This review contains some minor spoilers. Proceed with caution
I’ve been a big fan of David Fincher for a while. I even liked his (long disowned) chapter in the Alien franchise, Alien 3. I certainly liked it more than Alien Resurrection, despite Joss Whedon’s participation. I’ve yet to see Fincher’s The Game, but Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac rank among my favourite films. In fact, I was bewildered that Zodiac received little to no attention when 2007’s awards were being handed out. Zodiac, aside from being masterfully shot, acted, and paced, was able to make lengthy scenes about the mechanics of handwriting interesting. It’s his best movie.
And after seeing Benjamin Button, I still feel that way, but Benjamin Button is a more than worthy follow-up.
The story of Benjamin Button is fairly simple, and based (very loosely) on a short story by F. Scott Fitgerald. Benjamin Button ages in reverse. He was born a wrinkled, arthtitic, near-blind and deaf, and given mere weeks to live in 1918. He spends his childhood in a nursing home in New Orleans, growing younger while those around him grow older. The old adage “Youth is wasted on the young” is oddly inverted, as Benjamin not only goes through his elder years with a child’s curiosity, but he winds up retaining that curiosity until 1985, when he ceases writing letters to his one true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett); letters that serve as the primary narrative device.
In the hands of a lesser Director and lesser actors, this would come across as painfully sentimental and heavy-handed. But Fincher didn’t earn his reputation by making epic love stories or melodrama. He earned it by making gritty thrillers and challenging narratives. He takes both that aesthetic style (there’s no shortage of both gorgeous and complex shots to be found in Benjamin Button) and the confidence of having tackled works like Fight Club and Zodiac and applies them to a love story that’s less about the couple being together and more about how they got there.
Curiously, Benjamin is by no means the most interesting character. Obviously, his condition has a built-in depth, but Pitt underplays that if anything. His dialogue is only slightly less sparse than his narration. He’s given no big scenes of cursing the heavens for his affliction. Not even quiet moments of breakdown. It’s an incredibly understated performance, and wisely so; aside from Blanchett (who’s fantastic as Daisy), the characters Pitt encounters during the movie are nothing short of, well, characters. The movie is more about the journey than the destination.
The fact that the audience can’t really connect to Brad Pitt (who bears an uncanny resemblence to Robert Redford in many shots, intentionally or otherwise) but can to Cate Blanchett or Julia Ormond appears to undermine the movie at times, but by the end it becomes clear that while it is a journey movie, it’s also a location movie. While there are scenes in Moscow, the Pacific Ocean, and New York, the movie plays out as if it was all a grand elegy for New Orleans; a subtle tribute to what Hurricane Katrina took away. Fincher and Roth never overplay this, but the final scene makes this clear.
The movie works because of what it doesn’t do more often that what it does. The CGI used to age Benjamin as a child is used sparingly, and as impressive as it is, it’s still not 100% seamless. Similarly, it avoids scenes that are heavy on stated emotion. Julia Ormond has the most emotionally-charged performance, and it’s appropriately subdued. She’s not battling grief; she’s been defeated by grief. But how disconnecting this is may vary from viewer to viewer. All the same, Fincher deserves credit for making a choice that goes against the grain. Removing big emotional scenes maintains the film’s consistency, but goes against audience expectations.
Fincher might finally get a Best Director nod for his work in Benjamin Button, and he deserves it. It’s beautifully shot, incredibly paced, and well acted. It’s an award-worthy movie as made by a filmmaker who has no real interest in winning awards. While it doesn’t emotionally connect as strongly as it perhaps should have, it’s still one of the best movies of 2008.