Movie review: “Gone Girl” (2014)

gone girl

“I will practice believing that my husband loves me…but I could be wrong.”

Seen at a macro level, his suburban setting for a fleeting early moment obscured by suspiciously placed, some might even say staged, clouds, David Fincher’s Gone Girl still appears to be operating on multiple levels at once. Is the film a slightly higher than standard issue twisty police procedural? Is it a deliberately paced, closely observed yet still strangely aloof portrait of the disintegration of a storybook romance and marriage? Is it an unsubtle treatise on the perversity and pervasiveness of today’s reality TV/24-hour news culture, which will tar and feather the presumed innocent on the flimsiest pretense, disregarding or suspending best journalistic practices in the process, and stoke the fires of public outrage ever higher with victims both tragically real and imagined, solely in the name of ratings? The simple answer is yes to all three, but Gone Girl goes much, much deeper, pressing and probing psychologically and running in expected directions in unexpected ways. The setup particulars are, to my understanding, identical to those in Gillian Flynn’s best-seller: Nick, a Missourian bar owner (Ben Affleck) returns home after morning errands to find his wife of five years, Amy (Rosamund Pike), unexpectedly missing. The house, upon his return, appears in some disarray, with obvious but elliptical signs of a struggle and a smudge on a kitchen cabinet that even looks like blood to the layman. Police swarm the scene looking for clues, and find many seemingly at odds with the husband’s story. In due time, the incident is labeled a crime of some sort and a possible homicide, with Nick the natural person of interest.

gone girl posterOn the surface, this all seems an intriguing but essentially superficial cinematic treatment of the kind of tragedy that has become a staple, and to some degree a cliché, of the overwrought and overdriven modern cable news cycle. As days pass and the investigation continues to unfold, becoming, predictably, a media circus, we’re allowed strategically limited entry into the headspace of many involved, which only muddies the waters further. Amy’s disappearance galvanizes her adopted Missouri home, which quickly mobilizes a large scale manhunt for the missing woman. Nick’s public face, and the possibly hidden motives belying it, are subject to progressively harsher scrutiny, as incomplete but increasing light is shone on Amy’s fate, and the circumstances of her disappearance. Here, in the earliest going, screenwriter Flynn and director Fincher invite the viewer to not only observe but tacitly judge Nick, who, without police present to in any way affect his behavior, treats Amy’s disappearance as odd but does not seem particularly alarmed. He notes the shattered living room table, and possibly the smear of blood, but goes upstairs to look around further instead of immediately calling the authorities. His dealings with the lead investigators, when they arrive, are cooperative without being particularly informative. He stews in the police station for the rest of the day, reiterating his story with only minute alterations, before it comes out that he has not yet even informed Amy’s parents she is missing. They arrive later, full of appropriately frantic concern for the cameras, but also with fairly fascinating ulterior motives, which are only an early taste of the layers Gone Girl has still to peel back.

Soon after her disappearance, the film sets off on a parallel, seemingly tangential track, integrating the titular “Gone Girl” into the proceedings in absentia as Pike’s character narrates pages from her diary sprung to life, recounting in heartfelt detail the story of her blossoming romance with Nick and the happy first years of their marriage, selected moments of which are downright lyrical. Fincher, always an elegant visual stylist, is in fine form in these narrated flashbacks, lingering just the right amount of time on a smile or exchanged glance before cutting away. We see the two lovers meet and banter, laugh and flirt, fall in together and fall in love. We see Nick’s marriage proposal, a deft bit of improvisation meant to simultaneously charm Amy and rescue her from a barrage of tedious table chatter. We see the two cut down an alleyway abutting a bakery on the night of what will/has become their first date, and pass through a fine mist of sugar hanging in the air just outside the kitchen. Fincher, who directed Seven and Fight Club, among others, obviously knows how to frame and shoot light knifing through the darkness, but what starts as a merely beautiful moment takes on an enchanted air when Nick softly brushes excess sugar from Amy’s lips with his thumb before kissing her for the first time. The investigation in the present and the remembered love story move forward in loose tandem and at similar paces. Pike’s narration helps bring Amy to life despite her absence and we see indications, hints at first then progressively stronger, of what Nick and her parents and the town at large have lost.

