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OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

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.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry 
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 149 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.9

27 Responses to “0193 | Gone Girl”

  1. Mark Walker

    “…their first kiss in a sugar storm nearly made me splurt out my overpriced pick n’ mix in disbelief”. Haha! Great line, man. And great review. I admire your honesty here. Eveything I’ve heard so far has been nothing but praise but I’ll be sure to myself in check before approaching it. I was disappointed in The Social Network, didn’t like Benjamin Button much and totally avoided Dragon Tattoo. I think I’ll see what waits for me with this one. I did have high hopes and expectations but not so much now after your honest write-up. Good work bud! Cheers!

    Reply
    • Stu

      Cheers sir! I have read so many good reviews of this film there’s probably something in all that praise, but for me, not a great film. That said I think it’s a decent one, with a few decent performances, but that’s it. Sounds like you aren’t impressed by Fincher’s recent work at all. I like him but I passed on Benjamin Button and like you I steered clear of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Saw the Swedish version and quite liked that but not enough to watch a remake within a year or so, life’s too short!

      Reply
      • Mark Walker

        If youve seen Forest Gump then you get what Button is all about. Its practically the same story and unsurprisingly written by the same guy – Eric Roth.

        I have been less tahn impressed with his recent work and skipped Dragon Tattoo for the same reasons as you. The original was too fresh and damn good into the the bargain.

        Fincher was once one of my favourite directors but im a bit unsure now. However, Seven and Fight Club remain two of my favourite movies and Zodiac was pretty great too.

        Reply
        • Stu

          If I can get through life without ever seeing Forrest Gump 2 (or ever having to watch the original Forrest Gump again), then that’s got to be some kind of achievement!

        • Mark Walker

          To be honest, I remember liking Gump. Haven’t seen it in years though. Ive no idea how I’d feel now. I remember being pissed that it beat Pulp Fiction to the oscar though. Hated it for that 😉

        • Stu

          I still haven’t forgiven it … biggest robbery since Dances With Wolves beat GoodFellas! Even though DWW is a good film!

        • Stu

          Good shout. Wish we could see the names of the Academy members and find out who voted for what!

    • Stu

      Cheers buddy! Like I said on your review, B-grade Fincher is something I’ll definitely pay to see, any time. I think this is on the way to being a very good film but just falls short because of a couple of things.

      Reply
  2. CMrok93

    Fun, wild and exciting. But even while it may not be Fincher’s best, it’s still something I appreciated watching. Good review.

    Reply
    • Stu

      Thanks Dan. I enjoyed it too. It’s a fairly witty attack on the media at the times, although nowhere near as snarky as something like To Die For. I agree it’s not up there with Fincher’s best, but still pretty good.

      Reply
  3. cindybruchman

    Stu, I love your reviews! You are such a great writer. What’s your background? Did you go to film school? Where in the world are you? Just a fan, not a stalker 😉

    Reply
    • Stu

      Hey Cindy, apologies for the late reply, I’ve been away all weekend. And thanks very much! I used to write about music years and years ago but hadn’t really kept it up, though it was only ever a side thing and not my main job. I haven’t studied film at all although when I was at university in the 1990s I did take a 3-month module called ‘leading directors of American cinema’ as part of my English degree, which I think probably kickstarted my interest. I had a great tutor who had been a newspaper critic in England for years – I wish I could have studied under him longer!

      Reply
      • cindybruchman

        So I presume you’re British then. I lived in Scotland for a few years and studied Thomas Hardy in Dorset one summer–lots of pint drinking and after reading all of his works. 😉

        Reply
        • Stu

          That sounds very nice. Whereabouts in Scotland did you live? I live in the southeast of England at the moment but had a great holiday up there a few months ago.

        • cindybruchman

          I’ve been to Bath and Brighton–the usual places tourists go. Years ago. Scotland. I was stationed in the Navy at the northern east tip in Caithness County. Thurso. After so long, I finally return this upcoming summer! London, Edinburgh, Inverness (I love Inverness and Highlands) and will drive up to the coast again. Still haven’t been to the NW side.

        • Stu

          Ah I may well have been there around the same time – we went right up the west coast and then across to Inverness near the end. I’m keen to go again but maybe in a couple of years!

  4. scottydynamite

    I was unimpressed with this film as a whole but not disappointed. The twists were decent but not “Usual Suspects” great. I was waiting for a holy shit moment and besides the quickness of a certain characters death I was not surprised. I did like the fact that although there is a lot of crazy in the film I felt like you hated all the characters, besides maybe the police woman, everyone else was hatable. There was no hero in the film.

    Reply
    • Stu

      Hi Scotty, thanks for dropping in. I’d say that Nick’s sister was quite a sympathetic character – I felt quite sorry for her and the way this scenario just landed in her lap. But yeah, most of the others had their faults, major or minor, which is unusual. I liked the way the main twist happened at an unlikely moment – makes a change from it coming 5-10 minutes from the end in a thriller.

      Reply
  5. ckckred

    Nice review. I liked this more than you did as I saw it as Fincher returning to his roots. It’s not as strong as Zodiac, which I think is Fincher’s magnum opus, but a great movie nevertheless.

    Reply
    • Stu

      Thanks very much. I liked lots of elements of Gone Girl but just got (very) frustrated by the actions of the characters in the final act and (slightly) frustrated by a couple of other factors. I definitely agree it’s not as strong as Zodiac but I’d like to watch this again in a year or two and see how I feel then!

      Reply
  6. ruth

    Hi Stu, I like this more than you but I get where you’re coming from. I wonder how you’d feel about it on second viewing. Right now for me, I like this more than Zodiac.

    Reply
    • Stu

      Hi Ruth – high praise indeed! Good that you enjoyed it, it’s has obviously struck a chord with a lot of people. I just got a little annoyed with certain elements but otherwise it’s a very interesting film. I’ll definitely give it another try, but in a couple of years probably.

      Reply
  7. Todd Benefiel

    Haven’t seen this one yet, Stu, and not sure if I will. If anything, I’ll save it for a rental. I’ve liked a lot of Fincher’s work, but for some reason this doesn’t sound like anything I’d want to spend $10 on. Though as always I did enjoy the review…especially the ‘sugar storm’ bit, where I can only guess that a pick ‘n mix is something like a UK version of a popcorn & soda combo pack.

    Reply
    • Stu

      Thanks Todd, much appreciated as always! A pick n’ mix is just a bag of confectionery – which is usually overpriced in UK cinemas. Although I have to admit I used a little bit of artistic licence there: I actually smuggle my own sweets and snacks in these days, thereby sticking it to The Man in a tiny, tiny way.
      Anyway – definitely worth a rental at the very least, particularly if you like Fincher. I enjoyed this despite my frustrations with certain things.

      Reply

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