I may be at a bit of a disadvantage with Gone Girl. I’d only recently read Gillian Flynn’s novel, with its twists and turns and wicked cleverness still fresh in my mind. So seeing the film, expertly made, but so ruthlessly paced and streamlined that at times it felt abbreviated, I couldn’t help but think of moments of missed, of lines these perfectly cast actors didn’t deliver. And, even stepping back, I can see there are moments where the full-throttle pace (it’s a quick, quick 149 minutes) does gloss over parts of the plot which, on the page, were quite deliberately crafted.
And yet the pacing has its own benefits: from the first, the film feels like some kind of bad dream, a perfect storm of suspicion and good planning and bad luck which, to the pitch-black ending, we never leave.
Regarding spoilers…we’ll deal with them when we have to.
Gone Girl is the story of the Dunnes: Nick (Ben Affleck), and Amy (Rosamund Pike). Once fairly affluent New York writers, they lost their jobs to the 2008 recession and, when Nick’s mother fell terminally ill, they returned to his native Missouri–the Mississippi River town of North Carthage, to be exact–and while Nick seemed happy to be home, Amy felt like she had left her heart back in New York.
On their 5th anniversary, July 5, Amy vanishes. Nick immediately calls the police, and Detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Nick Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) investigate. Things quickly go wrong as the media seizes on every suspect action by Nick–flashing an inappropriate smile during a press conference, taking a cheerful picture with a volunteer (a woman, no less), and overall displaying a seeming lack of empathy. This suspicion spills over to the authorities, and while Boney attempts to remain objective, Gilpin, who already dislikes Nick, is convinced of his guilt.
Flashbacks, narrated from Amy’s diary, show their once happy marriage slowly crumbling under the weight of money troubles, the move to Missouri, and Nick’s increasingly thin temper, which has at least once exploded into violence. Nick denies being abusive, but his affair with college student Andie (Emily Ratajkowski), which he is struggling to keep under wraps, doesn’t make him look too good.
As the clues planted by Amy for their anniversary treasure hunt lead Boney and Gilpin toward her damning diary, Nick feels the walls closing in, and even his beloved twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), questions his honesty. His case looks increasingly bleak.
But there’s more.
There is so much more.
Fuck it. I’m gonna get spoilery.
It’s very hard for me to talk about the themes of the film without touching on the themes of the book, and the twain do not perfectly overlap. The novel was a kind of very sick love story, a story of two rather unpleasant people who realize how much they require each other. In the film, this is still maintained, especially in the acidic final act.
Because–if you don’t know–Amy isn’t dead. Amy, resentful of Nick manipulating her into being someone she didn’t want to be–first the “cool girl”, who aligns her tastes with her man’s and is sexually generous, then the “shrew”, the nagging wife who suspects but does not confront–and of taking her away from her home and her life, has carefully planned her disappearance, fabricated the diary with a mixture of truth and fiction (Nick was not abusive, as she claims), and has planted plenty of clues that will doom Nick. So thorough is her planned revenge that she actually means to kill herself so her body will be the final piece of evidence necessary to execute him.
But, of course, things don’t go as planned.
Without spoiling everything, Amy finds herself a savior of sorts and a safe house, and plans to watch Nick burn while in the lap of luxury. But her guardian angel soon turns out to be rather manipulative themselves, and she uses drastic means to escape them, return to Nick, and paint herself as the victim of a kidnapping, counting on the tide of sympathy to drown out any voices of doubt regarding her story. Nick quickly guesses the truth, but Amy is determined to keep on her side by any means. She succeeds, but we are left with as toxic a situation as you could imagine.
The film does rush the final segment of the book somewhat, and the excellent, entirely appropriate final scene of the novel is omitted in favor of a sort of full-circle conclusion that doesn’t quite leave the same sick taste in the mouth, but is still pretty unsettling.
Flynn herself wrote the screenplay, and to be fair, at times it feels as if she glossed over story elements that she intimately knew and counted on the viewer to know. I cannot say how a novice would react, but some of the secondary characters–especially Andie–are reduced to bit parts. On the other hand, so much of the crisp dialogue (early on it seems a little cutesy, but that may have been intentional), devious plotting, and compelling characters make it to the screen that, on the whole, Flynn’s script must be ranked a success.
