The scripts that seem to attract David Fincher's recent attention, keeping Panic Room outside for now, are stories that tell facts. I don't mean true things, necessarily, though both Zodiac and his new film The Social Network are undoubtedly grounded in fastidious real world research. Rather, Fincher seeks mechanisms that allow him to show a series of things—usually construed as events, usually construed as specific meetings between people. The narratives are enunciated through storytelling devices like detective work (used extensively in the highly procedural Zodiac, and also to considerable degree in Se7en), the relating of a narrative (Fight Club, The Social Network), and the telling of a tale/fable (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); and this technique eliminates the need for full-fledged, evolving scenes of melodrama and replaces it with a montage-based cinema of this happened and then this happened and then this.
This structure would seem artificial if these films didn't consciously have people relating these facts to us, as with the deposition lawyers in The Social Network or the diary of the backwards aging man in Benjamin Button, or going through a process of discovering these facts, as in Zodiac. The technique places unusually strong importance on the screenplay for a supposedly distinctive ("visual") auteur, one who doesn't officially take story or screenwriting credit on these movies; Fincher's films make for an interesting interaction between script and filmmaking, for better and for worse.
Zodiac's first half, for example, charts procedure, and thus we get precise details from Fincher about the offices, police stations, archives, nocturnal streets, and other such settings that crimes take place in and investigating officers and journalists live in and travel through. When that film's second half switches to charting the obsession of Jake Gyllenhaal's character, there erupts in the film a conflict between the script's desire to turn dramatic and psychological and the filmmaker's inclination to chart the character's movement simply across spaces and times. In something like Benjamin Button, the film's hokey sentimentality stages a nuanced combat between the straightforward, broadcast messages of the screenplay and Fincher's sprawling but hushed recreation of the story's historical time span and the nearly grotesque use of CGI to alter his actors, visual techniques which serve to deflect the dramatic specifics of the story (such as the central love affair) in order to register a highly sharpened emotional-existential-fatalistic tone.
In fact, tone seems the principle net result for this style of David Fincher. The Social Network operates in a similar vein, with Aaron Sorkin's script of merging flashbacks told during two law suits' depositions resulting in a cascading amount of dialog, which Fincher visualizes, on the whole, through a series of nearly anonymous dorm rooms, offices, houses, college campuses, bars, and the like. One of Fincher's main talents is tonal sustainability across these busy storytelling structures; his films are less about pacing and more about quickly settling on and then maintaining an emotional-existential tone throughout the picture's length. If this sounds easy or simplistic I don't think it is, as one has to consider that these films inherently continually stack themselves with information: more facts, more details, more scenes, more interactions.
Perhaps that's the largest fight inside these movies—the progress of time, the accumulation of people, knowledge, and experience, but the unchangability of the way people live in the world. Hell, that's probably Benjamin Button's central thesis, maybe even a paraphrase of its narration. But it is also the limbo Zodiac's journalist and The Social Network's programmer-entrepreneur are stuck in. I wonder where the line is drawn between rounded examination of a state of being and a repetition of that state. I could see one arguing that The Social Network's slideshow parade of blandly cocooned, privileged spaces is doing nothing to examine the setting of its story, the lifestyle or habits of its character; likewise an argument against Benjamin Button's pattern of sage-like encounters with characters who exemplify what our hero already knows, that time passes.
But it must be said that within these films is a profound thing, an inexorable sense of despondency that forever clings to Mark Zuckerberg, Button, Robert Graysmith, people who are trying in their own ways to observe or chart their times, but are stuck in the Fincher-screenwriter fate machine that piles the contents of their times on them, giving the centers of these films a strange kind of burden. It is a burden at once of accumulation, of these facts counted (and recounted) one after another, and a burden of loss, of the inability to ultimately process, contain, interact with these facts passing in time. These films, which seem so structured, seem elaborately, densely built, like scaffolding, over an emptiness inside, a void where the vitality, the engagement with one's surroundings and with life would normally be. These are stories of hyper-consciousness, a state of mind that roots these poor people in the zeitgeist facts of their times but ironically abstracts them from the ability to live in the present. Everything is a process forward, a movement onwards, an ever-increasingness, the ability to be of the now at the ultimate sacrifice of no longer living in the now.