“Re-alignment of perception” is a notion hot-shot defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) believes is the key to saving the neck of his client, the beleaguered and possibly wife-murdering Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). This idea is central to the narrative of Gone Girl, which takes the disappearance of a seemingly devoted wife and continues to realign our perception of events through each new revelation.
Nick and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) smugly believe themselves to be the perfect couple. But when recession prompts a move from NYC to the relative backwaters of Carthage, Missouri, the strain of the transition takes its toll on their marriage. And when Amy disappears on their 5th anniversary, leaving an iron hot on the board and a roomful of broken glass, police fear the worst. Husband Nick is soon swept up into the ensuing media storm where he is alternately seen as the saintly bereaved husband and the lying cheating wife-killer.
Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel was quite the phenomenon, a darkly humorous page-turner, that kept the reader guessing with every twist and turn of the plot. David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) has a track record of excelling with twisted material, and he seems the perfect choice for director, or at least, the obvious one. He doesn’t disappoint with his deft handling of plot, tone and pacing.
Tone is key here, and Gone Girl fluctuates between thriller, horror story, black comedy, satire and cautionary tale. Fight Club illustrated Fincher’s adept mastery of tone and he captures the whip-smart cynical style of the original with little deviation. Every tiny visual detail is deliciously perfect in his recreation of Flynn’s world. But all in all, the film perhaps stays a little too close to Flynn’s flawed, absorbing novel for its own good.
The structure is a pastiche of different perspectives on the developing events following Amy’s disappearance/murder, incorporating flashbacks from the beginning of Nick and Amy’s relationship leading up to the present day, when events align in a linear fashion. The entire work is an exploration of the unreliable narrator, and once you know the ‘facts’ of the story they are impossible to forget, making the book the ultimate spoiler for the movie.
This makes it difficult to gauge exactly how the film will be experienced by those fresh to the story, however the narrative toys effectively with casting shadows of doubt, and will probably engage the uninitiated in all the narrative head-games of Flynn’s bestseller. That said, one abrupt realignment of perspective is handled very bluntly by Fincher, and feels cringe-worthy, a showy ‘ta-da!’ moment where a more nuanced and gradual approach might have sustained the sense of intrigue and credibility.
Thematically the film explores the inherent difficulties of living in the context of a marriage, especially one that is in the process of unraveling. The emerging battle of the sexes verges on the clichés Nick and Amy so abhor at the beginning of their self-consciously cool romance, and their relationship gradually descends into a parade of tired sexist paradigms: is Amy simply too good for Nick, or is she a controlling shrew? Are all men pigs? Hath hell no fury like a woman scorned?
If these eventually come to border uncomfortably on misogyny, this is no accident. Populated with strong and weak characters of both genders, the film is completely self-aware and takes relish in the idea that when love becomes a battlefield, the smarter, stronger character will ultimately win – though the hard-won prize may be of questionable value. Make no mistake, this is a cynical, rather superficial film.
Absent at the heart of Gone Girl is any intimate relationship with our ambiguous leads, Nick and Amy. They convincingly act out every sequence in the book, but to come to life on screen, these characters need more space to develop and deepen. Perhaps a few minutes of screentime with each simply being, with less doing, would allow the audience to bridge the divide and find a level of connection that would make them more real and the events that follow more shocking. But then that’s not really Fincher’s style.
Affleck nevertheless does a fine job portraying Nick as the inscrutable murder suspect, or possibly the hapless maligned innocent. The numerous supporting characters are all well-portrayed and will not disappoint fans of the novel. As in the book, it is Go (Carrie Coon), Nick’s twin sister, who is the most alive and real, seeming to come from another film entirely than Amy, with whom she barely interacts.
Pike is certainly well-cast as an Amy type, or a type-A, and her performance is quite good, but as in the book at a certain point the character begins to waver on the edge of plausibility. Had Pike perhaps made Amy more her own creation and less the embodiment of Flynn’s, adding something here and taking away something there, Gone Girl might have surpassed its source material, moving beyond a deliciously twisted narrative to become a haunting and unforgettable work.
Even so the film is more believable than the book, not least because of Flynn’s considered adaptation of her original drawn-out ending, which she wisely chooses to simplify by leaving out some hard-to-swallow elements that felt silly in the original. Despite this judicious restraint, the ending of the film skates too much on the surface, where some great performances could have spun out moments of spine-tingling tension from seemingly mundane situations.
At this point the film can’t really decide how seriously it wants to be taken, there is a tongue-in-cheek element which prefers to draw out the irony of its own elaborate sick joke, rather than taking the situation in absolute earnest.
The film boasts an appropriately unsettling atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and fine cinematography Jeff Cronenweth, which in Lynchian tradition creates a sinister magic around the former marital household, the suburban town of Carthage, and a dilapidated abandoned shopping mall populated by junkies.
Over all, Gone Girl is very good, perhaps a little better than the skillfully conceived and executed book. Like the book it is intriguing, entertaining, warped, smart, funny and cynical – but for all that essentially implausible. Audiences are sure to enjoy the ride in exactly the spirit in which it is intended.
But with a few more risks and a little more space between the action we could have had a much better film. Maybe even a new classic.