I really can’t say if you should read the book or not first–they’re different beasts in many ways, and admittedly the book’s extensive world-building would have slowed things down, but arguably a plot this detailed would have been best served by a miniseries. I will say the omission of Nick’s narration (Amy’s is retained for the first half) was a bit of a mistake, since it weakens the he-said she-said element of the story, but after a while I didn’t really notice.
Spoilers over. I think.
David Fincher is, simply, one of the best American directors currently working. And I can’t think of any director who so consistently makes great thrillers–who would’ve imagined so gripping a film could be made about Facebook as The Social Network? And after the excellent remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I figured Fincher was the right fit for Flynn’s horrific narrative.
And, shock of shocks, he is. While I won’t put it quite in the top tier of his directing efforts–all things considered, I think Dragon Tattoo is a hair more visceral and resonant–his skill at crafting an unsettling tone, and a kind of sickness of place (I’ll explain), is in full bloom here. The economic depression of the Midwest is a major theme here, with the rundown juxtaposed with the sterile, artificially stylish. The coldly impersonal home of Nick and Amy, Desi Collings’ (Neil Patrick Harris) airless lake house, the unsettled liminal spaces that are airports and gas stations–the uniquely unlovely qualities of these places is perfectly captured by Fincher’s merciless eye. And the scenes in New York, of Nick and Amy’s happiness before everything goes to hell, have a distant, magical quality to them, like it isn’t quite real.
And he tells the story well, too–working with editor Kirk Baxter, going solo after co-winning (with Angus Wall) two well-deserved Oscars for Fincher’s last two films, he immediately creates an off-kilter tone; the opening credits flash by over a montage of North Carthage’s uninspiring sights, always a little too fast, as if the film is moving just a hair quicker than the mind can properly process it. And I think–I say, I think–that this was part of the plan, this was meant to throw us off and pitch us right into a web of confusion and merciless manipulation. There’s an almost Kafkaesque feel to the recurring theme of characters being thrown into chaos by a force seemingly beyond their control. Nick is, of course, the primary focus of this surreal maelstrom, but the feeling is never far–even with those who seem to have an almost supernatural facility for planning.
Fincher tends to be very good at casting, too, and the cast for Gone Girl is almost entirely perfect. I’m not sure whether to discuss Pike or Affleck first. Coin-toss goes to Ben. Okay.
I don’t know if Flynn had Affleck in mind while writing the character of Nick, but reading the novel (knowing Affleck had been cast), all I can say is, he is Nick Dunne. From the fatuously handsome look, to the almost reflexive smugness, to the I’m-so-done-with-this-bullshit irritation, right down to the cleft chin which supposedly indicates dishonesty, he embodies the character perfectly. You believe Nick isn’t the utter bastard the media makes him out to be–just an utter bastard in a self-deluding, equivocating, self-pitying way. Affleck treads a fine line–you have to realize what a shit Nick is, but at the same time, it’s hard to wish him ill. He’s got that sneaky likability to him that makes the character of Nick endurable.
I could go on, but let me just say, they lucked out in a big way here. I’m not sure if he’s quite awards-worthy–the role doesn’t ask that much of him–but he was perfectly cast, and delivers. It’s almost certainly the best performance he’s ever given.
And then there’s Rosamund Pike. From the very start, she was mooted for Oscar consideration, and I have to say…it’s justified. Unlike the role of Nick, the character of Amy is, in her way, so complex and elusive that simply showing up and looking right for the role wouldn’t be enough. Amy is fearsomely intelligent and incredibly driven, and it would take a hell of a performance to keep her from becoming a mere ice-queen. But Pike comes through, showing subtly the depths of bitterness which motivate Amy, inspired not only by Nick’s failure as a husband but by society’s treatment of women. Combined with her genius, which Pike communicates no less skillfully, Amy becomes something like Alfred Hitchcock’s dream woman.
Pike’s performance is so full–of humor (“She looks like a fucking Mennonite”), of fear, of artifice, of action and reaction. It’s a really stunning piece of work, and if she goes overlooked by the Academy, it will be their sin. I’ve always liked Pike (she wasn’t even that bad in Die Another Day), and hopefully this will be the role that catapults her to true stardom. It’s hard–very hard indeed–to imagine anyone pulling off this role as perfectly as her.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive–arguably with one exception, but we’ll get to them in a moment. I can’t discuss Harris’ performance in detail, but suffice to say, in what can’t be more than about 8 or 9 minutes of screentime, he reaches the epitome of bourgeois creepiness. From a wonderful little look he gives (over the matter of a cup of custard) to his subtle goadings and puppyish manipulability, Harris is both profoundly gross and rather amusing. Though I wish he’d been given a little more to do–at least one scene of his from the book was omitted, probably for time reasons–he is, too, impeccably cast.
