20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn; based on her novel. Produced by Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon, Ceán Chafin. Music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Photographed by Jeff Cronenweth. Edited by Kirk Baxter. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens.
It’s a setup that Alfred Hitchcock could have devised: a Missouri man named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to his posh house on his five year anniversary to find his wife missing. There are signs of violence, but not enough to provide leads. A detective (Kim Dickens) enters the picture and begins asking questions, ones that Nick frustratingly doesn’t have answers to. The missing girl is a minor celebrity (her parents made a fortune on children’s books that she became an inadvertent model for). So the media gets involved, her parents enter the picture, searches are organized…and all the while, Nick Dunne…there’s something just not right about Nick Dunne. It’s not that he looks suspicious. It’s just that the media and society start mutually agreeing that he’s not behaving like an innocent person should. And maybe, for that matter, he isn’t one. Or maybe he is. Or maybe…
This is the (very simplified) outline of Gone Girl, first a novel by Gillian Flynn, and now a movie by David Fincher with a screenplay again by Flynn. The novel had diabolical fun with unreliable narrators, prose tricks, and lies that inform, belie and recolor reader sympathy from page to page. Fincher and Flynn, somehow, have managed to retain the book’s nasty, prickly spirit even while reworking it for cinema. I shan’t spoil, but viewers going in expecting a routine mystery will be met instead with a psychosexual thriller that meditates on media, marriage, projected selves and stymied expectations. Yes, including ours.
As the film begins, we cut between two parallel stories: the police and Nick investigating the disappearance, and the diary entries of Amy (an icily, trickily perfect Rosamund Pike). Amy’s story tells how the couple met, in scenes that have the dialogue and magical realism of a romantic comedy, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ flowing fantasy score teases us with artifice. The procedural scenes are played with mounting dread, as Nick feels a nightmare noose tightening around his neck: his own character flaws might make the lack of a body virtually irrelevant. There’s also savage commentary on Nancy Grace-type news personalities that trade in fabricated outrage and enlist viewers as armchair vigilantes. Gone Girl is a very dark movie, but it’s also bitterly funny when it wants to be: when a TV show talking head begins an analysis with “I’ve never met Nick, but…” the line is so true it’s almost anti-parody.
That there’s more happening here is fair to say. Amy’s diary entries take a sour turn as the recession moves the couple out of their New York brownstone and into a heartland malaise. Nick in the present seeks out the help of ace attorney Tanner Bolt (a wry Tyler Perry), “the patron saint of wife killers.” Nick’s sister Go (Carrie Coon) watches in mounting horror as the investigation takes its toll. Dickens’ detective is fair and not trying to railroad anybody; that makes the case she starts to build against Nick all the more frightening. Eventually some..unexpected…things occur and, from a certain perspective, Gone Girl almost changes into an entirely different movie. It remains a mystery, yes, but it’s less about the how and more about the why. It’s an emotional horror movie, a lurid and intentionally schizophrenic missive about how hard it is to truly know someone. In Flynn and Fincher’s cynical worldview, people are selfish companies that sell inflated versions of themselves, and marriages are merely ugly corporate mergers. Or possibly hostile takeovers.
This material is pitch perfect for David Fincher. A gifted stylist and expert at wringing superb performances out of the most unlikely of actors (a key supporting role comes from Emily Ratajkowski, best known from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video), Fincher is also a master of detail-obsessed paranoia (Zodiac), plot twists (Fight Club), and thriller material that masks a dark, nasty agenda (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). There’s also echoes here of his Social Network, especially in the way his detached eye finds sympathy within sociopathy. Fincher’s penchant for endless takes and methodical camera movement creates crisp frames that hang with discomfort, and Affleck gives one of his best performances as the secretive, harried Nick. He’s topped only by Pike, in a performance that demands Oscar recognition for the range of levels it occupies. By the time the beautifully sick and twisted Gone Girl ends, you may be tempted to see it again, now equipped to strip out its complex layers. This is one of the year’s best films.