Starring Ben Affleck, Rosemund Pike, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris and Kim Dickens
Directed by David Fincher
From Twentieth Century Fox
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Gone Girl starts at the beginning and ends where it started. It’s construction — and ultimately it’s vast manipulation — is circular and dizzying. When it was over I wasn’t sure if I wanted take a deep breath and stagger out of the theater, or go for another ride.
Here is a film that knows what it is and where it’s going and does not for even a single nanosecond waver from its course. It’s complete and fulfilled — cinematic zen. Not a frame of it is out of place. It is a capable picture, one executed with precision and skill by, of course, David Fincher. He’s been making movies like this his entire career, and yet this one demonstrates his absolute mastery of the medium of motion pictures.
The film stars two characters on similar trajectories, but in different locations. Picture two satellites circling a planet but on opposite sides of the same orbit: their views are different, but their journey is the same. One of the characters is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a washed up Missouri writer with mountains of debt, a dive bar and a wife who might hate his guts. His wife is Amy (Rosamund Pike), and in the opening scenes she turns up missing. Nick seems concerned, but not overwhelmingly so.
As the police launch their investigation, the town first comes to Nick’s side to help him search, and grieve, until they realize that he may have killed her. He has no alibi, the crime scene looks staged, evidence has been tampered with, and there are some concerning journal entries, some of them told in flashbacks by Amy herself. There’s also the issue of Nick smiling at press conferences, seemingly unconcerned about Amy’s whereabouts, and he’s hiding secrets that threaten to destroy his wholesome public image. As the case drags on, people in town start staring and sizing him up: “Yeah, he could be a murderer. Definitely,” their eyes suggest. A TV news anchor in the style of Nancy Grace, the self-appointed public executioner on daytime television, all but indicts Nick for a murder that still has no body or murder weapon. A downward spiral shifts him out of orbit.
That’s the first act of Gone Girl and I don’t dare tell you further plot points since the film is built around its tightly packed secrets, and saying any more would be like walking through a minefield wearing Ronald McDonald’s sneakers — very dangerous. The cast is large and complicated, and every performance is marvelous, especially Pike, who plays a narrator so unreliable that I was silently wondering if she even existed at all. Her performance is transcendent and terrifying. Affleck, with some of his Batman muscle already showing, holds his own as the knot Nick tied for himself is pulled tighter and tighter.
The rest of the cast is glorious: Neil Patrick Harris plays a scorned ex-lover, Kim Dickens is a whip-smart detective, a grown-up Patrick Fugit is her partner, Tyler Perry plays a high-profile defense attorney, and Carrie Coon, the glue of HBO’s Leftovers, is Nick’s supportive sister. Coon takes a disposable supporting role and elevates it into the stratosphere.
Stepping away from the story and cast, though, Gone Girl is an exploration in technical subtlety. The nuts and bolts of the film, often overlooked in movies, are profoundly focused here, so much so that you might not even notice them, which is the way it should be. The cinematography is dark and moody, with lots of saturated colors and shadowy accents, and it perfectly suits the growing tension in Nick Dunne’s collapsing world. I loved a scene during a candlelight vigil; lights above Nick’s head cast long menacing shadows over his eyes and face. The editing is often slow and simple, yet also astute and nimble when required. The editing is punctuated by the mesmerizing and meditative score, which fades in and out as the film jumps around in time with Amy’s deceptive journal entries. Gone Girl doesn’t have the editing of a Scorsese film, the music of a Quentin Tarantino, or the cinematography of a David Lean, but even without all the flash it feels competent, balanced and efficient.
The film comes from the blockbuster novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay. I have not read the book, although it’s on my reading list, even now that I know how it ends. And speaking of endings, of course this one packs a wallop. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the guy who killed Ellen Ripley, murdered Tyler Durden, solved the Zodiac case, saved Facebook and had one of his most popular picture end with a FedEx delivery. Fincher knows how to cap off movies, and he’s an expert on guiding characters to their destinies, no matter how pathetic, violent or rewarding they may be.
What’s so remarkable about the way Fincher and Flynn tie up Gone Girl is how circular its journey is. It’s a film about manipulation and control and deception. While Nick might be a victim in this spiraling whirligig, he’s also the perpetrator. And we are his subjects.