A self-destructive marriage reaches its devilish zenith in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, adapted for the screen by Gillian Flynn from her best-selling 2012 novel. The material could have easily slipped into Lifetime Movie of the Week mode in other hands, but instead it’s both an enthralling thriller and one of the most bitingly cynical portraits of media manipulation and scandal-hungry American mentality to ever grace the screen.
That’s not immediately apparent: coming from Fincher, whose last two features were the dazzlingly stylized The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl looks resolutely bland in comparison: cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth (who also shot those previous two films) is crisp and clean, with uncluttered shot composition and a naturalistic color palette. This is easily the most normal-looking film that the director has ever made.
But that’s all part of the game: beneath Gone Girl’s seemingly banal veneer lurks a subversive, penetrating cynicism that only slowly becomes apparent as the labyrinthine story unfolds. By the time the one big bravura Grand Guignol-esuqe sequence comes along, we hardly bat an eye: no amount of on screen violence can match the twisted mentality that rests within these characters, and at the heart of the film.
Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an upper-middle-class Missouri suburbanite who seems to have something on his mind when he walks into his sister’s bar and orders a bourbon with his morning coffee. Sister Margo (Carrie Coon) knows that something’s up, but can’t seem to get much out of her brother, who is having some jitters on the day of his fifth anniversary.
Nick is called away when a neighbor spots his housecat roaming outside, and upon returning home he notices something is amiss: wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) isn’t home, and a shattered glass coffee table suggests something horribly wrong. Those fears are confirmed when police gather more evidence, and Nick is taken away for questioning.
It was the perfect romance, as we see during the first half from dual narratives: Affleck’s Dunne recounts his side of the story to police detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), while Amy’s side of the story is told via voiceover narration taken from a diary.
White, blonde, suburban female gone missing in the USA? Instant media blitz, with the entire country tuning in. Nobody knows the facts but everybody has an opinion, with FOX News-like reporter Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle, perfectly cast) calling for Nick’s head on a stake, and a (slightly) more sympathetic interviewer (Sela Ward) who allows Nick to tell his side of the story. As long as it sells.
Flynn’s plot takes a number of twists and turns: one of which, thankfully, reveals itself at the halfway point. But one of the most startling things about Gone Girl is the realization that the facts don’t even matter. What actually happened is rendered irrelevant – to the public at large, to the police investigators, and to the actual characters that know the facts – as media manipulation and public perception dictate the course of events.
Gone Girl is one of the most cynical Hollywood thrillers you’ll ever see, and it’s made all the more satisfying with the knowledge that these characters deserve their fate.
Unusual casting choices really pay off, with Tyler Perry – he of Madea fame, who claimed he had never heard of director Fincher before accepting the role (!) – stealing his scenes as a superstar defense attorney, and Neil Patrick Harris perfectly slimy as Amy’s ex-boyfriend.
Casey Wilson is a standout as Noelle Hawthorne, the abrasive neighbor who seems to know more about Amy than she should, and Pike – who has been given little to do in films like Jack Reacher and Wrath of the Titans – is a revelation in the central role, and sure to draw awards-season recognition.
Original music by Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor – who also scored the director’s previous two features – beautifully matches the material; eerie and cool at the beginning, it slowly unravels into something raw and visceral.
Flynn reportedly changed the ending from her novel (unread by me), but by most accounts what has ended up on the screen has been roughly transcribed from the source. That finale couldn’t have been played any other way, and ends on a perfectly unsettling note. It’s a perfect critique of the rabid media fervor that surrounds something like the Laci Peterson case.
Gone Girl works just fine as an engrossing B-movie thriller – despite the 2.5 hour runtime, this thing just flies by – but it’s filled with such delicious subversive cynicism and social commentary that it becomes so much more.
This is the rare film that will work for audiences who want to shut their brain and for those who are looking for something that will engage their mind. It showcases Hollywood filmmaking at its finest – blissfully entertaining, with something timely and relevant to say – and manages the feat of appealing to both those who eat up the nonstop coverage of missing-white-girl cases, and those who view them with utter disdain.