David Fincher and Alexander Payne Reboot Their Pre-Millenium Ennui

In their latest films, the directors of Fight Club and Election put new twists on the familiar.

David Fincher and Alexander Payne Reboot Their PreMillenium Ennui

Photographs: Netflix, Focus Features

It’s nearly 2024, and that rumbling you hear in the distance is an avalanche of 25th-anniversary pieces looking back at the films of 1999. The final year of the twentieth century already seemed like a pretty great movie year as it was happening, but its reputation has only grown with time; it’s one of the rare movie-years enshrined in its own dedicated book. By nature, any great movie year will be too varied for its individual movies to fit a single theme; some of 1999’s greatness is just kismet, the result of filmmakers as disparate as Steven Soderbergh, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Tim Burton and many others all doing memorable work. But there were a number of movies by younger filmmakers that grappled with a kind of pre-millennial malaise—a sense that American middle-class success was more meaningless than advertised. The Oscar-friendly version of this turned out to be American Beauty; the sharper, more satirically minded versions were David Fincher’s Fight Club and Alexander Payne’s Election. Now Fincher and Payne both have new movies that challenge their Y2K-era worldviews.

Payne’s The Holdovers follows a path trod by several of his contemporaries. He’s retreated into the 1970s, like Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), David O. Russell (American Hustle), and, hey, Fincher too (Zodiac) before him, as if to recreate that decade’s big-studio artistic freedom via art-directed time-travel. The difference is that at least some of those other directors also did career-best work by revisiting that era, while Payne focuses largely on the aesthetics, shooting on celluloid and cueing up soundtrack choices that often evoke other soundtracks more than a mood of their own. (Come on, man, you have to know that Almost Famous owns “The Wind” by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.) It’s all in service of a bittersweet yet accessible rebellious-student-and-gruff-teacher bonding story that feels, in its broadest contours, like it’s based on a novel—though it’s not, which becomes clear whenever the writing turns awkwardly explanatory about its characters’ backstories, motivations, and emotions in that screenplay-specific way.

It’s almost too easy, and not entirely fair, to compare The Holdovers to the more fraught student-teacher story of Election, where Payne turned a Tom Perrotta novel (itself a gloss on the 1992 presidential election!) into an unsparing portrait of American self-deception. The Holdovers doesn’t roil with the same half-hidden discontent as nice-guy teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) justifying his ongoing sabotage of insufferable student-council presidential candidate Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Instead, history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is entirely upfront about his hostility toward boarding-school teenagers he views as privileged and coddled, even when one like Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) shows promise in between bouts of mouthing off. Paul mouths off plenty himself, delighting in his elaborately worded put-downs of both his students and, behind their backs, some of his colleagues. Angus and his dyspeptic quasi-prof are stuck together when Paul gets charged with babysitting the school’s “holdovers”—kids who have to stay on campus during Christmas break. Odd-couple antics and a gradual holiday-season thaw occur right on schedule.

To be clear, The Holdovers is a perfectly nice movie, sometimes a downright lovely one. Giamatti is terrific, as is Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary, the grieving head of the school’s cafeteria. The analog grain of the cinematography capturing the New England weather has the warmth of a fireplace heating up the hearth of a drafty old house, intense but not overwhelming. Yet I admit I missed the sting of Payne’s more satirically-minded work—Election as well as movies like About Schmidt and Nebraska, where the potential bleakness is all the more bracing when it becomes clear that it’s opening the door for dark, stark laughs. The Holdovers is more respectful—and a little more square, too. The movie gets some mileage from the war in Vietnam looming over its characters’ lives, while also using it, in a way, as a security blanket. It’s a dash of real-world grimness that’s safely removed (in this context, anyway) from contemporary concerns. There are times when the 1970 setting of The Holdovers feels almost akin to a horror movie trying to get around the ubiquity of cell phones. In the movie-year of Asteroid City and Killers of the Flower Moon, it plays as downright uncomplicated.

