by Eddie Muller
It’s a good thing Gillian Flynn is a woman. If the author of the bestselling 2012 novel Gone Girl had been a man, there’d be one hell of a hullabaloo greeting David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation, which Flynn herself scripted. If you haven’t read the book, or yet seen the movie, don’t worry—I won’t spoil the morbid fun its creators have with plot twists that eviscerate the notion of a perfect marriage. In this thoroughly modern noir, Flynn spins a tale that cleverly, even gleefully, pushes the public’s hot buttons regarding male-female relationships, romantic expectations, lifelong commitments, self-identity, interpersonal power games—you name it.
The plot revolves around a situation strikingly similar to the 2002 disappearance of Laci Peterson and the public uproar that erupted as her husband, Scott Peterson, became the prime suspect in her murder. In Flynn’s tale, the “gone girl” is Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a New York-based writer of “celebrity quizzes” (that’s a living?) whose true claim to fame is being the real-life inspiration for a popular line of children’s books—The Adventures of Amazing Amy—written by her parents; talk about a girl living up to unrealistic expectations! The appearance of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) offers Amy, for the first time, a chance to become her own woman, to distinguish herself from “Amazing Amy.”
Their courtship scenes are crafted like the rhapsodic television commercials that sell romance and domestic bliss—Pike and Affleck coo the perfect come-ons, strike sexy poses amidst glowing Vanity Fair interiors, essentially symbolizing the culture’s ideal of male-female coupling. (Yeah, yeah—ther’re both writers living in Manhattan. Good Lord, can we retire that tired trope once and for all?)
One day, after five years of marriage—and a move to Nick’s Missouri hometown—Amy goes missing. As clues increasingly point to Nick as the culprit, flashbacks reveal the unraveling of this “ideal” marriage. Of course, things are not what they seem—and similarities to the Peterson case are soon swept aside by waves of crazily inspired plot twists that turn the story on its head—and then bounce it on the floor a few times for good measure.
Like most modern-day thrillers, the narrative ploughs into full-blown psychopathy by the end, the climax achieving a Grand Guignol level of outlandishness. Nick and Amy’s personal saga is ultimately consumed by the insatiable cravings of the American media and its slavish devotees. The final scenes have the dreadful pull of ritual sacrifice—this time on the altar of invasive “reality” television.
At the end of the screening a guy behind me sarcastically sighed, “Wow—great date movie.” Actually, Gone Girl just might be one of the greatest date movies ever. It’ll certainly fuel testy post-film bickering about the motivations of Nick and Amy. Who is to blame? Who is the villain? That’ll at least give the youngsters something to talk about in the bars afterwards, shouting over the throbbing din and overpriced cocktails. Perhaps the film’s shattering of romantic illusions will save some of these guys and gals from the malignant fate that befalls Gone Girl ’s trophy couple.
But seriously, one shouldn’t make too much of the gender politics built into Flynn’s story. A former critic for Entertainment Weekly, she clearly developed a keen sense of what piques the public’s interest; Gone Girl is built from a perfect recipe for public acceptance and critical acclaim: it’s a pulpy thriller about beautiful people in dire straits, bubbling with a provocative sexual subtext that eventually overheats into a bloody goulash. America will devour it.
And they should—Gone Girl is hearty and satisfying, even if the final course becomes a little gristly and tough to swallow. David Fincher might be the best cinematic chef working these days. Drawn to dauntingly complex plots (Zodiac , The Social Network , The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), Fincher renders them with unmatched élan. Most directors nowadays are drawn to material that allows them to show off a hyperkinetic visual “style.” While that was true of Fincher’s early films, like Alien3 , Se7en , and The Game , he’s matured into a master of elegant exposition and character revelation. His films tend to run long (Gone Girl is an always engrossing 149 minutes), but they are the only current U.S.-made features to rival cable dramas in terms of depth, complexity, and uniformly great acting. Fincher’s devotion to story points up how little priority is placed on compelling, coherent narrative in contemporary American cinema. Nothing blows up in this film. Well, okay—a marriage.
Affleck and Pike are excellent. It’s obvious Fincher cast Affleck for his smug insouciance, which comes off by turns appealing and appalling; it’s by far the actor’s most challenging, complex performance. It’s tough to talk about Rosamund Pike’s performance without spoiling things—suffice to say she fearlessly owns this character, and spews the book’s notorious “Cool Girls” monologue with genuine venom. Kudos to Fincher for finding a way to slipstream the passage into the film without the slightest bit of self-consciousness. It immediately follows the film’s big “reveal,” and wonderfully confounds the audience’s sympathies.
