Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The multiplex we visited in Greenville, North Carolina apparently planned its exhibitions of Gone Girl rather poorly; mere minutes before the advertised start time, we still stood outside the doors among a big throng of impatient types waiting to be let in. None of the other fifteen screens seemed to be having such a problem. When the doors opened at last and people began slowly filing out, they all looked winded and vaguely traumatized. Mostly focused on getting in and sitting down, I initially didn’t think much about this. But in retrospect, after seeing the film, it became hilarious. I thought of how in the ’90s they used to make TV spots for Scream 2 and such that consisted of falsely impromptu interviews with Regular People who’d supposedly just seen the feature and were now brimming with CinemaScore-friendly enthusiasm. I thought of what a kick David Fincher would probably get out of such a commercial starring those sullen, troubled faces in that lobby. When I walked out of the room a couple of hours later I felt great. Because my god, what an ecstatic feeling to have such an acid-dark ending to a major Hollywood film. Bless Fincher and Gillian Flynn for putting the public through such a wringer.

Flynn’s screenplay from her own popular novel is a thriller that toys with unreliable narration, namely that of the anti-heroine Amy, daughter of a couple of children’s authors who wrote a series of embarrassing books about her, whose disappearance propels the acidic commentary on bad marriages and saturation of Missing White Woman Syndrome that follow. Rosamund Pike takes on the mysterious character, who manages to be constantly onscreen despite her disappearance — her diary, recited via voiceover, is a major plot element — but it’s the accused husband Nick who is most astoundingly embodied cinematically by Ben Affleck, in a performance that plays upon our cultural familiarity with spousal murder cases like this one. Affleck looks similar, almost discomfortingly so, to rock star murder suspect Scott Peterson, and the film dances around in shared memory of not merely this case but the armchair justice moments like those involving Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox, down to the use of a Nancy Grace caricature (Missi Pyle) to drum up widespread outrage.

Thus, Gone Girl is also Fincher’s story; seldom compared to Hitchcock in his choice of material but calling up memories of the Master in his meticulous working methods, the director has a field day with stunt casting in this picture. Affleck is a longtime heartthrob (and a fine filmmaker in his own right) who’s turned around conventional wisdom about his own career multiple times, cast here as a man who seems to be a probable monster and never fully escapes the identification; he plays it ice-cold perfect. But that’s only one facet of Fincher’s odd party; he also employs Neil Patrick Harris as a schmoozy ex and bottom-feeding creep, and popular Christian actor-director Tyler Perry, of all people, as an attorney known for his defense of very unpopular clients. Pike, who has to cope with perceptions of an unseen and finally unknown character, may have the hardest job, but the most memorable performances are in less showy parts, especially Perry’s but also the little-known Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo; her charm, pain and humor give the film its soul. In filling an Affleck picture not with big stars but with curious names who are best for their roles, Fincher is holding up a promise to actors seldom demonstrated in modern Hollywood: they are challenged in his films, and they are at their best in his films.

As a story, Gone Girl has holes and inconsistencies familiar to anyone who reads much modern crime fiction; writers like Flynn and Harlan Coben are expert at setting up a gripping premise but then can rarely hold up excitement without cutting story corners or wallowing in over-the-top silliness. Fincher is correct to see all this as an opportunity for something a bit more probing than it is on its face. Gone Girl therefore becomes a rather wild black comedy with thriller elements, plus some pointed commentary on people putting themselves through horrible hell to maintain status quo. It’s part Room at the Top (that finale!), part Vertigo (that twist!), all visually sumptuous and completely riveting. Delectably perverse a suspense picture as it is, its best attribute is the way its structure mirrors the characters’ lurid, sociopathic behavior: like them, it thrives on misdirection and manipulation by omitting, shuffling, rearranging information. We should be careful what we wish for when decrying the loss of films for adults in the mainstream — sometimes, grownup dysfunction is enough to bum you out for weeks.

As seems inevitable in a film this divorced from real life outside of its targeting of mass media, there are some problems here. Admittedly the movie’s sharper on its satire of television and net hysteria (all of which is glorious even when it’s almost too on-the-nose) than it is on marriage. There’s some cutting insight there but not enough emotional reality or pain to make it really sincere or risky. The screenwriter being a woman doesn’t excuse the tired “bitches be crazy” undercurrent of the plotline as it finally unfurls, especially in a culture so beset with skepticism over real-life accusations of rape and abuse. And Amy just doesn’t come across as enough of a real person to justify the movie’s use of her; wavering voiceover is one thing, but we can’t even trust any of the actual visual evidence we’re given of who this person is, which gives a perhaps appropriately cynical but narratively disappointing weakness to her as a character. We never met Rebecca de Winter yet I feel like I understood who she was more than I understand who Amy is.

Still, maybe it’s too much to ask a movie in which just about everything is illusory to touch on something grave and real — it stays on planet earth in fits and starts thanks to Margo, for instance — and I think the only missing touch that would have completed its astonishing Ace in the Hole-like viciousness would be for some wildly inappropriate song to play over the (beautifully timed) exit into credits. I nominate Ringo Starr’s “Weight of the World” but I’m open to other suggestions.

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