The Killer, meanwhile, initially seems like a David Fincher movie that may not realize that it has passed its sell-by date. Fincher’s contribution to the 1999 discourse (and many discourses thereafter) was Fight Club, which comes on like a satire of soft, neutered modern manhood, disguising a more sober-minded warning about the dangers of encroaching fascism. Did this movie (and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) anticipate MRA culture, or actively help it along by making angry guys in a basement seem way cooler than natural law dictates? Even Fincher sounds less enthused about it these days: “I haven’t seen it in 20 years. And I don’t want to,” he recently told GQ (though it also sounds as if his aversion to rewatching his old movies extends beyond Fight Club). While The Killer isn’t a companion piece to Fight Club, both its narration and nihilism place it closer to that film on the Fincher spectrum than, say, his Hollywood biopic Mank. There are other, more mid-’90s touches, too, like the fact that the film is Fincher’s reunion with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Se7en, and the way the film’s opening sequence—featuring a nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender) waiting out his prey from a hidden vantage point—weirdly recalls the climax of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins. It’s easy to imagine Fincher making this and not Panic Room as his Fight Club follow-up—and to picture all the Killer posters that would have been plastered up in dorm rooms the following fall.

For all those trappings, The Killer isn’t a work of retro-fetishism. The story itself is far older than a quarter-century: The hitman makes a mistake, goes on the run, faces retribution, then sets about to have his revenge and clean things up once and for all. The execution, as it were, is littered with modern conveniences/scourges, from the abandoned WeWork where Fassbender’s character stakes out his killshot to the Amazon drop-box he uses later to retrieve a keycard duplicator. The killer’s narration drones on, with a repetition that becomes almost metronomic, about sticking to the plan, avoiding empathy, asking what’s in it for me, and so on. (The movie is based on a graphic novel, and comics readers will be able to visualize the text boxes containing these sentiments, whether they’re in the original work or not.) Most of it is meaningless, a step or two away from tech-bro mantras. Even the killer’s favorite band—the songs of The Smiths help center him before he takes a life, and soundtrack the film when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take a break—becomes a plug-and-play app. Whatever zen calm they provide is temporary, anyway; no amount of fastidious discipline can impose ultimate control on a chaotic world.

On its face, The Killer is an aesthetically driven genre exercise, and within that realm, it has all the pleasures of Fincher’s craftsmanship, honed to a deadly point and punctuated with jet-black (or at least Fincher-green) deadpan laughs. Beneath that sleek surface, it’s almost an anti-thriller; it contains exactly one (terrific) fight scene, and multiple chase-like sequences where the killer isn’t really being chased. In this sense, it recalls the work of Fincher’s pal and occasional ghost editor Steven Soderbergh—though Soderbergh’s similarly stripped-down Haywire is a more traditional action picture by comparison. That movie was about a human body shaped and commodified into a blunt-force weapon. Fassbender’s killer is even more post-human, behaving more like a bullet: singular, smooth, deadly, and still prone to misuse. He’s a product who keeps composing his own marketing slogans under the guise of self-examination.

Again—shades of 1999, when plenty of American filmmakers positioned themselves on the precipice of the new millennium to survey the state of the union, whether through the petty politics of Election, the bruised and battered male egos of Fight Club, the desperate loneliness and corporate oppression of Being John Malkovich, the kaleidoscopic angst of Magnolia, or the critique of suburban materialism in American Beauty. It’s understandable that not all of those directors would want to keep us posted on the kind of cultural ennui that seemed so universal at the time and now might feel small, specialized, or downright disingenuous (perhaps the one about the middle-aged rebel telling off his uptight wife?). The throwback alienation of The Killer progresses from its predecessors in Fincher’s filmography, at times almost satirizing the punchy catchphrase provocations of Fight Club, while The Holdovers feels more like Payne opting out—and opting into something else, with a movie you can happily take your parents to see over Thanksgiving or Christmas. That’s no small feat; we need movies like that, too, though it’s a little surprising to see the director of Election volunteering to make them (or pining for Out of Africa). In their separate ways, Fincher and Payne are showing how that 1999-era soul-searching can’t be recaptured. It’s just a matter of choosing which void you prefer to fall into.

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