Warning: This review contains spoilers.
It’s not hard to see why David Fincher was attracted to directing the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling and much discussed book. This is source material that ticks all of his stylistic choices and preferred themes – a tightly plotted thriller, characters for whom the term “complex” seems understated, and an almost childlike glee over the worst of humanity as seemingly ordinary folk sink further into the recesses of darkness. It’s also really funny.
The humour of Flynn’s novel is blacker than black, the kind Fincher revels in, and it’s that expertly balanced tone of edge-of-your-seat tension and wince-inducing laughs that elevates Gone Girl above the average thriller. Fincher, working from Flynn’s own script, retains the he-said/she-said structure of the novel, although only Amy’s voiceover dominates the story, with Nick being relegated to (an ultimately effective) bookmark structure. Opening with the first lines of the novel (describing Amy’s head and Nick’s desire to crack it open), the tone and themes are immediately established, followed by a short montage of the economically starved Missourian town the Dunn’s inhabit, contrasted with their comfortable and clinically perfect home. This is an absurd story but it’s also one of the times, where emotional bankruptcy rivals financial deprivation in the era of the recession.
After a quick drink and some sibling small talk with his twin Margo (played wonderfully by Carrie Coon), failed writer and bar owner Nick (Ben Affleck at his finest) returns home to find a scuffle has taken place and his wide (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared. Immediately he falls under the veil of suspicion from the local police department (played by Patrick Fugit – essentially playing every wide eyed boy he’s ever played – and the criminally underrated Kim Dickins). Fincher has always shown a keen eye for crime procedurals, as seen in Zodiac and Se7en, but where he really excels in Gone Girl is with the resulting media storm that engulfs the case of Amazing Amy. From the awkward press conferences to the terrifyingly accurate Nancy Grace clone who dissects every move Nick makes as evidence of his guilt (has Missi Pyle ever been more effectively used in a film?), the torrid rise and fall of the celebrity victim and killer is played out with pinpoint detail and more than a few laughs. That balance is maintained as Tanner Bolt, defence lawyer and ‘patron saint of wife killers’, is introduced to make sure Nick stays on message. And no, I’m not over the fact that Tyler Perry was really good in his role. He’s at ease here in a way he’s never been with roles not in Medea drag.
As Nick begins to sink under the weight of increasing evidence, the narrative switches back and forth to Amy’s diary of the perfect beginnings of their relationship to its unpleasant shifts as the economy, family sickness and infidelity lead Nick to turn violent. Of course, that’s before we get to part 2 and the truth is revealed.
Amy’s revelation of her scarily detailed and seemingly infallible plan to fake her death and frame her husband for the deed is shared as she drives away, munching on an assortment of junk food (one of the film’s smarter touches). Much has been made about the ‘Cool Girl’ speech, Amy’s condemnation of the men pleasing roles women force themselves into, which has now achieved meme status, but it doesn’t pack much of a punch here. Perhaps that’s the point. Too many reviewers have tried to reduce the movie down to that one speech when it’s merely one part of a larger and more interesting jigsaw. Amy remains fascinating, even when Pike seems to stumble.
She’s a touch too regal for the role, never quite being the beer-swilling, chilli-dog munching male fantasy she pertains to be in her own story, although when she’s called upon to deliver the more malicious goods, she does so with glee. Her scenes with ex-boyfriend Desi (played by Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stintson in the real world – not a charming man about town but a possessive creep who sees women as autonomy-free challenges) offer an especially unsettling insight into the key theme of the acceptable roles men and women play in relationships (specifically upper-middle class heterosexual WASP ones).
Oddly, Ben Affleck excels in his role, reminding the world that, like Tom Cruise, he can play an arsehole like nobody’s business. Nick may be innocent but he’s not even close to being a good man. Emotionally cold but polite enough to smile at every woman he meets, he’s a little too quick to call other women ‘bitches’ and falls into all the public traps of the guilty man, even when he’s fully aware of doing it. Soon, he’s more interested in changing public perceptions of himself than finding Amy, desperately salvaging what little dignity he has left as his nice boy charm recedes.
The weaknesses of the film lie primarily with the weaknesses in the source material, which are amplified here but not to the point of distraction. It seems a touch too implausible that Amy would relax around the couple who rob her blind when she’s in hiding, and the tension does lag for a while between the big reveal and the arrival at Desi’s house. As I said, none of this drags the film down, and it remains a tense and gripping watch throughout its long running time, never feeling like a slog.
Beautifully shot, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross providing strong musical work, the film looks at good as it sounds. Gone Girl is trash, in the best way possible. Make no mistake: like its source material, this film is a ridiculous and almost camp examination of an age-old trope – the marriage gone sour – taken to its most extreme conclusion. This is a pulp crime story with a literary sheen, a witty examination of the roles we inhabit just to survive with a mystery Hitchcock would be proud of. If you didn’t like the book, this won’t change any opinions, but for lovers of a good mystery and an ever so dark tale, this is a must see.