Kim Dickens as Det. Rhonda Boney and Carrie Coon as Nick’s loyal sister Margo will get plenty more work on the strength of their performances here. David Clennon and Lisa Banes are creepy as Amy’s parents, and one-man media empire Tyler Perry is perfect as celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt, who takes Nick on as a client. Perry gives the film a jolt of humor and energy at precisely the right time. Neil Patrick Harris, a long way from Doogie Howser, M.D., gallantly does what he can with the role of Desi Collings, an Amy devotee who also answers to the name “Plot Device.” Laray Mafield’s casting of the copious speaking roles is brilliant, top to bottom. This is the latest argument for an Oscar category honoring casting directors.
There’s a rumor that David Fincher and James Ellroy are conspiring on a cable TV series that would finally bring Ellroy’s expansive vision of Los Angeles noir to long-form cinematic life. In the meantime, Fincher has brilliantly realized Gillian Flynn’s pitch-black subversion of our dearly held myth, “Happily Ever After.”
Eddie Muller is a writer, filmmaker, and noted noir historian. His books include Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir; and The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Film Noir Era. He has recorded numerous audio commentaries for DVD reissues of classic noir films. Muller’s crime fiction debut, The Distance, was named “Best First Novel” of 2002 by the Private Eye Writers of America. He is co-author of the bestseller Tab Hunter Confidential. Find Eddie Muller and Noir City at EddieMuller.com.
See other articles by Eddie Muller written for EatDrinkFilms here.
by Pam Grady
David Fincher’s stroke of genius in adapting Gone Girl , Gillian Flynn’s novel of a woman’s disappearance leading to a husband on the hot seat for her maybe murder, was in casting Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, the spouse turned suspect. Nick is either a murderous weasel or a hapless chump and Affleck slips right into his skin, easily playing both sides. He and Rosamunde Pike as his missing bride, the picture perfect Amy, are easily the best things about a crime drama that is entertaining in a nighttime soap sort of way—in places, it resembles ABC’s Revenge, and not just because Pike bears a striking resemblance to that show’s star Emily VanCamp—and is certainly twisted enough, but never reaches the level of bone-chilling nightmare one has come to expect from the filmmaker who once put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box.
Nick and Amy were once a glittering New York couple, both magazine writers and financially secure thanks to her trust fund, set up by her parents who grew rich writing the Amazing Amy series of children’s books inspired by their only child. But that was before the 2008 recession and before Nick’s mom got sick, sending the couple to his Missouri hometown. Though Nick and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) run a bar in town, after two years, neither he nor Amy seem like part of the community. The husband may always be the first suspect when a woman goes missing, but Nick makes it easy even before the Nancy Grace-like TV tabloid vixen Ellen Abbot (Missi Pyle) and outraged neighbor Noelle (Casey Wilson) start leading the virtual lynch mob. He doesn’t know how to behave, his smugness coming through at the worst of times, and he isn’t exactly open and honest with anyone, not even Margo. A breadcrumb trail of clues that Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) follows seems to point to Nick.
The bones of the story have the makings of a fine film noir in The Blue Dahlia/Black Angel mode, where the central mystery is: did he do it or not? The story also has the ingredients for indictments of our 24/7, gossip-driven news cycle and a system of justice in which innocent until proven guilty is turned on its head. But Gone Girl is none of those things. As the tale veers back and forth between past and present and between Nick’s story and Amy’s, it becomes more about their marriage and the peculiar psychology of this particular couple, the missing woman only the latest chapter in an increasingly fractured fairy tale.
Boney calls Amy Type A and Nick Type B, but the disconnect runs deeper than that. Those books that her parents Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes) wrote were a catalog of Amy’s failures, now turned into the Amazing Amy character’s successes. She has always lived in that girl’s perfect shadow and modeled herself after her. She appeared the carefree, confident independent woman when she met Nick, while he appeared the successful, witty, romantic man. When the reality of their true selves hits sometime after taking their vows, they are both left disappointed, her doubly so, once she realizes that he is beyond remodeling into the ideal she holds dear.
Welcome black humor leavens the melodrama, while Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, a defense attorney whose specialty is accused husbands; Neil Patrick Harris as Desi Collings, Amy’s teenage stalker turned lifelong friend; Scoot McNairy as Tommy O’Hara, an ex-boyfriend of Amy’s; and Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrooke as a couple of drifters round out the excellent supporting cast. But Flynn herself adapted the screenplay, which means that the film has the same weaknesses as her novel. Her strength is character. In their opposite ways, both Nick and Amy fascinate. Plot, on the other hand … Even as Fincher rushes through the denouement, the story falls apart, one absurd twist following another. It isn’t fatal. Gone Girl is amusing enough. It’s just that from the director of Se7en and Zodiac , we’ve come to expect something darker, edgier, and simply much more.