How well do we really know the people we live with? What little disappointments or changes, what dashed hopes buried within, turn into something big, something dangerous, and when does that terrifying transformation begin? David Fincher’s latest film, Gone Girl, which was adapted to the screen by Gillian Flynn from her novel, peers into the darkness of the glass, into the inner-lives of two people living side by side as perfect strangers to each other.
Gone Girl has all the trappings of the great “novel of sensation,” Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which was published in 1860 to something like an exhilarated obsession among the reading public. It was all the rage in Victorian London--there was even Woman in White perfume-- and became something of a touchstone for the mystery novel. Collins would later write what is considered the first English detective novel (The Moonstone) and we can trace every modern murder mystery in literature and film to these two seminal works. The Woman in White (and all the imitations that followed it) had wonderfully, delectably sinister ingredients like murder and madness and forged wills and people being held prisoner by their own relatives. Collins had tapped into the inner-workings of the British social sphere and shown it for all the darkness it contained (or could contain under the right circumstances), and right at a time when social issues such as murder and divorce were being widely publicized by the increasingly popular newspapers to the increasingly literate populace. (This was also right around the time that an official police force was established.)
In its own way, the film adaptation of Gone Girl is a piece of sensation fiction, and moreover, a savvy commentary on the sensationalism that our current news media dishes out with giddy, morbid fervor. Gone Girl is ostensibly about a man named Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) whose wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) disappears without a trace from their quiet suburban Missouri home one perfectly un-sinister morning. Naturally, Nick becomes the prime suspect when investigators thoroughly search the house and find suspicious things like blood spatter, a recent fire in the fireplace (in July), and signs of struggle that appear to have been staged. Soon the media waltzes in and pounces on Nick, questioning his apparent non-grief, diagnosing him as a sociopath, and turning him into the most hated man of the hour.
But that’s just the beginning.
The movie interacts with the missing wife in flashback. We see the two of them meet. In that scene the dialogue is maddeningly difficult to discern. But the music and the camera are in sync and the exchange between Affleck and Pike is lovely. Their chemistry is so good that you find yourself thinking, “How could this have happened? When was the day that he suddenly became able to kill her?” There’s a wistful feeling about those early years in their relationship, and the camera feeds it to us. Their conversations are of two charming, intelligent people, perhaps too self-aware for their own good. When they both purchase the same gift for each other for their anniversary, Pike’s character jokingly mocks them for being too cute. They comment on their own lives as though they were on camera, perhaps some inane reality show but one featuring clever people saying witty things. Many of those flashback scenes involve Pike writing in her diary, and her style is personal, funny, again very self-aware. She writes in an offhand way so as not to be accused of being overly sentimental or unaware. And when the problems start—after two layoffs and a dying parent happen in rapid succession—they become obsessed with not resorting to any of the common defense mechanisms of struggling married couples. “We’re not going to be the couple that has a baby to save the marriage,” they keep telling each other (and themselves).
David Fincher should have earned our respect as a filmmaker by now. His 2007 Zodiac may be the great film of the previous decade. (At the very least, it’s in the top five.) And more recently, Fincher impressed with both the Facebook biopic The Social Network and the thrilling American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So we should expect nothing less than good work from him (and from Gillian Flynn, who deserves so much credit for spinning such a fascinating, disturbing, riveting story.) In the previews, Gone Girl is packaged as an upscale version of a Law and Order episode. And the film wants you to see the Scott Peterson resemblance in Ben Affleck’s character and let your mind do the rest. But there’s much more to Gone Girl than any previews might suggest. There will be no spoilers here. This is too good a movie to ruin. The pleasures of this kind of well-crafted potboiler are so rare in movies these days, that anytime we do get something this good, it feels almost miraculous.
Ben Affleck may have the hardest role in this film. His character is quite tricky: he’s an imperfect man to be sure, possibly a truly evil man, and Affleck manages a delicate balancing act. When he goes before the press (and the public), people read his inability to display credible signs of grief as a big guilty sign. (It’s a startling commentary on how news stories are disseminated and how public opinion can be shaped—quite arbitrarily—by appearances.) Yet we find ourselves torn between wanting to crucify him and wanting to save him from his own inability to package himself in an appealing way. Indeed, so much of what we see in Gone Girl is reflected through the eyes of people or events that are open to interpretation. That is where once again this film truly echoes those novels of old, many of which were organized as a series of documents (letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, police reports, etc), organized (and possibly edited) by a supposedly objective party.
Who is truly reliable? Is the media really trustworthy in its alleged pursuit of truth? Or is it simply chasing a story that it invents in the process? Gone Girl adeptly aims its arrows at this very process of taking an ongoing story and turning it into the trashiest kind of grisly entertainment, heightened by a network news talk show host named Ellen Abbott (played masterfully by Missi Pyle) who goes after Nick with the boldness of a shark and worries little about actual tangible evidence.
Kim Dickens plays the unwavering detective, a scrappy, smart, modern-day version of the Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Dickens gives her a sense of humor and a sense of proportion: She seems to be the only one who’s interested in looking at facts. Tyler Perry is dead-on as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt, who’s notorious for defending the obviously guilty husbands of the world, and Carrie Coon delivers an at times stunning performance as Nick’s sister Margo, the only one who believes in Nick’s innocence. Because of her somewhat thankless role as Nick’s protector and champion, she may not get the credit she deserves for her fine work. But then, everyone in this movie is good.
And Rosamund Pike seals the fate of this film with her performance. As we delve into this couple’s complicated relationship, we begin to see new sides to Amy. Pike is an actress who hasn’t gotten the notice she deserves, despite a number of good performances, including her part in 2009’s An Education. She is a true chameleon as an actress: by turns glamorous and cool, sexy, smart, manipulative, pathetic. In parts of the film she looks like a movie star, and in others, like someone who walked out of a Flannery O’Connor short story: a forlorn, dowdy nobody with a scar or a limp or some other classic O’Connor deformity.
Gone Girl leaves you with questions. The film is certainly satisfying, but its characters are complex enough, its plot bizarre enough (yet somehow truthful too), that you can’t help but feel obsessively curious about every minute detail. Fincher is a director who successfully layers his movies with the minutia of human existence without losing sight of the grander story being told. And the details always add to the story. His movies have, since Zodiac at least, almost always felt in touch with the human emotions and inner-conflicts at work under the surface. There’s nothing cheap or obvious about Gone Girl, and while the many lurid revelations of this film’s plot may at times feel overwhelming, it’s hard not to be taken in by such a fascinating, thrilling piece of entertainment. It leaves you thinking, “Is anyone really safe?” Indeed, the problems that this movie explores and the questions it asks may be answered, but never totally understood, never completely solved. Do we really know another human heart? We fear the interiority of each other because it puts us on the outside, completely void of control, and Gone Girl is ultimately about the politics of control. Who gets to tell the story? And how do you know whom to believe?
With Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, Sela Ward, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, and Scoot McNairy. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth.