David Fincher got his start making music videos, including the one for Madonna’s “Vogue,” before he helmed his first film in 1992, Alien 3, which received mixed reviews and he has since disowned it as it was heavily reworked by the studio. His second film, Se7en, was much better received and helped establish him as an auteur filmmaker. Over the course of his career, Fincher has directed some truly visually striking films, but what makes him great is how the director mixes those visuals with unique stories and characters that allow his actors to shine in those roles.
With his perfectionist, methodic approach and his legendary taste for getting many, many takes, he’s always gotten great performances from his actors, even getting a few actors who delivered career-best performances in David Fincher films, creating unique characters and finding new colors, and emotions in their actorly brush. Here are the best performances David Fincher has directed.
Update January 10, 2024: In honor of The Killer, this article has been updated with even more great David Fincher performances and where each film can be watched.
10 Edward Norton – Fight Club (1999)
The Narrator in Fight Club might not have been Edward Norton‘s breakout role, but it certainly has become his most iconic. He plays the lead character, a man that has no name in the film and is credited simple as “The Narrator”. He starts feeling empty in his life and decides to follow Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his ideals, creating a fight club together. What starts out as a simple fight club eventually escalates into a full-on anarchistic terrorist movement with Tyler and the Narrator battling for control in more ways than one.
Edward Norton excels in Fight Club
Norton’s character becomes bored and deeply unsatisfied with finding a purpose through fighting and changing his life to follow his new best friend, Tyler, until the incredible reveal at the end. The transformation isn’t easy, and Norton absolutely sells all of it, both the physical but especially the mental, as he’s character becomes tired, stressed, and paranoid until he discovers the truth of what’s really happening. The moments where he plays the part of Tyler are scary as all his body language is so different from everything that has come before, making his Narrator both the victim and the villain of his future and destiny. Stream on Peacock
9 Michael Fassbender – The Killer (2023)
The latest film released by Fincher, The Killer, has an incredible performance by Michael Fassbender as the titular Killer. After a job in Paris goes wrong, The Killer goes back to his home and finds that someone almost killed his girlfriend. From there on, he’s on a mission to get revenge from everyone involved; consequences be damned.
Fassbender Kills It in His Performance on the Fincher Movie
Fassbender has never looked more pathetic yet impatient, thorough yet faulty, with ridiculous styling and eyes that are always looking around for trouble. The contrast between his perfectionist, methodic voiceover and what he’s really doing is excellent and surprising, as the character might not be as good at his job as his own thoughts imply. The actor gives everything to this role, making himself look small and weird when he needs it and having great “That isn’t supposed to happen” faces as everything goes worse than he intends to. The actor is usually as suave and cool as it’s possible, and here, he uses those abilities to show how out of the element his character really is. Stream on Netflix
8 Morgan Freeman – Se7en (1995)
In Se7en, Morgan Freeman plays Detective Somerset, a detective planning to retire soon. A cynic, he is paired up with the more idealistic Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) to catch a serial killer basing his crimes on the seven deadly sins. While Somerset is indeed a cynic, he hasn’t completely lost hope in humanity, something Freeman does a great job at showing. His scene in the diner, when he discusses with Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) whether or not she should keep her baby or terminate her pregnancy, is a great example of that.
Morgan Freeman Is the Best Thing in Se7en
Freeman excels in the film’s memorable finale when he opens a mysterious box out in the middle of nowhere and realizes what the last sin-related crime is. It’s wonderful work by Freeman, who also gets the film’s final line, saying that while he doesn’t think the world is a fine place, it is worth fighting for. His whole performance as the tired mentee might start as cliche, but thanks to the actor and the script, it evolves into something much richer and with a much more sad ending. This is another impressive performance by an actor who has given so many of them over his long career. Rent on Apple TV and Prime Video.
7 Jodie Foster – Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room tells a scary, claustrophobic story about a single mother, Meg (Jodie Foster), and her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart), who must survive a robbery in progress in their home and only have a panic room to defend themselves. To do so, Meg must be fierce and smart and surprise their assailants so they can get out of there alive.
Jodie Foster’s Fierce Performance Makes Panic Room Much Better
Foster has always had a smart demeanor, and that works well for her here, but what might be surprising is how fierce, raw, and violent she becomes so her character can save her daughter and herself. This is not exactly an action role per se, but the actress looks as strong and brave as ever, creating a character that’s worth rooting for and making herself the heart and soul of the film. Fincher has said that shooting everything on a set was a nightmare, but Foster looks absolutely in her element, as if that house is her territory, and she’ll do anything to defend it. That determination is what makes her character so interesting and believable. Including some of her more surprising actions, like almost blowing herself up. Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Video, and Google Play Movies
6 Robert Downey Jr. – Zodiac (2007)
A year before his career would be relaunched with the back-to-back hits of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. appeared in what might be one of his best movies: Zodiac. The film revolves around the investigation of the Zodiac killings in the 1960s and 70s. The film features an all-star cast that includes some of the best work from actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Rufallo, and Chloë Sevigny, but it is Robert Downey JR. who steals the show. Downey plays real-life journalist Paul Avery.