Amy wistfully references the turmoil moving to Nick’s Missouri hometown to care for his sick mother unwittingly unleashed upon their relationship. “It’s like I’m something he didn’t want to pack.” It’s a tribute to the subtlety with which Fincher and Flynn have structured and employed these flashbacks, as bright margin detail cast against the increasing futility and frustration of the scene back home, that when they suddenly take on a marked shift in tone and intersect with the investigation, essentially ushering in the second third of the movie while retroactively affecting everything that came before, I was disoriented. Gone Girl is a movie of numerous reversals and revelations, some of which are devastating, some merely curious, a few of which, frankly, don’t quite pass the smell test, and none of which I will discuss here in any depth. Fincher, Flynn and their extraordinary cast largely ground the film against its pulpiest tendencies and make it a dependably riveting unfolding exercise in suspense, shifting suspicion, and, at times, abhorrent human behavior. Affleck does excellently modulated work portraying a man under a microscope (or perhaps an ant on the wrong end of the magnifying glass), cornered and exasperated, who, confronted with cumulative evidence and innuendo that make him a pariah and threaten to bury him entirely, struggles for breath, insisting that his very real flaws are nevertheless not the ones that have been widely ascribed to him.

Pike, who first came to my attention as the fetching villainess (and only bright spot) in one of the worst ever James Bond movies, does him one better, playing Amy as a deeply wounded romantic possessed of surprising strength and formidable resolve. Pike fully owns the character’s quirks and affectations, showing her mind at work, and, like Affleck, isn’t afraid to be off-putting. It’s a star-making role in a throwback movie otherwise full of finely-observed character acting. Nick’s two biggest potential allies, his fiercely loving twin sister (strikingly played sans nonsense by Leftovers actress Carrie Coon) and the skeptical but even-handed lead investigator (played by underrated five tool TV actress Kim Dickens*), both come to doubt then believe Nick’s innocence, or guilt, depending on which way the pendulum most recently swung, and who is doing the assessment. Both ask believable questions, exhibit relatable behavior/fears, and harbor realistic, sometimes crippling, suspicions, a fact which is itself indicative of the quality of the enterprise as a whole compared to standard Hollywood fare. HIMYM’s Neil Patrick Harris is disarming as an unrequited love who crawls out of the woodwork to join the hunt for Amy and later becomes of far more assistance than he initially bargained for. Occasional box office panderer/grotesquery Tyler Perry injects notes of both unexpected gravitas and welcome comic relief as notorious attorney for “killer husbands” Tanner Bolt. Watching him chuckle amiably and knowingly as Affleck conversely wilts or steams, or attempt in vain to steer his uncooperative client into the skid as the latest of a dozen different shoes drops, is always reliable fun. Gone Girl is the rare mainstream offering that, even at 149 minutes, feels just about the right length.

*Those being ”Deadwood”, “Lost”, “Friday Night Lights”, “Treme”, and, most recently, “Sons of Anarchy”, the last a bit of charity work for which she deserved far better than to be the highest profile corpse in a gang retaliation massacre.

If it seems I’m being more spoiler-averse than normal in consideration of Gone Girl, that’s by design. It is surely better to enter the theater with as little knowledge of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling potboiler as possible, and, ideally, with few to any real expectations as well, though when it comes to the films of David Fincher I’ve historically found my own pretty hard to suppress or disregard. I’ve heard tell that Flynn has included a few surprises in the screenplay that even her most avid readers won’t have known to expect. As a neophyte only interested in a great, involving time at the movies – and Gone Girl is certainly that – I appreciate both Fincher’s trademark attention to narrative detail and Flynn’s determination to further grease the skids of her roller coaster, though there are moments, especially late, when the enterprise threatens to fly off the rails entirely. But then I remember the deftly intercut shots of Pike, terrified, bathed in shadow and huddled in her blankets, fixated on noises (footfalls?) she hears from the hallway, as Affleck slowly approaches the closed bedroom door. I watched this sequence so intently that I involuntarily held my breath, and only when I breathed again did I also remember that Nick and Amy were not even on opposite sides of the same closed door. That time. What Fincher, Flynn and their collaborators have done here is not so much create a movie as cast a spell, enthralling, pitch perfect and, as it turns out, fragile, with the express purpose of shattering it and leaving characters and viewers alike adrift in the aftermath, perplexed and besieged, and never, ever certain where they stand. Even when the events on screen strain credibility, as they do late, the film has built up such equity via its sure technical hand and damaged, lived-in performances that the doubts linger only momentarily. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross spins an exquisite minimalist web, insinuating and permeating rather than pounding or stinging, and Fincher’s direction is subdued but, in its way, spectacular, burrowing into the skin as a careful, deliberate, inexorable process, destroying, overtaking and casting aside one dead cell at a time.

“Gone Girl” (2014) 4/4 stars**

**If quarter stars were a compatible part of this rating model, I would officially give “Gone Girl” 3.75. For the purposes of this review, you can assume that’s exactly what I did, then rounded up to 4.

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