Film Review: Gone Girl (2014)

David Fincher once said that he has “always been interested in films that scar.” It’s easy to pick up on this ghoulish preoccupation in the director’s own output, with barely a chuckle or ray of sunlight to be found throughout his nine features.

Fincher’s latest opus, the supremely accomplished Gone Girl (adapted by novelist turned screenwriter Gillian Flynn – working from her own novel), once again features his well-known aesthetic darkness. His pessimism is there as well, with the film’s hard-boiled take on modern gender relations occasionally feeling so bitter and pointed that it threatens to enervate the viewer. Yet, underneath his film’s shadowy veneer of low-key lighting, and at the core of Flynn’s narrative razzle-dazzle, is a penetrating, topical look at contemporary identities as they relate to cultural institutions like marriage and work. Fueled by the best work Ben Affleck has perhaps ever done, not to mention a stellar turn by relative unknown Rosamund Pike, Fincher’s Gone Girl is one of his greatest efforts yet.

“Who are you?”

This is the question that dominates the first conversation between Affleck’s Nick and Pike’s Amy, when they meet at a New York party five years before the events of the film. In the context of the conversation the question is flirty and innocuous, but it soon begins to haunt the proceedings in a darkly sinister way. After a passionate courtship, Nick and Amy marry. However, five years on the relationship has soured considerably, and on the day of the couple’s wedding anniversary Nick returns to their vapid home only find that Amy has disappeared and that he has become one of the police’s prime suspects.

Gone Girl is one of the more pulpy and dense films to come out in a while, with oscillating points of view, unreliable narration and non-linear storytelling all being utilized. Thus, to describe all of the subtle nuances of the plot would dominate this review. The film’s heavily story-driven nature is also its least interesting quality. What is far more emotionally affecting is the film’s mood, evoked partially through Trent Reznor’s dark, unnerving score, which adds considerable power to the visuals.

Fincher’s film also maintains Flynn’s correlation of the tempestuous and unreliable 21st century economy and the marriage between Nick and Amy, capturing in the opening scenes all too familiar images of suburban homes ravaged by the financial meltdown. This provides the film with a grim backdrop in which to view how one’s world can often constrict and entrap, ultimately damaging the relationship to the self and others.

This elegiac synthesis of ideas resonates dramatically in the performances of the film’s central cast members – all of which are excellent. Occupying a key supporting role, which is a profound departure from much of his other work, Neil Patrick Harris has never been better as a mousey little creep from Amy’s past. Even more surprising is the work of Tyler Perry, who here abandons the grating buffoonery of Madea, for the delicious role of cackling attorney Tanner Bolt.

Not to be outdone, the film’s supporting females offer committed albeit less showy performances. Carrie Coon, playing Nick’s twin sister, is easily one of the film’s most endearing characters, humanizing an otherwise chilly story about entirely unlikable people. Also formidable is the work of Kim Dickens – playing the lead detective investigating Amy’s disappearance. Evoking shades of Marge Gunderson, and nearly transcending the constraints of an underwritten role, Dickens provides another source of indomitable yet non-sanctimonious goodness.

Yet, for as good as these performers are, Gone Girl is defined primarily by the work of Affleck and Pike, who both imbue their characters with a disturbing level of ambiguity. Affleck for one has never found a role that speaks with greater specificity to the way the public perceives him. His Nick is on one hand a charming, suave devil (particularly in the story’s earliest sections), but later on reveals additional layers that begin to counter this perspective. By the time the story moves towards its midpoint the sympathies one has for the man have been inverted, with every word his character utters making him come off like a complete asshole.

And as for Rosamund Pike, well, there is a lot to be said here, but very little that won’t involve devastating spoilers for those who haven’t already read the book. Let’s just say that if she was unknown before this she won’t be now. Her Amy is one of the most unpredictable characters to grace the screen this year, and her performance is scary good and even unexpectedly funny.

With such effective acting even a lesser direction than Fincher could have turned in a halfway decent adaptation of Flynn’s novel. However, under his watchful eye Gone Girl becomes an engrossing picture that fits snugly within our age of cynicism. It’s a grim and at times scarring experience. Its rewatchability may be questionable, but its ability to stick with you is not.

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