Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's chart topping 2012 pop-lit thriller, may seem like a strange adaptation choice for the likes of David Fincher, but looking back through his filmography it's not too far out of the ordinary. Fight Club is an adaptation of a convoluted, plot-twisting novel—though Chuck Palaniuk may skew a little more highbrow than Flynn, their books are fairly comparable, both violent, mesmerizing, and full of twists. Last year's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo falls in the same camp, and his other most ambitious works are all adaptations as well; Zodiac and The Social Network are both based on nonfiction books and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ostensibly based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. All of Fincher's strongest works have come from adaptations, and the tremendous resonance of these films may do something to assuage the auteurist myth of the writer/director as the only route to make truly great films
Director: David Fincher
Producers: Ceán Chaffin, Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth
Editor: Kirk Baxter
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit
US Premiere: September 26, 2014 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 3, 2014
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
This newest Fincher adaptation is one of his finest—one part wry whodunit, one part action thriller, topped off with a terrifying character study into one of its major protagonists. This is a hard review to write because of how shattering these implications are—like Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955), this film might as well have a closing intertitle reading “Don’t be a devil and spoil what you just saw,” since so much of the film’s pleasure comes from knowing nothing. If any of you, like me, have avoided Flynn's novel thus far, I highly recommend keeping it that way until after seeing the film. Fincher's careful translation (I assume) of the source material ups the stakes and makes every moment thrum with resonant suspense that would lessen if you already knew where the plot was headed. This is his best film since Zodiac, which is itself a masterpiece, and he reaches levels of suspense that rival even Hitchcock.
The film opens on Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a Midwestern-born writer, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), a New Yorker, dealing with the stress of their collapsing marriage in a small Missouri town. But when Amy disappears under mysterious circumstances—on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, no less—we are left in limbo (along with police investigators) as to whether or not Nick is responsible. Our perspective is close enough to read every emotion on Nick's face but not close enough to know whether or not he did it, and the drama is indeed much like a Hitchcock film, with its fascination with “the perfect crime” as the forensic team scrubs the house for clues and its close emotional portrait of the woeful potential villain. The question remains, though, is this The Wrong Man or is it Shadow of a Doubt? Is Nick a masterful sociopath, playing with our emotions to try to appear innocent, an unfortunate victim of unbelievable coincidences (as clues increasingly mount pointing to his guilt), or is there some sort of conspiracy? The investigators, a competent duo of Midwestern detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit), approach the disappearance as we do—baffled and suspicious. Detective Rhonda Bone (Dickens) has a bit of Marge Gunderson to her with her canny sleuthing and her folksy down-to-earth affect, and she makes a perfect surrogate for our entrance into the story.
Intercut with this investigation and the media hoopla surrounding it (a Nancy Grace figure picks up the story after an ill-timed photo of Nick smiling at a press conference seems to indicate his guilt) is the story of Nick and Amy's romance, narrated by Amy in her journal. After a charming flirtation and genuine happiness (the couple accidentally got each other the same thing for their first wedding anniversary!) we watch the entries get more and more negative—lonelier, more resentful, more harsh—all leading up to the moment of Amy's disappearance. Their relationship seems to be headed toward a breaking point, with much of Amy's anxiety derived from a subconscious fear of physical violence. This film does an excellent job building that fear as constant and subconscious, a haunting spectre lurking behind every word or gesture, the terrifying truth for too many relationships. But then, after about 40 minutes of this building drama, the plot switches completely. The central mystery is revealed, but unlike so many tacky mysteries, this isn't a denouement, this is just another beginning.
Like most of Fincher's great films, Gone Girl throws three act structure out the window, dividing the film into several sections, all of which carry a different tone—suspense, mystery, action, levity, complexity—and all of which follow seamlessly after one another. Each has its own arc, and their indeterminate length makes the whole film seem like it lasts much longer than 149 minutes, but not in a bad way. It's as if we truly have spent weeks with these characters, and as we walk bleary-eyed from the theater, the world looks a little different.
Much of the smoothness is due to Fincher's impeccable direction—old school cinematic tricks like intricate camera movements and graphic matches abound—but the impact of the incredible score by composer Trent Reznor cannot be overstated. Fincher has tapped Reznor's talent on his last three films, and the minimalist electronic simplicity builds up the emotional punch of every scene—here's to hoping their fruitful collaboration continues.
If this film has any real weaknesses, they lie in the script, penned by Gillian Flynn herself so that no ardent fans can accuse it of being an improper adaptation. Some lines just have a little too much of the snide wordiness that pop-lit writers can get away with. Nick's twin sister Margo (Carry Coon) tells him, "Of course I'm with you, I've been with you since before we were even born" and it reads a little false when performed in front of a camera, like the actors and director spent dozens of takes trying to get the right inflection so it won't sound trite. But for the most part the script is simpler, allowing the characters to live and breathe in between the lines.
I find myself unable to speak about much of the film's later events without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that as the story continues, it gets more complex, more convoluted, and the relationships weave a more interesting web. It may be a little too much of a thriller to be a contender for Best Picture (plus, Boyhood may already have that one locked down), but it is one of Fincher's strongest efforts and should not be discounted. And unless you have a sophisticated surround sound system, you should see this one in theaters, where Reznor’s score can rumble down to your bones.