52nd New York Film Festival Review: ‘Gone Girl’

Directed by David Fincher
Written by Gillian Flynn
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Missi Pyle, & Tyler Perry

David Fincher’s darkly subversive ‘Gone Girl’ may traffic in prestige trappings and complex themes about modern marriage. But it’s first and foremost a master-class in raw, pulpy, adrenalized entertainment defined by shocking twists, vicious backstabbing, haunting imagery, and a bullet-train narrative that never slows down during its 149-minute runtime.

The film, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, introduces us to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a handsome, yet weary and schlubby everyman . Nick and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) – a statuesque, perfect-seeming upper-crust beauty – have relocated to Nick’s Missouri hometown after losing their high-paying New York jobs to the recession. A once ambitious writer, Nick now operates a run-down bar (wryly named “The Bar”) with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). In fact, everything about Nick and the film’s economically depleted Missouri landscape feels run-down, depressed by faded dreams and harsh realities.

Nick walks outside on the morning of his 5th wedding anniversary, dreading a day sure to bring another rousing bout of marital strife. After joining his ever-supportive twin Margo for some early morning liquid courage, Nick returns home to face his wife, but instead finds signs of a struggle and Amy missing. Nick calls the police to investigate, led by veteran detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens). Pretty soon, Nick finds himself in the middle of a sensational, nationally-televised abduction case in the vein of Elizabeth Smart or Hannah Graham. The media descends on Nick’s hometown and gloms onto the story, entranced by Amy’s abduction due to her classic blonde beauty, Upper East Side pedigree, and minor celebrity status: Amy was the inspiration for the heroine of ‘The Amazing Amy,’ her parents’ beloved children’s book series.

The story proceeds along a dual structure: Half the plot focuses on the ongoing investigation of Amy’s disappearance, and the other half, told in the form of flashbacks from Amy’s journal entries, dramatizes the full sweep of Amy and Nick’s troubled relationship, from their fairytale beginning to their later problems. Amy’s diary ultimately tells the story of an unraveling marriage to a dangerous man, forcing the audience to confront the possibility, if not likelihood, that our noirish antihero did in fact kill his wife.

In the present, Detective Boney’s investigation quickly reveals inconsistencies in Nick’s story. More importantly, Nick’s behavior seems a little off for someone who just lost the love of his life. He’s not crying, panicked, or openly grieving. In fact, he’s detached and unnervingly blasé about the proceedings, sometimes verging on downright smug. Both the audience and characters within the film soon realize that Nick is hiding something, and begin to wonder if he really is the killer. After all, haven’t TV, movies, and the media taught us that nine times out of ten, the husband did it? Flynn’s script deftly takes advantage of this preconception. “Gone Girl” shines a spotlight on the characters’ and viewers’ rush to judgment in this age of instantaneous information flow and omnipresent mass media, in which guilt or innocence is often determined by the talking heads on TV before all the facts are known.

Vicious TV journalist Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), a Nancy Grace surrogate, spearheads the public campaign against Nick and quickly turns him into the country’s most infamous man. More unexplained inconsistencies arise in Nick’s story, and the legal noose tightens around his neck, forcing him to turn to brilliant, famed defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) for help. A jarring revelation at the midpoint unearths the answers to some of the film’s key mysteries and sends the narrative rocketing towards its conclusion with an escalating array of twists, schemes, and violence.

Affleck is perfectly cast and does some of his best work as America’s punching bag. The same qualities that Affleck has been criticized for in the past – smugness and emotional detachment – work entirely in his favor here, as Nick suffers those same judgments from the media for not convincingly mourning his wife. In one resonant image, Nick is photographed next to Amy’s missing-person poster and makes the mistake of flashing the camera a classic, shit-eating Affleck-grin. But Affleck also manages to walk a tightrope, remaining thoroughly relatable and sympathetic, while conveying an undercurrent of discontentment, dishonesty, and potential violence to demarcate him as a possible killer. But while Affleck does a great job of holding the story together through his natural charisma and likability, his character makes some decisions towards the end of the film that are tough to believe. Even Affleck’s performance can’t quite make them land.

When it comes to Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy, I must tread lightly for fear of spoilers. Like Nick, Amy is an unreliable narrator, and the audience remains in a constant guessing game about whether to believe Amy’s journal entries or Nick’s very different version of events. Suffice it to say that Amy’s portrayal changes dramatically after certain truths about both her and Nick come to light. It’s after these revelations that Pike gets to display a dynamic magnetism and range – hot-to-cold, calculating-to-vulnerable, and seductive-to-scary – in a breakout performance that’s sure to lead to an Oscar nomination and other leading roles. It’s here that I must keep my mouth shut or risk saying too much.

The film is well-populated with a colorful and diverse supporting cast. Neil Patrick Harris is the mayor of Creepsville as Amy’s excessively doting, stalker ex-beau Desi. Tyler Perry shines as a slick celebrity lawyer. Carrie Coon gives the most purely sympathetic performance of the film as Nick’s loyal sister Margo, torn between her love for her brother and her growing fear that he killed his wife. Meanwhile, Kim Dickens elevates her blandly written detective character with a steady combo of Southern charm and palpable wariness.

Mr. Fincher’s craftsmanship is superb as always. The film’s editing is seamless and helps the bifurcated plot structure feel like a cohesive single narrative with ceaseless propulsion and momentum. Fincher’s visuals conjure a haunting atmosphere and distinct vision of suburbia depressed by images of failed businesses and a moribund economy. Some of Gone Girl’s sharpest societal critiques – in addition to its subversive assault on contemporary lynch-mob media culture – are about the various ways, both obvious and subtle, that the ’08 recession has impacted the lives, careers, and marriages of modern Americans. And of course, patient viewers will be rewarded with some of Fincher’s trademark, visceral images of violence.

Gone Girl” goes through a distinct transformation after its midpoint, changing from a realistic drama anchored by a recognizable marriage and a powerful central mystery into a heightened and increasingly batshit thriller. The film’s 2nd half features pulpy and spectacularly entertaining plot points that grow further and further removed from our everyday experiences. By the end, the film’s depiction of marriage as an outsized portrait of mutual destruction functions less as a recognizable relationship viewers can relate to, and more as a fascinating, hyperbolic metaphor for the lies, facades, and betrayals within our own marriages. The midpoint transition is tonally jarring and inorganic, but viewers will likely be having too much fun to care, as “Gone Girl’s” propulsive and unpredictable plot explodes towards its violent finish.

Fincher’s snapshot of modern marriage is ultimately cynical to the extreme, an attitude that some viewers, including this one, may find reductive, hollow, and cold, muting the film’s emotional impact rather than enhancing it. “Gone Girl” is ultimately more successful as a spellbinding example of narrative propulsion and unapologetic pulp entertainment than as a prestige film with an emotionally satisfying story or deep insights into our daily lives.

Jason Teich

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