October 12, 2014 | 10:37am EST
In the opening montage of Gone Girl there is a series of ordinary homes, an ordinary Main Street with an ordinary bar and even an ordinary lamp post clock at the heart of what these Midwestern folks must consider a pretty ordinary downtown. It is simple and run-down and altogether safe, if unexciting. Nick Dunne fits in just fine. He wears loose fitting clothes and goes down to the local watering hole — named The Bar and owned by Nick and his sister Margot — to play board games and complain about his wife, Amy.
While Nick is from this suburban part of Missouri, Amy is a New Yorker. With her beautiful blonde hair and taste for form-fitting, high fashion, she does not fit in. To her, Nick’s hometown serves as little more than an open air prison, and their marriage is falling apart. He is bored of her and tired of catering to her. She is suspicious of him and feels expendable. She writes in her diary that she fears for her life, as if Nick might kill her, but says that it feels as if he has killed her already. When the action kicks into gear, on the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy is missing and there are signs of foul play inside the house. So, maybe he did.
Gone Girl is the latest in a line of ambitious and brilliant literary adaptations by master filmmaker David Fincher that includes The Social Network (from The Accidental Billionaires), Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Adapted for the screen by the original novelist Gillian Flynn, it is almost a perfect marriage of material and auteur. Fincher, a director of notorious commitment to his vision, deals in the sort of tropes the applied perfectly to the cavernous mystery of Gone Girl.
He creates the mood of his interiors by painting with a dark, glossy palette and has an impeccable sense of pace, as evidenced in his masterful period piece Zodiac, perhaps the most similar film in his catalogue to Gone Girl. These two films establish Fincher as a direct descendant of the noir tradition, in which the action is set in the rain and in the shadows and lonely men isolate themselves from the imprisonment of domesticity. Both thrillers seek to solve crimes. The former is the historic tale of the enigmatic Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the Bay Area for years while taunting the press and police with anonymous messages. Gone Girl also becomes a parallel police procedural and independent investigation. But story is not what makes a great movie, it is how the story is told, and both take on a soft visual style that detracts from realism but thrives due to its expressionism.
Fincher’s attention to detail makes watching Gone Girl a unique experience, and one that is hard to imagine with anyone else at the helm. Not only is the progression of the story fascinating, if imperfect, but the way the screen presses forward like a living canvas — voyeuristically seeking out clues alongside the detectives and creating a dark world that is a clear descendant of the great European expressionist works — separates it from the weaker pulp in its dense genre. The movie opens with its titles, like any other movie.. Except the opening credits fade in quickly, and then without hesitating for a moment, immediately fade back out. From the initial credits even, everything in Gone Girl is fleeting; from that first seen at The Bar, everything is a game.
What the mysteries of Gone Girl serve as is a skeleton on which to build commentary, humor and honesty. Narrated by Amy through her diary, Gone Girl bends its chronology just as much as Flynn’s temptuous screenplay makes you bend your brain. Nick’s search for his missing wife may be going terribly, but he did not always have such bad luck. Before the recession took the jobs of countless writers and entertainers, Nick and Amy were happily dating in New York City, kissing under a shower of raining sugar and casually making sex jokes in front of perfect strangers. It was all too good to be true until they got married. Instead of their lives together becoming exactly what they had dreamed of, it became exactly what they deserved. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play the happy couple to perfection, but truly impressive thing about their landmark turns is that they also play the present-day unhappy couple to perfection. Affleck as Nick, whether delivering the over-confident, boastful lines of Nick’s youthful bliss; or the egotistical, contemptuous lines of his present predicament, is spot on. He emphasizes the two sides of Nick by bringing attention to the fact that they are not very far apart. Pike’s performance as Amy is the showier of the two, and is sure to attract awards season attention. Most often relegated to supporting turns — mostly to stand there and be eye candy — the Bond Girl used Gone Girl as her first opportunity to show us what she can do. Whereas Affleck was effective for his subtle transitions, Pike was triumphant for her instantaneous pivots between light and dark. It is hard to blame Nick for having such a hard time understanding his wife — though there is no excuse for his behavior — as she is like a chameleon, manipulating herself to best seize the opportunities of her environment.
The impeccably clever twists and turns that Gone Girl leads us on from Amy’s disappearance turn it into a movie that can best be described as enchanting. Viewers are invited into Fincher’s and Flynn’s world and willfully oblige. At 149-minutes, Gone Girl is a commitment, but once the pacing and completeness of the arc is realized, you realize it couldn’t spare to be a minute shorter. Its comments on marriage will be welcome by some and dismissed by others, for they are cynical, but its comments on the state of sensationalist media and pseudo-events is on the ball in today’s 24-hour news obsession.
Amy is soon presumed dead after vanishing from her home, and even though the police are slow to act, the only thing on everyone’s mind is that Nick must be guilty. He is bad at publicity — nothing says “I killed my wife” like smiling for pictures in front of her missing-persons sign and actually saying “I have nothing to hide” — but that is not the crime that the media plays it up to be. At one point, two detectives are debating what to do about Nick, and have this exchange: “Have you ever heard the phrase that the most obvious answer is most often the correct one?” / “Actually, I’ve found the opposite to be true.”
At this point in the story, the audience is already privy to who is responsible for the disappearance, and of Nick’s role in it. The unspooling of dramatic irony is what turns Gone Girl from a mystery to a full-fledged thriller as Nick is literally fighting for his life. This rural noir has him figuratively chased around the country by angry townspeople, Amy’s family and the police. Even the based laid plans, which make up the mystery of the bulk of the film, fall apart, and with the characters now making things up as they go, we are simply along for the ride. The irony becomes painful to sit through, in the good way, as if you just want to shout to the screen but you know the characters won’t hear you.
Supporting characters are played by big names such as Neil Patrick Harris and Carrie Coon (and yes, Tyler Perry). Coon is fresh off a breakout turn in HBO’s The Leftovers and Tony-winner and Emmy-nominee Harris is slowly building a big screen career. Both are supremely talented, but beyond that Harris is impeccably cast as Amy’s ex-boyfriend and stalker. With a loose-polo shirt and cheesy sunglasses, he is far removed from Barney Stinson. At first glimpse, anyone familiar with his How I Met Your Mother stud immediately knows, without a word about it in the script, that something about this character is not quite right.
The details of the plot are only loosely bound — why no return to Nick’s dad, for example — but increased directedness throughout the movie fuels the final act. The audience’s empathy will be palpable but unpredictable. Nick is on a sure march to Death Row, Amy’s domestic prison has effectively killed her already. But in marriage these two are sparring partners, the roots of one another’s woes. On screen, their quarrel is the source of our entertainment.