My inner cynic was wary about the high praise recently bestowed on Gone Girl, David Fincher’s latest suspense thriller, given that it was released after a relatively quiet post-summer period in which one average film after another seemed to tumble half-heartedly into cinemas. I’m not intending to disparage those who consider the film to be among the better releases this year, but there’s definitely a pattern whereby the celebrations surrounding the first half-decent movie after weeks and weeks of mainstream dross always seem a little inflated, to me at least. Still, I tried to keep my expectations for this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller at a reasonable level, despite the plethora of positive reviews appearing online and in print.
For the uninitiated, the story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), whose philandering husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is the prime suspect in the ensuing murder investigation. For reasons obvious to anyone who has read the book or watched the film, Gone Girl never gets as far as the courthouse, with Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own novel for the big screen) concentrating on the immediate aftermath of, as well as the years and events leading up to, Amy’s sudden disappearance. The story swiftly develops into a trial-by-media, in which writer and director produce a withering assessment of the USA’s talking head news anchors, as well as the judgmental sector of society that accepts the media’s opinions as gospel. Rather than simply standing back and letting the investigation in Gone Girl take place, somewhat predictably the media heavily influences it, with Amy’s disappearance making the national news due to her link to popular children’s book character ‘Amazing Amy’ (created by her parents, played by Lisa Banes and David Clennon). Public opinion turns against Nick and the management of his public image quickly becomes a priority ahead of the search for his missing wife.
Clearly taking aim at the media’s thirst for gossipy information as well as its ability to operate without impunity, the story highlights the damage that can be done, painting a poor picture of the law enforcement agencies whose moves are heavily scrutinized by eagle-eyed news crews; by the end of the film both the local police and the FBI are frozen, with officers afraid of pressing forward with a certain line of investigation for fear of looking incompetent.
Gone Girl is a twisty tale with the snakes well camouflaged in the grass. Important facts about both Nick and Amy are slowly eked out, encouraging the viewer to reassess any early opinions formed about the pair, before it is suddenly revealed that we – like the media in the movie – are not aware of the full picture. To most outsiders Nick and Amy are (were) the perfect couple. We see their early years via flashbacks related to Amy’s diary entries, which detail their initial meeting in New York and subsequent blossoming love, eventually leading to marriage. When they move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, to be close to his dying mother and estranged father, the marriage begins to deteriorate and a considerable amount of stress is placed on the couple when they both lose their jobs. Financial problems and issues surrounding fertility and parenthood lead to unresolved bitterness, and both seem to be unhappy in the relationship as they approach their fifth anniversary. Amy’s diary entries slowly reveal her detachment while lecturer Nick enters into a long affair with one of his students, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski).
As the police’s missing person / murder investigation continues in the present, Nick – who wanted a divorce before Amy went missing – struggles to hide his indifference to Amy’s plight, failing to convince at a press conference arranged to appeal for help, and arousing further suspicion when he is pictured smiling with an opportunistic local resident. His closest allies are his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), media-savvy attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and, to an extent, the local officers investigating the case (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit), but all of these appear to have less control over Nick’s destiny than cable TV hosts Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who closely scrutinize the suspect’s movements and even go so far as suggesting his relationship with his sister is incestuous.
Complicating the investigation further is the looming presence of Amy’s wealthy ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a man who supposedly tried to commit suicide when she broke up with him years earlier, and who repeatedly sent her letters in the interim despite the presence of a restraining order. He is another suspect, having recently moved back to nearby St Louis, and the question of Nick’s guilt or innocence gradually becomes more difficult to assess as a result.
Fincher has delighted in the past when revealing that the initial impressions we have of his characters are somehow incorrect, and this fact will play on the mind of anyone with knowledge of the director’s prior work when they watch Gone Girl. We first see Nick carrying a ‘Mastermind’ board game into the bar he runs with Margo (a local business that was paid for by Amy). An early clue, perhaps, or merely an unsubtle red herring? Thankfully for much of this film we cannot be 100% sure of the answer to such questions, as suspicious behaviour, unreliable narrators, mounting evidence and lying characters all serve to cloud our judgment. The eked out revelations lead us gradually through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, and as we follow the investigation we also discover more about Amy’s character and her own actions leading up to the disappearance. Flynn’s novel is filled with cliffhangers and twists, and these are revealed at unexpected moments here, allowing the writer and director to form a clear three act structure with the main ‘shocks’ providing obvious breaks.
Unfortunately I have some issues with the film’s pacing, which I felt to be uniform for the most part and – as a result – more and more frustrating as time ticked on. The occasionally plodding nature of the film – mirrored in Affleck’s occasionally plodding performance of an occasionally plodding character – meant that I began to lose interest after a while, and although the twists are clearly designed to pull the audience back in, they also suck all of the credibility out of the story.
I’m also a little perplexed about the across-the-board praise the two leads have received for their acting here. I’m not suggesting that either is awful, but there are times during the film when both Affleck and Pike are very good and times when they are not quite so convincing. They both nail the scenes that show the couple in a bitter, downward spiral, but their portrayals of younger versions of the two characters as they fall in love are middling. Still, presumably both of these performances were difficult for the actor in question to judge: it’s clear that great care has been taken in maintaining poker faces, and Pike (icily misleading) and Affleck (dumbly misleading) do their utmost to ensure that audiences walk away with conflicted feelings about what they have witnessed, but the final act in particular is a challenging one to get right and I’m not convinced after one viewing that either managed to carry it off successfully.
Fincher’s latest is at its most gripping when it veers strongly towards the police procedural, although it lacks the weight and the subtlety of Zodiac, which is a far superior film all round. The two films do share a common cold, green-grey look, which also brings to mind the earlier, underrated Panic Room, and the director once again uses a meticulous production design to create an upper-middle class section of a city where the lavish interiors and outward bonhomie cannot fully hide the darker acts and thoughts that occur. The colours suit the tone, which is enhanced further by the occasionally-discordant score supplied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Gone Girl is more than just a precisely-made ‘whodunnit’ with a twist; as much as anything else it is a satire of the media’s influence on such events, and about the failure of modern marriage and family life, but the overall package of all these things together somehow feels underwhelming – as if it should work better than it does – and disjointed. Much like the characters, it’s difficult to get to grips with the true nature and identity of the film.
I liked the bursts of humour, and one or two vaguely shocking moments of violence are handled well, but I have serious doubts about Fincher’s ability to direct the more upbeat scenes required in this story: the flashbacks of Nick and Amy falling in love, for example, are as cheesy as they come, and their first kiss in a sugar storm nearly made me splurt out my overpriced pick n’ mix in disbelief. Should we really be seeing something that looks like it has been lifted straight out of a Richard Curtis film here? The director is seemingly more at ease when creating a sense of menace, and Gone Girl is at its best when Fincher’s dark side is in full effect. The final scene, for example, is a deliciously malevolent repetition of the opening scene and the opening lines, but the context has shifted completely and the words spoken are now laced with a dual meaning. I like Sinister David better.
Overall, then, a sprinkling of irritation and disappointment mixed with a slug of admiration and enjoyment. Confused? Me too. I was non-plussed by Zodiac the first time I saw it and I was wrong, but I’m not so sure a couple of viewings would force a similar re-appraisal here.
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry
Running Time: 149 minutes