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Gone Girl

D: David Fincher / 149m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Sela Ward, Scoot McNairy

One morning in July, Nick Dunne (Affleck) comes home to find signs of a violent struggle and his wife, Amy (Pike), missing.  He calls the police and when they arrive, Detective Boney (Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Fugit), soon find further evidence that something bad has happened.  Soon, Amy’s face is everywhere, and while it’s assumed at first that she’s been abducted, Nick’s behaviour doesn’t ring true and he becomes a suspect in what may be his wife’s death.  With evidence building up against him, Nick and his sister Margo (Coon) try to figure out what’s going on, but they’re stumped at every turn.  It’s only when they make a startling discovery in a woodshed on Margo’s property that they begin to realise what’s really happening.

At this point in the movie, as well as in Gillian Flynn’s original novel, there is a major plot twist, and both incarnations of the story begin to move in a new direction, opening out what is a fairly claustrophobic small-town mystery into something that strains credulity and begins to founder under the weight of its attempts to be cleverer than it needs to be.  There are many, many problems with the plot against Nick Dunne, not least Nick’s conveniently inappropriate responses in front of the police and the media, but also the introduction of Amy’s diary.  This offers a disjointed view of Nick and Amy’s marriage that’s meant to put doubts in the minds of the audience as to Nick’s innocence, but which has its effectiveness rendered null and void by the aforementioned plot twist.

It’s not unusual to watch a thriller and find yourself questioning the logic of what’s happening, but with Gone Girl it’s a constant process.  There’s little doubt that Flynn’s tale of marital discord has a degree of cultural relevancy, and her examination of the hidden duplicities and feelings within a marriage is sharper than expected, but ultimately, what we’re talking about here is an above averagely presented potboiler that marries trenchant observations on the media and modern marriage with more traditional thriller elements, and which muddles its way through to an ending which can be seen as either depressingly nihilistic or just desserts for a character – Nick – who has been outclassed from the beginning (though it seems at first glance that it’s all happening because the person doing it all really holds a grudge).

Gone Girl - scene

What happens in the movie’s second half, as Nick attempts to regain control of his life, and defend himself from the police and the media, is confidently arranged and presented by Fincher, but with what the audience knows is happening elsewhere, the movie maintains its measured, effective pacing but at the expense of the tension that’s been built up before.  It’s not the movie’s fault; it is, after all a very faithful adaptation by Flynn of her own novel, and Fincher seems happy to go along with the twists and turns and her reliance on dramatic licence to steer her characters through.  The weaknesses that plague the second half of the novel are present in the movie, and have the same effect: they make everything too unbelievable, and lead to a denouement that will either have audiences who haven’t read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that it?”, or audiences who have read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that still it?”

So – is Gone Girl then a bad movie?  The answer is very definitely No.  In Fincher’s hands, Gone Girl overcomes it’s cod-psychological thriller origins to become a dark, unsettling movie that picks at the conventional notions of love and marriage and finds murky, troubled waters flowing just below the surface.  As an examination of how two people can fall out of love with each other so easily, and be so ready to hurt each other in the process, the movie scores on all counts.  Nick and Amy, once so right for each other, are now adversaries, both looking to come out on top.  It’s an unfair fight; after all, if Nick was a box-cutter, he’d be the last one you’d use to open up something (he’s just not that sharp).  But Amy is sharp, smart as a whip in fact.  She’s Amazing Amy, the ultimate version of herself that her parents created when she was a little girl, a prodigy who always excels, who always ends up the winner, just because she’s Amazing Amy.  (Amy has always been in competition with her literary alter-ego, but the movie only mentions it in passing, while the novel explores the idea in greater, and more rewarding, depth.  It’s important to take in, though.)

Fincher excels at fleshing out the characters.  Nick is smug and stupid and reckless and self-satisfied and callow and foolish, and he has no idea how idiotically he behaves.  He’s like Bambi in a hunter’s sights, a prize just waiting to be claimed.  Affleck gives perhaps his best performance in years, earning our initial sympathy then dashing it to the ground in one superbly orchestrated scene that pulls the rug out from under the audience with undisguised pleasure.  Nick is twitchy, nervous, anxious, panicky – all the things you’d expect when someone is increasingly viewed as having killed their wife, but Affleck never puts a foot – or an inappropriate grin – wrong, imbuing Nick with an easy-to-warm-to naïveté that hardens as the movie plays out, his nervous energy transformed into a need for redemption in the public’s eye.  As mentioned before, Nick is a frustratingly obtuse character, but Affleck makes it a positive.  Even when Nick is doing or saying something witless, like posing with a woman for a selfie, it’s witless because it’s part of his nature, his way of dealing with people.  He’s like a puppy: he just wants to be loved.

Gone Girl - scene2

Conversely, Amy has always been loved, her parents’ books about her excelling alter-ego having made her treasured by default.  But that affection comes with an expectation that everyone around Amy will feel the same way about her, and if she’s in a relationship then it’s all or nothing, her way or no way.  Pike is a revelation here: as we learn more and more about Amy, she reveals more and more of the fractured person Amy really is.  It’s a role that would test any actress, but Pike – who probably wasn’t most people’s first choice for the part – claims the role as her own and pulls off a devastating performance.  She’s an actress who shows everything with her eyes; watch those and you’ll know everything her character is thinking and feeling, and some things you might not want to know.  She complements Affleck’s performance superbly, and she even manages to make some of Flynn’s more tortured dialogue sound appropriate and convincing.

In support, Dickens is excellent as the detective who never feels entirely satisfied with the way things keep happening, her experience telling her that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  As one of Amy’s old boyfriends, Desi Collings, Harris is awkwardly emotional and manipulative at the same time, the kind of creepy paramour most women would run a mile from.  Coon offers solid support as Nick’s sister but the role is  stereotypically rendered: she believes in him no matter what, even when he does something really stupid.  And Perry – as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt – has fun with a role that could have done with a bit more bluster, and he provides some much needed levity from the seriousness of the situation.

Marshalling the production into something much greater than its origins, though, is Fincher, a director able to elevate any material he’s given – save Alien³ (1992) – and make it riveting to watch.  In hand with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher makes Gone Girl an impressively visual experience, with shots and images that linger in the memory, and never so cleverly as with Nick and Amy’s home, a large, airy property that serves to highlight how far apart from each other they actually are.  Fincher also takes the more outlandish aspects of Flynn’s story and makes them more credible (though even he’s powerless to override the flimsy psychology that underpins the ending), and he makes the audience want to know what happens next, even if it might be obvious.  With two commanding central performances as well, Gone Girl cements Fincher’s reputation even further, and if at some point down the road Flynn decides to revisit Nick and Amy’s marriage, there shouldn’t be any question as to who should direct the movie version.

While it may divide some audiences – especially those who like their endings to be unequivocal (although this is, in its way) – Gone Girl is nonetheless superior movie-making, and should be regarded as such.  Fincher shows a complete understanding of the characters and their motivations, and delivers one of the most unexpectedly energised movies of the year.  It’s a thriller, yes, but at its heart it’s a movie about the expectations of love and the slow decay of a relationship, where passion turns to pain and love turns to hate.  And it’s relentless.

Rating: 8/10 – the script’s deficiencies knock this one down a point, but this is still very impressive stuff indeed; a taut, engrossing thriller that impresses with every scene, Gone Girl is that rare movie that grips the audience despite its faults and becomes a movie that everyone will want to talk about afterwards.