The Social NetworkGreen lightOn a conceptual level it looked bold, borderline ridiculous: a movie about the founding of a website penned by a writer renown for verbose screenplays (West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin) and directed by a filmmaker renown for visual bravado (Fight Club’s David Fincher).

In other words the key talent driving The Social Network amounted to a sort of film production odd couple, the cinematic equivalent of chalk and cheese. Or so it seemed.

If the Sorkin/Fincher combo wasn’t strange enough, Nine Nine Nails’ Trent Reznor signed on to work on the soundtrack and Justin Timberlake, of all people, was cast as one of the key supporting characters.

With that kind of motley line-up you’d be excused for thinking that The Social Network should have found itself belly-up in the trashy cannals of failed cinematic experiments.

Strangely that logic – the one that suggests this film really shouldn’t have worked – applies even after you’ve seen it. It has no centre piece dramatic sequence and no romantic lead. Hell, it doesn’t even have an actual ending, at least not in the traditional sense. You know, that thing screenwriters tend to have about dramatic resolution.

If I were a producer betting my house on the success of this picture, I’d be going to bed at night sweating spinal fluid.

So how did Sorkin and Fincher manage to create one of the most exciting legal thrillers in years? What dark magic did they channel to pull off what Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers labelled with froth in mouth fanfare not just the best feature of the year but “the film to define the last decade”?

The answer is that Sorkin and Fincher’s often antithetical artistic instincts meet in the centre and create a brooding but quick-witted middle ground. Sorkin screwed his sentences together tighter than usual while Fincher pulled himself back visually, grounding his tripods and restraining his cameras, at least for the most part.

The story follows Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the founder of Facebook who went on to become one of the internet’s most influential power-brokers (the site how has one a billion registered users). He is depicted as a petulant and tetchy Harvard student, responding early in the story to being dumped by rushing home, grabbing a beer and writing a vicious blog post ridiculing his ex. The post makes the rounds, the girl is disgraced, and thus the screenplay neatly establishes the internet as a source of potential menace.

Zuckerberg meets three fellow students who have an idea for a social networking website to be made exclusively for Harvard students. He takes their idea and runs with it – or runs away with it – developing the foundation for what will become the mumma of all social networking sites. Those shafted by Zuckerberg want revenge, and much of the story consists of him bickering around hearing room tables about whether or not his idea was original and the extent to which he cheated other people. As the poster proclaims: “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

Almost nothing in a conventionally exciting sense transpires in The Social Network, which makes it tough to pin down why it’s so exciting to watch. Forget about beneath the streetlight meetings, chase scenes, shady informants or “you can’t handle the truth” outbursts.

What we get is an endless volley of yapping between obnoxious twits, many shots with computers and hardware in the background and splotches here and there of uni student tomfoolery – beers, bongs, coke and shots, most of them linked to (or supplied by) Sean Parker (Timberlake), the man who went bankrupt after inventing Napster. He ingratiates himself into Zuckerberg’s crowd.

There is only one scene in which Fincher badly over-eggs the pudding and lets his traditional artistic self – inclined towards images, atmosphere and thickly lacquered production values – creep out from behind the curtain. Fincher misjudges an already extraneous sequence depicting an inter-university rowing race. It feels bizarrely out of place, serving little in the way of advancing the storyline or enhancing the film’s momentum.

The success of The Social Network is most obviously attributed, not without reason, to Zuckerberg as a character. He is a fusion of contradictions: you like him but you hate him, you understand him but you don’t; he craves success but isn’t motivated by money. Jesse Eisenberg’s note perfect performance gives the character seemingly effortless substance, to the point at which you can barely imagine Eisenberg taking home an Oscar or any other award – the performance just seems too natural, too organic, as if he pulled it off perfectly but didn’t put any work into it. Arguably, an actor can receive no greater compliment.

Just watch Eisenberg’s face during the many scenes in which Zuckerberg is confronted by the people he is accused of betraying – its subtle swivels and contortions, the careful mix of contemptuousness and self-belief. This is the kind of cinematic performance that could never transfer to the stage; minute face expressions make the world of difference on the big screen.

Zuckerberg is the only fully rounded character in The Social Network. The others feel more or less like people he met along the way, with the possible exception of website co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose character is the closest thing this film has to a moral centre.

A tense score by Reznor and Atticus Ross is milked to maximum effect, generating dark and uneasy rumblings that engender a sense of anticipation, a niggling sensation that something dramatically important is happening or just about to. It never does, at least in no obvious measure, which helps tp draw the film together in a tightly knot cohesive and leaves an unsettling feeling that we have missed out on something – a sense of closure, perhaps, the kind much more common on the screen than in real life.

There is a compelling soullessness to The Social Network, a film with a cold and clinical core that commands respect but not adoration. There is no tangible subtext, no message to value your friends or rue your losses or regret those one may have mistreated along the way. The question of whether or not Zuckerberg’s character is good or bad, guided or misdirected feels utterly irrelevant: he just is, and the audience has to grapple with that.

The final scene hits a perfect concluding note, and Aaron Sorkin even has the audacity to let the entire film linger on a line of dialogue that clearly aspires to be the Facebook generation’s equivalent of “frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.” It underlines both the film’s wit and its moral uncertainty. Like the website from which it drew inspiration, The Social Network doesn’t have a heart or a soul. Sadly, perhaps – though this is not by default a bad thing – it simply doesn’t need one.

The Social Network’s Australian theatrical release date: October 28, 2010.