Fans of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel will be more than satisfied with David Fincher’s screen version of it. “Gone Girl” is extremely faithful to the book—as one might expect, as the adaptation was done by the author herself—and she and the director have found fairly elegant solutions for transferring the original’s structural surprises into cinematic terms.
Those unfamiliar with the book might not be quite so enthusiastic, however, not because of what the film is—in fact it’s much more than adequate in every major respect—but because of what it isn’t. It’s being portrayed in trailers and advertisements essentially as a mystery—a whodunit, or perhaps more precisely a “did-he-do-it?” The answer to that question is provided long before the picture concludes, at the end of what might be thought of as the first act of a three-act narrative. The rest is explanation and what can be described as an ironic reversal.
In all of this “Gone Girl” has a good deal in common with Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which also offered its big revelation early on, and then toyed with viewers by becoming a dark study of romantic obsession. People tend to forget now, when that film has come to be considered a major masterpiece, that when it was first released audiences and critics alike were distinctly cool to it. “Girl” isn’t as deep a film as “Vertigo”—its primary themes have to do with such tabloid matters as marital infidelity, spousal revenge and the tawdriness of modern media culture. But in following Hitchcock’s lead from a storytelling standpoint, it risks the same sort of pubic displeasure that his film did back in 1958. Of course, it’s much less disturbing in terms of what it says about human nature—indeed, its conclusions in that regard are rather flippant, even tawdry. That makes it far less challenging to the audience than “Vertigo” was, and so it probably won’t suffer a similar fate.
On a purely aesthetic level, moreover, Fincher’s film, though polished, isn’t the equal of the visually voluptuous “Vertigo.” But it’s still a quality product. It has the well-crafted surface of all the director’s work, with splendid cinematography (by Jeff Cronenweth), production design (by Donald Graham Burt) and art direction (by Sue Chan). It’s adroitly edited by Kirk Baxter—a considerable accomplishment, given the narrative complexities and the relatively stately, brooding pace that Fincher’s adopted. And to complement the often striking images it boasts an atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, even though—especially at the start—the sound mix seems a bit off, so that the throbbing bass sometimes overwhelms the dialogue. (And to be sure, no one matches Bernard Herrmann.)
Thus far, of course, this review has danced around the question of plot. That’s because saying very much about it almost necessitates spoilers. But the basic premise of the story is made clear in the trailer. In a small Missouri town, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home one morning to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing and the living room in disorder. He calls in the police, and Detective Rhonda Birney (Kim Dickens) arrives to investigate, accompanied by her assistant Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit). Ben’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), with whom he runs a tavern, offers him a shoulder to lean on, though she’s generally brusque and matter-of-fact. The missing woman’s sophisticated parents Rand and Marybeth (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), who utilized their daughter as the model for their best-selling series of books about “Amazing Amy,” arrive from New York. Along with Nick, they become the public faces in a media campaign to enlist the community in the search for Amy, which include searches of the area, television appearances and candlelight vigils with supporters.
But things soon change for Nick as suspicions that he might have killed his wife take hold, fueled by incendiary cable-TV broadcaster Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle, doing a broad parody of Nancy Grace, who’s already a kind of parody in real life) and by the insinuations of Noelle Hawthorne (Casey Wilson), a neighbor who claims to have been Amy’s best friend. Before long the tide of public opinion has shifted, and Nick finds it necessary to enlist the services of famed defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). He’ll come in useful when Nick is actually arrested for murder, which occurs after the discovery of Amy’s diary, whose entries suggest that the Dunne marriage wasn’t quite so perfect as it looked from the outside—something that the picture’s very first scene, in which Dunne muses about bashing his wife’s head in, has implied from the start.
The diary has actually been part of the film even before Detective Boney finds it, however, because throughout we’ve heard (and seen) excerpts from it, which serve as the basis for flashbacks portraying the couple’s meeting, courtship and marriage in Manhattan, their financial difficulties there, and their decision to move back to Nick’s Midwestern hometown when his mother is diagnosed with cancer. The entries go downhill from there, portraying Nick as an increasingly directionless fellow prone to reckless spending and even violence, a man whom Amy had come to fear. And a fifth-anniversary game in which Amy had left behind a series of clues for Nick to solve only provides more fuel for the fire.
It wouldn’t be fair to go much further than this, but it can be noted that a few other characters will prove important to the remainder of the narrative. One is Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), a wealthy but strange man whom Amy once accused of stalking and is still obsessed with her. Another is Shawn Kelly (Kathleen Rose Perkins), a college student who’s drawn to older men. And two others are Jeff (Boyd Holbrook) and Greta (Lola Kirke), a couple of low-life grifters whose apparent affability can take a sudden turn. How they all figure into the twists and turns of the plot is something you’ll have to discover for yourself—if you don’t already know from having read the book. Suffice it to say that things grow increasingly lurid and—let’s face it—incredible as the plot metastasizes. The misdirection even extends beyond the screen to rumors about the sorts of changes Flynn and Fincher may have made to the ending. There are also occasional spurts of violence, most notably in a bedroom scene where the blood flows freely; and what the story says about female wiles and powers of emasculation might give some viewers pause. Yet through it all, Fincher’s film will undoubtedly keep you engrossed even as the plot grows increasingly implausible.
It helps immeasurably that Fincher gets very strong performances from his leads. A perfectly-cast Affleck nicely conveys the dark undercurrents that bubble beneath Nick’s regular-guy surface, so that despite the sympathy the first act builds for him, one can never be entirely certain of his innocence; his creepily sinister smile is a particular asset here. Pike is a revelation in terms of range, managing to run the gamut from big-city snootiness through fish-out-of-water edginess to down-home ordinariness. And through it all she registers Amy’s icy intelligence. The rest of the cast is exemplary too, with Dickens and Coon embodying the rough, no-nonsense directness of both their characters while Harris plays at the opposite extreme, all affected hauteur. And Perry lends the smoothly confident lawyer a welcome dose of humor that will make Bolt an instant crowd pleaser.
“Gone Girl” is an entertaining movie with an intriguingly intricate plot, but it’s really nothing more than a slick, well-manufactured potboiler that ends up more as an expression of the culture it depicts than serious commentary, or satire, on it. It certainly holds one’s interest over its two-and-a-half hour span, but is unlikely to have the staying power of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, structural cousin to it though it may be.