“…it’s hard to shake the notion that he could be doing something more rewarding than becoming the preeminent director of airport-novel adaptations,” Michael Nordine at Indiewire wrote about David Fincher in his review of “Gone Girl,” adding, “…Fincher likely prides himself on turning coal into diamonds at this point, but [Gillian] Flynn‘s script can feel so retrograde at times that one wonders whether it might have been better served by…a filmmaker less concerned with making the lascivious seem prestigious.” It’s a criticism that has been leveled at the director before, but it’s one that underestimates the care, control of craft, and precision of execution it takes to turn out a crackling, thoroughly engaging crime procedural or genre piece, and make it feel vibrantly alive. And it’s something Fincher has been doing for nearly his entire career, from “Se7en” to “The Social Network” to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” to “Panic Room.” In his best films, for instance “Zodiac,” Fincher is able to take the material and create something that brings the underlying themes bubbling to the foreground. And while “Gone Girl” is certainly his slightest film to date, it’s nonetheless undeniably gripping. Fincher clearly enjoys turning the screws and rounding the wild corners of the plot from the first frame.
Even from the early stages of the film, Fincher winks handily at the audience, with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) walking into the bar he owns and handing his twin sister/bartender Margo (Carrie Coon) a copy of Mastermind. It’s a code breaking game (ha ha), but little does Nick realize that within a few hours, he’ll be in the midst of his own encrypted puzzle when he’s called home by a concerned neighbor and discovers that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. And so kicks off Flynn’s serpentine tale, with the author writing the screenplay based on her own bestseller. If you haven’t read the book, it’s best to go into this film cold. If you have read the book, the reports of the ending being changed are wildly overstated. Thus, like “Fight Club,” the first rule of “Gone Girl” is that you don’t talk about “Gone Girl” with anybody else…until they’ve seen it (don’t worry, there will be no spoilers here). However, it speaks again to Fincher’s curiosities about these characters that the film leaves a lot to unpack well after the credits roll.
In many ways, “Gone Girl” is the cinematic equivalent of the sort of page-turner Flynn writes, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it runs 145 minutes long, and the film not only races by, but some crucial pivot points in the plot wildly throw off the typical three act structure typical to this kind of movie. “Gone Girl” keeps you off balance in all the right ways, continually turning the characters over and over, so you see everything and nothing all at once, until the next revelation comes out of left field. That said, for all of Flynn’s bestselling success and critical acclaim, and however it reads on the page, “Gone Girl” is utterly ridiculous onscreen. Even as unapologetically as it’s presented, it’s a cornfed piece of pulp, with many if not all of the major twists not only surprising, but also utterly bonkers and credulity straining. If you try to explain everything that happens in the story to someone after you’ve seen the movie, it will sound completely ludicrous. But there is a strong case to be made that Fincher is neither necessarily concerned here with believability nor the central whodunit at the film’s core. “Gone Girl” is less about solving the case than exploring how the relationship between Nick and Amy reached a level where it unraveled as such.
Fincher is eager to peel back the layers of a toxic marriage and essentially attempts to make a statement about the masks men and women wear in the context of a private relationship and to the outside world. It’s also about how we display ourselves to potential new partners, and the fallout that occurs when we turn out to be somebody different. It’s thematically fascinating, although perhaps those themes would be better served outside the trappings of what Nick quips feels like a “Law & Order” episode, and the film never goes quite as deep as you hope. That said, there’s a kind of texture that few filmmakers would proffer as long as Fincher does in this movie, and while it might not lead to the post-screening arguments he has predicted, it’s mostly effective. However, Fincher is less successful when he turns his attentions to the other subject at hand, how the media makes martyrs and pariahs overnight. Taking potshots at Nancy Grace-style reporting that puts Nick, who becomes a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, through the wringer seems like low-hanging fruit, though the meta-casting of Affleck does give it an extra flavor. Still, “Gone Girl” isn’t saying much that’s new as such.
However, one conversation that has already sprung up around the book and will undoubtedly sprout again with the movie concerns its supposed misogyny. “I’m so sick and tired of being picked on by women,” Nick whines at one point, and he certainly he takes much grief from the opposite sex throughout the movie. But to glibly call the book and film misogynistic is to misread the characters. As Nick himself states, he’s not a good guy, and there’s more than one instance when we see his temper and attitude betray that he who doesn’t necessarily hate women so much as himself (though yes, that does lead to some questionable actions). Flynn’s book isn’t a commentary on women in general, but a profile of one specific kind of individual, of whom our point-of-view may be wholly distorted by other perspectives. Fincher never lets the viewer’s sympathies lie completely with either Nick or Amy as we learn more and more about what really went on between them, and frankly, neither is particularly likable once all the secrets are revealed.
Affleck and Pike deliver two strong, yet polar opposite turns. The former has the less flashy part, composed of continually caged emotion and disguised motivations, a kind of snake oil salesman who relies on a crooked smile to get through life’s challenges. Nick Dunne is essentially a charming asshole caught in a maelstrom of shit that he might have brought on himself. Meanwhile, Pike gets the flashier part, and while not too much can be said without spoilers, she’ll be joining the list of top shelf depictions of a particular brand of character soon enough. But a flashlight beam definitely needs to be shone on some of the other utility players, including the detective team made up of Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit, who look and feel like real cops who just stepped into a movie. In this day of movie spinoffs, I’d watch a weekly show about them in a heartbeat. And while his casting raised eyebrows, Tyler Perry is spot on as the celebrity defense attorney Nick hires, who knows every move the media and cops will make before it happens, and tries to defend his client in both arenas. And while nothing can be said about their roles, Neil Patrick Harris will turn some heads, and as usual, Scoot McNairy walks in for one key scene and completely commands it.
On a technical level it’s almost easy to take for granted how great a filmmaker Fincher is. It’s his sixth film with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, and yes, “Gone Girl” looks terrific. Procedurals are almost never shot with such a command of spacing and framing, and it’s a pleasure to see. Fans might be surprised at how subtle the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is this time around. Not as omnipresent as their work in “The Social Network,” or insistent as their compositions for ‘Dragon Tattoo,’ here the music is more tastefully employed. But perhaps the biggest change from Fincher’s previous two movies is that “Gone Girl” is (nearly) free of quirky lead characters. It’s interesting to see how Fincher adjusts the tonal register without the socially awkward Mark Zuckerberg or the maladjusted Lisbeth Salander commanding the narrative,. This a captivating, but still much more comparatively subdued picture than his prior two.
If “Zodiac” was about fearing the unknown evil that lurks out in the world, “Gone Girl” is nearly the opposite, studying the monsters that lie inside in the very people we share our lives with. Often undone by the wildly swinging, almost lunatic nature of the story itself, Fincher’s film is never as thematically unnerving as it perhaps sets out to be. And as a result, this might be just be the most minor entry in the filmmaker’s catalog so far. But it says something about Fincher’s storytelling skills, his ability to wrap viewers completely around his finger, that “Gone Girl” is still, at times, genuinely edge-of-your-seat involving and even astonishing. And in the late stages of the film, even if you’ve completely given up on “Gone Girl” making any sense like I did, you’ll be damned if you get up before seeing how it all wraps up. “Gone Girl” starts off investigating Nick, turns to make more queries about Amy, and leaves you questioning both of them, and watching Fincher turn that narrative upside down and back again is pretty exciting to witness. [B]