning poster work that’s unbearably cinematic. Obsession may not be a sin, but gluttony sure is. So if their obsession dooms them, then the likes of Somerset and Mills, Toschi and Graysmith, and finally Blomkvist and Salander, are all guilty of the same thing: what they do and how they do it is so impeccably entertaining, more than the work has any right to be.


2 thoughts on “The Detectives of David Fincher

  1. Love this post. This is exactly what made Fincher’s Mindhunter so compelling, and I’m still bummed out that the show’s not getting a new season. 😦

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