Film Review | Gone Girl

Zeitgeist-hunter David Fincher adapts Gillian Flynn's bestselling abduction (or is it?) thriller with his usual atmospheric flair, even if it stops short of being the razor-sharp Hitchcock pastiche it wants to be.

In absence and in health: Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck give career-best performances in David Fincher’s thriller
In absence and in health: Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck give career-best performances in David Fincher’s thriller

Marriage is hard work. This ingrained truism propels Gillian Flynn’s screen adaptation of her bestselling mystery novel Gone Girl, with director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network) lending his trademark atmosphere of unease to a story that appears to be all about genre thrills but that also strives to make points about modern marriage and the media circus.

Once a blissfully happy journalist couple, Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) marriage grinds to a halt once the recession hits, leaving them jobless.

A further twist of the knife comes with the news that Ben’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer – forcing the couple of move to Ben’s hometown of Missouri so that they may be closer to his dying mother.

Their only financial lifeline is Amy’s trust fund – her parents have made a fortune out of publishing a series of children’s books modelled after their daughter – ‘Amazing Amy’ – and have funnelled some money her way.

On the couple’s fifth anniversary, Nick returns home after a drink at the bar he runs along with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) to find that Amy has disappeared.

An investigation led by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) unveils details that begin to paint the ostensibly innocent Nick in an unpleasant light, and the unassuming Nick finds himself outwitted by a media campaign eager to depict him as the villain of the piece. Meanwhile, both Nick and the police appear caught in a cat-and-mouse game that may point to Amy’s whereabouts… and hint at a sinister underbelly to their marriage.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock of the past year or so – or are, understandably enough, not that interested in bestselling crime thrillers – you’ll know that Gone Girl is a twist-heavy book: one that relies not just on concluding stingers but whose middle section swivels the narrative quite dramatically.

As such it’s almost impossible to avoid discussing it without a spoiler or two leaking out. Though I’ll do my best to keep it all under wraps, tread carefully as you read if you want to go into this thriller entirely innocent: a few revelations are bound to slip through.

Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems – another cliché that Flynn and Fincher, who sound like a detective agency already, stretch to its absolute limit.

Though the main raison d’etre is such that we’re presented with both ‘versions’ of the marriage by the couple in question, we’re with Nick from the word go, and Affleck’s performance is a genial blend of the oafish and the subtle.

Always an actor who walks a fine line between Regular Joe and Hollywood Hunk, he finds a perfect outlet for his talents in Nick – ostensibly a slovenly schlub coasting on his wife’s pedigree, he’s forced to assume a slicker role to parry the media assault.

And in the opposing corner… Rosamund Pike was never a particularly great actress – mostly being a pretty English Rose with a set of distracting pearly whites. But she’s wonderfully served by Fincher’s trademark stylisation. Presented more as a (ghostly?) presence than a fully fleshed out person, Pike plays up her flat delivery to haunting effect.

For all the aura of dread that suffuses the film, there is a palpable – if wicked – joy in its skewering of gender roles within marriage. There’s just one diary entry that exposes Amy’s position on the social polemic at play – the diary, incidentally, being a key MacGuffin for the story – but it’s a mordantly funny takedown of expectations we may have of our spouses in these ever-fluctuating modern times.

It’s here that the script truly edges towards Fincher’s overall artistic programme. Barbed and perceptive, the dialogue, though regrettably mumbled for most of the running time, and though not penned by stage and television veteran Aaron Sorkin like The Social Network was, deliberately resists romantic and macho clichés.

The plot may be loaded with extravagant developments that require something of a leap of faith – a key character possesses almost Sherlockian intelligence and sense of forward planning – but the characters feel as lived in and real as they can be.

The keen intelligence and flawed moral make-up of our protagonists belongs less to the superhero friendly multiplex milieu than it does to the tantalisingly ambiguous world of HBO-style TV drama.

But Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography ensures that this is a thoroughly cinematic experience; once again playing up Fincher’s penchant for chiaroscuro settings that appear primed to contain hidden threats. The soundtrack by Fincher regulars Trent Reznor (he of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross helps too – sometimes barely audible and at other times thunderously obtrusive, it ensures that we never let our guard down.

For all its ambitious scope and expertly attuned atmosphere however, there is still something missing from the picture. Flynn and Fincher have a kitchen sink approach: the film’s visual and sonic palette may be tastefully manipulated but its plot twists and multiple perspectives can sometimes feel bloated and noisy.

The meat-and-potatoes source material – striving for accessible verisimilitude – clashes with Fincher’s stylised look and feel which, by dint of Pike’s glacial Amy for the most part, appears to be going for a razor-sharp Hitchcock pastiche in parts.

Gone Girl is a boringly fitting Oscar contender since it ticks a number of Academy-friendly boxes: appropriation of a bestselling novel, a critical darling director and a clutch of desirable stars on its poster (notable character actors Tyler Perry, Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris also get their chance to shine). But this shouldn’t make it any less of an intriguing prospect. Balancing populist fare with substantial themes is never an easy task.

But Fincher, a subtle provocateur, seems more than up to it. 

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