Great Performances Despite Conflicts
In many ways, Downey Jr. brings the same signature charm and cool guy attitude that he would use to make Tony Stark a breakout character. His Paul Avery is clearly the coolest guy in the room, but audiences watch as the film goes on, his character begins to sink into depression and addiction, a tricky subject for Downey Jr. to tackle given his own history with substances, but that authenticity and emotional honesty keeps it from feeling to over the top. While Downey Jr. and Fincher notably clashed on the set of the film, the resulting performance is still incredible. Downey Jr. is currently getting plenty of awards attention for Oppenheimer, but many believe he should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Zodiac. Stream on Hoopla.
5 Brad Pitt – Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is all about The Narrator (Edward Norton) and his boring white-collar life. That’s until he meets Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt, and everything changes. Durden shows him a new way of life, and together, they form the fight club, a way to exercise all their fury and detachment from life in an almost controlled way.
Tyler Durden Became an Icon
Pitt creates an iconic performance that is still talked about all these years later. He has to play the perfect man, the coolest, most physically fit, smartest, and sexier ever, and he pulls it off, creating a character who makes perfect sense as the almost religious cult leader. That would be an absolute challenge for any actor, but Pitt does so effortlessly, using his movie star charisma for Tyler. So much so that the audience never questions who this guy is and how he’s this way, making the climax twist much more effective. To this day arguments are still being had on if the movie did to good of job with Tyler Durden and if the movie actually critiques or endorses his point of view, speaking to just how well Pitt brought the role to life. Stream Fight Club on Peacock
4 Andrew Garfield – The Social Network (2010)
The “heart” of The Social Network, Andrew Garfield plays Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg’s best friend. What starts as a project they build together starts getting between them when Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) becomes part of the team. It is then that Eduardo coldly finds out he’s not as valued as he thinks he is and sues his former best friend to get back what he feels he deserves.
Andrew Garfield Is the Heart of The Social Network
Garfield is wonderful, perfectly portraying the comradery between Eduardo and Mark when he still thinks they’re friends, as well as the intense pain and hurt when he realizes the truth. It takes a great talent to make a scene about the diluting of stock shares feel so heartbreaking, but Garfield does it. His best moment comes moments later when he’s telling Zuckerberg to lawyer up. How Garfield wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this performance is an absolutely baffling mystery, but the performance was so buzzed about that even before the film was released, Sony Pictures liked what they saw and cast him as their new Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man. Rent on Apple TV and Prime Video.
3 Rooney Mara – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Rooney Mara‘s Lisbeth Salander had a lot to live up to, especially since the character had been played by Noomi Rapace two years earlier in the Swedish adaptation of the story in this dark tale of Scandinavian thriller. Every young actress in Hollywood wanted to play the character for all of her complexity, smarts, and total badassery, and when Mara was cast, it was kind of a surprise, creating unique expectations from everyone to see what she would do with it.
Rooney Mara Surpassed Expectations
Whatever the expectations were, Mara met them with flying colors, earning herself an Oscar nomination for her performance. She should have gotten the win, too. Blunt, intimidating, not someone you want to mess with, Mara creates a striking portrait of a very unique woman. While she’s great at the more vicious side, such as when she gets revenge on her sexual abuser, she also shines at the softer side, too. Her chemistry with Daniel Craig is incredible and adds a fun little layer to the character. Overall, there is not a single misstep in Mara’s performance. Stream on fuboTV, and Paramount+.
2 Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network feels like it could be an origin story for a supervillain, and in many ways, it is. Jesse Eisenberg (who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance) plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This is the story of how the platform was created and shows how the programmer, who looks kind of a doofus, might be much more calculating and dark than he might look at first sight.
Jesse Eisenberg Knocks It Out of the Park
The best line about Zuckerberg is spoken by his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene of the movie, telling him he’ll be alone forever, not because he’s a nerd, but because he’s an a**hole. Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg most certainly is that, as well as a host of other less-than-admirable traits, all of which Eisenberg perfectly realizes. One only has to think of the “Did I accurately answer your condescending question?” scene to see Zuckerberg’s arrogance on full display. Honestly, this is a supervillain origin story, and Eisenberg knocks it out of the park. Rent on Apple TV and Prime Video
1 Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl (2014)
In order for Amy Elliott Dune’s scheme to work, everything has to be perfect, right down to the last tiny little detail. In order for us to believe Amy can pull all of this off, Rosamund Pike‘s performance (which rightfully earned her an Oscar nomination) must be equally perfect. And it is. Calculating and manipulative, Pike creates an incredible portrait of a sociopath, but one we can clearly understand why she is the way she is. After all, you’d be messed up as well if your author’s parents based a perfect character off of you, and you couldn’t live up to their expectations. And it’s not just her parents’ imaginary ideals she has to live up to, but her husband’s as well.
Why Rosamund Pike Has the Best Performance in a David Fincher Movie
The “Cool Girl” monologue, which is played over a montage of Amy carrying out the next step of her plan, sums up her worldview perfectly. Pike has to play two very different versions of Amy, the one in the first half of the story that is being recounted to the audience through other characters, and then pull the rug out from under the audience halfway through as the audience finds out everything was a lie. That shock can only work if the performance in the first half is so believable and Pike truly sells it effortlessly. While Pike had been working for years, this was the movie that made her a star. Simply put, Pike’s performance is flawless. Stream on DIRECTV