Gone Girl is a perfect dark comedy, because it will be halfway over before you realize that you should be laughing in abject horror. As another David Fincher parable, this is crafted to be a courtroom drama reinvented for the 21st century—when the verdict has all but been delivered weeks prior to arrest. In that sense, New York Film Festival’s Gone Girl kickoff is sure to continue scoring well into next year’s awards season.
The most revealing aspect of Gone Girl’s approach is the casting of Ben Affleck in the role of Nick Dunne. Fincher has made a career out of upscaling rock stars and movie gods into unexpected thespian heavyweights (if at least for his films). And while Affleck’s unique blend of easygoing charisma and paradoxical blandness is not the director’s greatest performing triumph, the casting nevertheless is inspired as the greatest use of off-screen personal history in recent memory.
As Nick Dunne, Affleck more than inhabits the appealing everyman hounded by a media circus only a few shades removed of Pontius Pilate; he viscerally relives the experience as the guy that’s already seen his own social media crucifixion and resurrection in the last decade. Of course, Affleck has never been accused of something as grim as uxoricide by the press, but it is only when the cable news noose begins tightening that Affleck’s simultaneous disgust and disbelief leaves the realm of merely acting.
Prior to that stricture, Nick seemed like the typical Midwesterner who is happily married to his lovely, cosmopolitan wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). This is revealed within seconds to be a sham. While the two met as equally alluring scribes climbing the New York literary scene, their shared interests ended with their consecutive layoffs following the recent recession. And despite Amy having the dubious notoriety of being the source material (and money bank) for her parents’ children’s literature franchise, “The Amazing Amy,” her depleting trust fund wasn’t enough to prevent the two from moving back to Nick’s Missouri hometown when his mother became ill.
Most of this background information is revealed much later in Gone Girl due to some crafty nonlinear storytelling. Not only relying on flashbacks to fill in the gaps, the movie is told from both Nick and Amy’s highly disparate points-of-view following the enormous day in question, one which is repeatedly referred to by title cards as “The Day Of.” The date that this film marks in trailing whispers is obviously the red letter one where Amy vanished. Supposedly the love of Nick’s life, Amy disappeared on the morning of their fifth anniversary after Nick ostensibly returned home from his morning constitutional to the bar (which she bought for him with her diminished trust). And despite Nick’s quixotic “nice guy” demeanor, the flimsiness of a clearly staged crime scene and a general lack of urgency on Nick’s face leads the police, as well as the entire 24-hour news cycle, to finger him as the culprit within minutes of his 911 phone call.
Adapting from her own novel, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay has a shrewd awareness for the media’s fluctuating morality, pushing the concept of an unreliable narrator to its limit. For most of its running time, Gone Girl plays like a True Crime version of Rashomon with Nick’s exasperated pleading standing in direct contrast to the image painted by the absent Amy’s diary scribbling. In the present-day sequences, Nick asserts himself as affability personified, but his tone deaf smiling at press conferences seems far more damning when contextualized with Amy’s induced flashbacks of an early marital bliss giving way to a waking nightmare with a mooching lout that resents her at each passing anniversary. The onscreen parody of Nancy Grace and Fox News bobble heads might not convince us of Nick’s guilt, but if one is persuaded to see Amy’s side of things, the audience is confronted with whether or not to join the in-motion lynch mob.
Fincher’s breathless pace deftly keeps this conundrum close to the chest, having all of his actors provide even-keeled performances that might not mean anything, or which could signify a hidden reservoir of depravity. There is Neil Patrick Harris as a welcome breath of weirdness in the role of Desi Collings, Amy’s high school boyfriend from 20 years ago who still writes her letters half a decade into her marriage. There’s also Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, a reassuring subversion of the celebrity lawyer clichés. In fact, the only truly positive influence throughout the movie is Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney, the sole cool-head who is actively working toward Nick’s execution the whole time.
Yet, for all of the pristine ensemble work, the real standout is the performer who didn’t have any off-screen baggage. An unexpected revelation, Ms. Pike makes the role of Amy Dunne a launching pad, announcing her ascendency to movie stardom. Certainly a force to be reckoned with from the word go, the “amazing” Amy by her own diary admission was pretending to be the cool girl when she met Nick at a party all those years ago. Indeed, she wore that mask for so long, it is unclear who the real Amy ever might have been underneath. To maintain that mystery, Pike walks a knife’s edge between saintly victimhood and Norman Bates levels of pretense, leaving the audience off their guard and behind the film’s machinations.
Just the way Fincher likes it.
More than a whodunit, Fincher’s Gone Girl is refreshingly unpredictable and bizarre in its salacious unraveling, offering the rare sensation of a thriller that lives up to its genre namesake for those who haven’t read Flynn’s bestseller. Playing with the sense of illusion in intimacy, particularly in long-term relationships and marriage, Fincher’s characteristically cold visual template, heightened by his continued use of video cinematography (artfully realized here by Jeff Cronenweth), provides an immediate sterilization to Nick and Amy’s matrimony. The result is an almost clinical glimpse into the role of interpersonal identities established for relationships that can feel ultimately as brittle as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ moody score modulations.
The implications for Nick and Amy, as well as their nationwide audience within and outside the narrative, can be so terrifying that it overwhelms the absurdity of it all. The horror of Gone Girl comes from flirting with death row for two and a half hours. But it’s only there that one can find the best gallows humor, not to mention one of the year’s hands-down best movies.