When Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (the novel) was published it 2012, it was an instant sensation; the kind of the literature that is complexly plotted, but written simply enough to appeal to the widest possible audience (wow that sentence sounds kind of elitist, huh? Oh well. If the monocle fits…). It was practically optioned to be a film before it was even released. Modern auteur David Fincher loves a good crime story (Se7en, Zodiac) and a good adaptation (Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), so a book about a missing woman and the husband who may have done something terrible seems like the perfect match for the director.
Future Batman Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a good ole’ Missouri boy who returns home one day to find signs of a struggle and no sign of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). The police (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) quickly get involved, and soon Amy’s disappearance is national news. It is not long before evidence and information about the state of the relationship lead suspicious eyes to be cast upon Nick, and the characters inside the movie won’t be the only ones throwing shade in his direction.
Before I go any further I will warn that the rest of my review may include thoughts that can be interpreted as spoilers. I won’t reveal any plot specifics, but in order to properly articulate my feeling about the film I may need to use specific pronouns (and nouns in general) that convey more than I intend. I’m very sensitive to spoilers myself – my neurotic brain, which is always running, makes huge leaps (that are often correct) based on trailers, innocuous details, and even personal opinions about movies – so I know how frustrating all of this can be. If you’re like me, turn back now. I hope you will read the rest of this after you have seen the movie. If you have seen it already, or if you just don’t care, let us continue.
That question of how much the viewer ought to trust Nick is an integral part of the story. The narrative is divided into parts. We see the present day, the investigation from Nick’s perspective, while we also get flashbacks via Amy’s diary entries from the last five-plus years. There are contradictions between how Nick describes things and how Amy wrote them, but that is the nature of humanity – every person’s unique perspective yields a different view of events. These contradictions are key to the audience’s varying trust or distrust of Nick.
Fincher and his editor Kirk Baxter use these alternating timelines to great effect, more than once cutting from a happy moment in the past to the bleak present day, effectively creating the desired juxtaposition. But the finished product is not so effective at using this structure to create doubt. Here’s where I admit that I really only read the first 100 pages of the book (I’m an unreliable narrator – also a theme in this story). Ultimately there was not enough in that first chunk to draw me in, but what I enjoyed most of what I did read was Nick’s first-person narration, which included enough vague references and secrecy to really make you wonder what he is hiding. The key to this dynamic comes from living in Nick’s head, however, which is not easily accomplished on-screen. Instead we have Ben Affleck – in what I truly believe is one of his best performances (after Daredevil, of course) – committing so hard to the physically portrayable aspects of Nick’s personality, that much of the ambiguity is lost.
So an aspect of the script (also written by Flynn) is lost, but Fincher wants it that way. Now he can focus on the procedure and investigation, which he does oh so well. This isn’t just a police procedural, though (in fact I would have liked a little more time with Dickens’s Detectice Boney and Fugit’s Officer Gilpin). Tyler Perry’s Tanner Bolt provides insight into the legal aspect of the situation, while Missi Pyle’s Nancy Grace analogue and Sela Ward’s more respectable journalist show us the approach of the media to such “event news.” Fincher and Flynn (two great names that sound great together) give us that point of view from every angle of the case, and I do mean every angle.
But these are specific perspectives. There has been a lot written in reaction to this film that says Gone Girl is a treatise on relationships and marriage. Goodness I hope not, because that outlook is not great. Gone Girl says a lot about one particular romance, and maybe in doing so it says more about the expectations we set for ourselves and each other, but I hesitate to put too much universality on the film’s shoulders, as that creates other problems. Problems of the feminine variety. Gone Girl is kind of misogynist. The female characters that we spend a significant amount of time with are depicted as incompetent or crazy, which seems to be a script problem more than anything else. Nick’s sister Margo (Carrie Coon) is only reasonable Y-chromosome-less presence in the movie, and she is depicted less as a “Woman” than she is as “Nick’s Twin.” I can’t give the movie credit for greater themes about relationships without being concerned by its (possibly unintentional) statements about women). I find the movie’s comments on perception and circumstantial assumptions to be much more effective.
So where does that leave us? With a tightly plotted and atmospherically directed crime movie boasting strong, layered performances, especially from Pike, whose difficult role requires some heavy lifting to stay satisfying. She is mostly up to the task. Low-key humor keeps the movie from ever devolving completely into self-seriousness, but the over-arching tone is never sacrificed. Gone Girl may not be a great date movie, but it is worth your time. Oh, also Neil Patrick Harris is in it. And Scoot McNairy, who is having a prolific year. And Boyd Holbrook, who is having a prolific couple months. And Casey Wilson. So much to take in. Ah well. Back to sleep.