Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: "Gone Girl"

Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 149 minutes

When I first heard that director David Fincher was attached to direct Gone Girl, I have to admit that my reaction was an elitist wrinkling of the nose. Why, after already directing the US version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was the master behind The Social Network and Zodiac adapting another flavor-of-the-month page turner? Isn't it time he started setting his sights a little higher? But then I remembered that I had been none too keen about Fincher's decision to direct "that Facebook movie," and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I even gave Gillian Flynn's novel a chance, and despite some resistance on my part, I ended up going along for the twisted little ride that it was. And now that I've seen Mr. Fincher's adaptation - written by Ms. Flynn herself - I can once again rest easy. Gone Girl is not quite an instant classic or a masterpiece, but it's a damn good piece of filmmaking that represents a perfect pairing of material and artist. 

For those not familiar with or rusty on the plot, the basics are the sort of thing you could find in the average TV movie about spousal abuse. Nick and Amy Dunne (the brilliantly cast duo of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have been married for five years, yet both have fallen on financial hardships in the recession. Somewhat against her will, Amy lets Nick drag her back to his home town in Missouri to care for his sick mother and rebuild his life. Yet Amy is very much a Manhattan kind of gal, and the move to Missouri is the equivalent of being fired from Vogue and being forced to take a job at People Magazine. Regardless, there's an anniversary to celebrate, so it's time to get ready.

And then, as the title indicates, she's gone. Has she been killed? Kidnapped? What does Nick know, and where was he the morning of her disappearance? With the details that surface, the situation increasingly points toward one person: Nick. At one point, investigating office Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) sardonically remarks to lead investigator Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), "The simplest answer is often the correct one." Yet Boney counters with, "Actually, I've never found that to be true." This brief exchange is the perfect encapsulation of Gone Girl as a novel and film, where events and people are rarely quite what they seem to be, regardless of actual innocence or guilt.

What's most impressive about Flynn's screenplay is her sharp ability to condense her own work. Novels and screenplays are drastically different forms, yet Flynn has adapted to the new medium rather effortlessly. Unlike Mr. Fincher's Dragon Tattoo, which occasionally suffered from laborious slavishness to the source material, Gone Girl feels as complete as the novel, even with the handful of abbreviated or missing passages. Every scene is crucial, and every minute is earned, and the finale - far too good to spoil - leaves one demanding more. Emotional depravity, which seeps into the film's very soul, can grow tiring if stretched out for a long period of time (the film is nearly 2 and a half hours), but Flynn and Fincher have concocted a potent and addictive mix. 

Fincher has always been an immaculate visual storyteller, and his perfectionism serves the material well. Working with a band of recent collaborators behind the camera, he as given the story a polish that elevates the material and demands that it been brought out of the imaginations of readers, and definitively imagined on screen. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the lighting and color palette firmly in Fincher's wheelhouse of sleek greens, whites, and browns, lushly accentuating even the grimiest of locations with cinematic flair. Editor Kirk Baxter (working solo after doing Fincher's last two films with Angus Wall) keeps the story clipping along with sharp, unobtrusive cuts that add another layer of crisp precision to the plotting. And returning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have, against the odds, contributed another icy, ambient electronnic score to add momentum or dramatic heft when needed. Rather than strain to create memorable themes, Gone Girl's score provides a near-constant sonic backdrop that adds a creeping sense of urgent malice to this increasingly warped story of abuse and deceit.

And while Fincher has long been regarded as a extremely confident visual storyteller, his skill with actors has often been overlooked, even after the Oscar nominations for Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara. Fincher's directing remains the biggest star of Gone Girl - the man is hardly one to his actors own the screen entirely by themselves - but to dismiss Affleck and Pike's performances as merely following their leader does them (and the rest of the ensemble) a huge disservice.

Even without his experience under ridiculous amounts of media hassling, Affleck is a strong choice for Nick. The slightly glazed over look of his eyes and lack of tension in his jaw subtly and immediately gives life to a man in an insane predicament. His relationship with Amy may have soured a bit, but there's still the need to pretend for the cameras (and, to a lesser extent, the audience) that he adores his wife and wants nothing more than to see her again. Lending Mr. Affleck able support is Carrie Coon as his twin sister Margo, a character I often found unconvincing on the page, yet totally at ease with here. With her acerbic, no-bullshit attitude and her genuine fear about what Nick may or may not have done, Coon is an invaluable asset in the film's first act, which traces the early days of the investigation. Fellow supporting players Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) and Neil Patrick Harris play against type with effective results, while Fugit and Dickens are similarly effective as the key investigators. 

As in Dragon Tattoo, there's quite a bit of set up before the the full narrative truly gets going, but thanks to Flynn's self edits, the film's first act is efficient at setting the stage without dragging on and on with exposition for those who know what's in store. Because when it comes to revelations and playing with versions of reality, Gone Girl moves from its strong beginning to its deliciously nasty middle and end. 

This is largely due to how - I'll refrain from spoilers - Flynn's story is able to work in Amy's perspective, despite her absence and possible death. When we're seeing Amy on screen in flashback, or merely hearing her voice reading excerpts from her diary, she is easily the most compelling thing in all of Gone Girl. Pike, an accomplished actress in England who has yet to really break out Stateside, is totally arresting in the role. Though I periodically wished that Flynn would have lingered on certain moments longer (despite the length, I never found that the film was dragging) that would have given Amy room to leave an even more striking impression with the viewer. Even so, what Pike has pulled off here is still wonderfully diverse, weaving together different ideas who Amy is (was?), depending on whose version of the story is being told. Her casting was already a great idea, but she has done more than simply coast on her physical attributes. We can debate whether Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara made a better Lisbeth Salander, but it'll be hard for anyone else to fill Pike's shoes for Amy Dunne. 

In its own unconventional way, Gone Girl eventually emerges as a two-hander, despite the supporting characters in both Nick and Amy's lives. It's a story of marriage, after all, even if one spouse might be a murder victim. "People told us and told us and told us - marriage is hard work," goes an entry in Amy's diary, and the ways in which Gone Girl takes this notion to such darkly funny conclusions, are an critical part of why the film succeeds as well as it does. For all of the mystery and salacious details, Flynn and Fincher - without becoming glib - inject enough shots of humor into the proceedings to keep the film from descending into a state of perpetual gloom and tragedy.

There's been talk of Gone Girl as a devilish satire of modern media sensationalism, although I found the film to be a bit more straightforward. A sense of humor does not automatically classify a dark genre picture as a satire, just as a few funny lines now and then don't make Mad Men a comedy. There are subversive, even mocking, elements to Flynn's tale (the Nancy Grace figure played by Missi Pyle), but Gone Girl is still a mystery at its core. The darkest depths of relationships are also so present, and such wide-reaching satire seems like a tertiary goal at best. However, the "devilish" part is absolutely true. No matter what comes to light in Gone Girl, there's always one more little dig, one more little twist of the knife. We think there has to be a bottom that brings the pit of human filth to an end. Gone Girl, however, suggests that there is no such end, and in such a way that the very notion will leave a sick grin etched on your face, whether you like it or not.

Grade: B+/A-

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