Kim Dickens’ work as Boney is likely to be overlooked, but in her quiet way, she’s excellent. Boney is really quite a sympathetic character, an honest cop who smells a rat and doesn’t fall into the same trap as Gilpin (or the rest of the country), but who realizes when the tide of opinion has stymied her and forces her to act–or not to act. Dickens is aces, nailing the humor, the sadness, the frustration, and the ultimate resignation of the small-town detective who is ultimately another victim of the machinations of a certain evil genius. Fugit’s Gilpin has less to do, but his loathing for Nick provides a sort of menacing comic relief, and I enjoyed his smirking appearances greatly.
I was somewhat dubious about Carrie Coon’s casting as “Go”, but she too finds the human core behind Go’s smart-alecky exterior. Her chemistry with Affleck is strong, and her final scene is really quite heartbreaking. Again, a few of the character’s dimensions didn’t make the final cut, but Coon provides an excellent performance with what she has. On the other hand, Ratajkowski is something of a dud. Andie’s screentime is minimized–to the point where they might almost have been better off omitting the character–but even then, Ratajkowski’s delivery is rather stiff, and she never quite disappears into the role. It feels like stunt casting (given her notoriety from the “Blurred Lines” video), and she’s easily the weak link the cast. (Addendum: I have subsequently rewatched the film, and I owe Ms. Ratajkowski an apology. She actually does pretty well in the role, especially allowing for the cuts made to it.)
I never thought I’d like a Tyler Perry performance, but his work as super-lawyer Tanner Bolt (a kind of Johnnie Cochran figure) is most satisfactory. Before, playing it straight (as in, not Madea), Perry seemed politely bland. Here, playing a man who’s all polite appearances and damage control, he finds his element. He’s slick, he’s sharp, he’s the lawyer Nick desperately needs, and right near the end, he sums up Nick and Amy as well as anyone could.
As Amy’s parents, David Clennon and Lisa Banes (who gives off a strong Streep vibe) are appropriately affable and prickly, respectively; Boyd Holbrook and Lola Kirke are solid as a pair of Ozark lowlifes; Missi Pyle and Sela Ward are both quite convincing as media crusaders, one of whom sides with Nick, the other with Amy. Scoot McNairy (who’s having a hell of a year) makes an impact in his very brief role.
Fincher’s films are usually technically impeccable, and this is no exception. I’ve mentioned the brilliant direction and ruthless editing; how about Jeff Cronenweth’s icy, unflinching cinematography, which sometimes hides the scene in shameful shadows, and sometimes shows them fully lit–showing you what you might not want to see. It looks simply marvelous.
And sounds it, too. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross don’t top their Dragon Tattoo score, but they still add greatly to the sense of dread and horror; underscoring the theme of media frenzy and manipulation, the music is often reminiscent of static, inside our characters’ minds, building to the point of explosion, and cutting out as the scene ends. The pressure is eased. For a moment. And the cue over the end credits, a long, rumbling stream of discordance, perfectly follows from the bleak final beat, flowing towards an uncertain future.
Steve Cantamessa’s sound mixing is incredible; one scene in particular drowns out any sounds of humanity in favor of the endless thundering of trucks and cars at an interstate gas station, and the effect is just brilliant. Or take the swarming buzz of the media, who follow Nick everywhere he goes. Or the silences and little sounds that make up the whole unnerving soundscape. It’s amazing. Like Amy.,
I should note that at times the film deals with themes of gender, sexuality, and violence in a manner that many will find off-putting. This isn’t as harrowing a film as, say, Dragon Tattoo, but it’s still quite graphic and troubling at times. It fully earns its R rating. So consider yourself warned.
Hard as it is for me, at the moment, to be fully objective about the film itself, I can’t deny that David Fincher has delivered yet another great film. It’s so right in so many ways that I can forgive it its shortcomings (and I do mean to revisit it down the line, once my memories of the novel have faded a little more), and recommend it to all serious film buffs. It’s easily the best American film of the year to date.
And they got Tyler Perry to say “fuck”.