"Gone Girl" opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) telling us that, when he considers his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), he always thinks of her head — or, more specifically, of cracking it open to reveal all the private thoughts she never says aloud.
This mix of the violent and the ruminative is typical of director David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel, a missing-person thriller in which a given character's status as victim or villain changes from one scene to the next. "What have we done to each other? What will we do?" Nick asks more than once about his significant other, who vanishes under curious circumstances on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary; that such questions manage to feel vaguely romantic in spite of their troubling subtext is a credit to Fincher, who's made a habit (if not a career) of elevating questionable source material.
While not uncooperative in the wake of his wife's sudden disappearance, Nick is aloof enough to arouse suspicion among those expecting more outward displays of emotion. He always seems to be holding something back, and Fincher's clinical control doesn't allow us to get any closer to the truth than Nick is willing to show, at least in the early goings. With no news of Amy's whereabouts and no credible suspects, all eyes thus turn to him. "I'm so sick of being torn apart by women," he says in the midst of this ordeal; between his wife's damning journal entries, the prying inquiries of her case's lead detective (Kim Dickens), and the Nancy Grace-like television host convicting him in the court of public opinion every day, it's an understandable sentiment. It's also part of an unfortunate pattern in which Nick is gradually made to seem more trustworthy as the women around him become less so.
In its incremental reveal of key details and wrenching scenes of townsfolk fruitlessly combing the landscape for someone who isn't there, "Gone Girl" is sporadically reminiscent of "Exotica" and even the original "Paradise Lost" documentary. At other times, it'll have you wondering why Fincher went even further down the Barnes & Noble rabbit hole than he did in his 2011 adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Few filmmakers take as meticulous a behind-the-camera approach to their work as he does, and the fact that he's so enamored of pulpy bestsellers lately isn't altogether surprising, given his impressive track record with similar material in the past.
Still, it's hard to shake the notion that he could be doing something more rewarding than becoming the preeminent director of airport-novel adaptations, a trajectory that’s all the more disappointing after the trifecta of "Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and "The Social Network."
Fincher likely prides himself on turning coal into diamonds at this point, but Flynn's script can feel so retrograde at times that one wonders whether it might have been better served by a De Palma, Bigelow, or even a Verhoeven — which is to say, a filmmaker less concerned with making the lascivious seem prestigious. (It's doubtful anyone else could have filmed a certain blood-soaked scene with such unsettling verve, however.)
In addition to being a mystery with dubious gender politics, "Gone Girl" is also an examination of an irresponsible media and scandal-hungry public. The truth matters less than how it comes across on primetime, and the fact that Nick and Amy's troubles stem from a depressed economy (both lost their jobs in New York, expediting their move to Missouri, where Nick's mother was dying of cancer) never makes it to air. Neither of them is the person he or she hoped to be, and their disappointment in both themselves and their better half expresses itself in increasingly volatile ways. Their differing accounts of how this came to be are likely to balkanize viewers, leaving them at a loss as to whether husband, wife, or neither deserves our trust.
Few of our first impressions of the unhappy couple reflect the full view of things, which isn't to say that they develop into especially dynamic characters. Pike is phenomenal as the enigmatic Amy, but she's written in such a way that she somehow becomes less three-dimensional as the film goes on — she's demonized rather than sympathized.
Nick maintains his innocence even while readily admitting that he's been a lousy husband, and things between him and Amy may well have been over long before she went missing. Marriage is a primal battle of the sexes in "Gone Girl," one in which both sides play dirty and any victories are pyrrhic. Surviving isn't the same as winning, and getting through this provocative, problematic thriller sometimes feels like a war unto itself.
"Gone Girl" will have its world premiere as the opening night film at the New York Film Festival on Friday. It opens nationwide on October 3.
READ MORE: 'Gone Girl,' 'Inherent Vice' and More Teased in New York Film Festival Trailer