David Fincher has a sterling track record when it comes to adapting novels, from Chuck Palahniuck’s Fight Club to 2011’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And once again, Fincher brings his observant, rigorous filmmaking style to a book: this time, it’s Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller, Gone Girl.
On the surface, married couple Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) have everything the average American could possibly want: good looks, a big house in a pleasant area of Missouri. Even their cat has its own bedroom. But something darker lurks beneath the wafer-thin surface: the house is a rental, the couple were forced to move there when Nick’s mother fell sick and they both lost their jobs in New York, and worse still, the loving spark that once flickered between them has long since faded out. Then, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy vanishes.
Affleck fills the frame as the bulky, apparently docile Nick – a writer-turned-teacher whose life is turned upside down by her wife’s disappearance. As the police investigation commences, led by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), the finger of suspicion gradually begins to waver in Nick’s direction.
It doesn’t help that Amy was already a celebrity, of a weird sort, before she even went missing: her glacial mother made a fortune from a string of books called Amazing Amy, loosely modelled on the real Amy’s childhood. As a media circus rolls into town, hastened by Amy’s minor celebrity status and a high-profile investigation, Nick’s every movement and expression is analysed and subjected to criticism by story-hungry news anchors.
Little by little, Fincher peels back the layers on Nick and Amy’s story, alternating between Nick’s perspective in the present and Amy’s version of past events from her diary. Like the police and the media, we’re questioning everything laid out before us: what does Nick have to hide? Is he really the less than pleasant figure depicted in Amy’s diary entries?
Fincher’s visual style – all low light, geometric composition and heavy camera filters – is more restrained than usual here, with such techniques restricted to one or two key scenes: a loving embrace outside a bakery, Nick’s speech at a candlelit vigil. Instead, the director goes for a glossier look akin to an expensive television commercial or daytime talkshow.This isn’t a criticism: Gone Girl’s aesthetic ties into the story itself, which is greatly concerned with public perception and how the tiniest nuances of our behaviour can be held against us.
Gone Girl depicts a cultural landscape where perception is more important than truth or honesty. The film’s characters exist beneath the glare of all different kinds of cameras. That most zeitgeist-y of activities, the selfie, is one of the first pieces of evidence against Nick siezed by a gossip-hungry rolling news: what kind of monster would pose for such a picture when their wife’s just gone missing?
Affleck’s cannily cast as Nick, who wears his handsome face like a mask. What’s that smile hiding? What’s he really capably of, behind that benign exterior? To the media, as represented by TV hosts like Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), it doesn’t matter who Nick is, or even what really happened to Amy. They just want to manipulate events to fit their agenda.
There’s a dark wit to Gillian Flynn’s script, as she delves into the carefully-constructed lives of her characters. It’s fascinating to note the initial contrast between the pristine Amy – who grew up in a media spotlight – and the laid-back Nick, who has to modulate his persona to survive the sudden onslaught of public interest.
The secondary players also add colour: Carrie Coon as Nick’s likeably salty twin sister, Margo; Tyler Perry as Nick’s celebrity lawyer, Tanner Bolt (“Every time you look smug or tense, I’ll throw a gummy bear at you”, he says in one great scene) and Kim Dickens as the quietly incisive Detective Boney.
Fincher keeps the story unspooling at an engrossing, addictive pace befitting a page-turning thriller, and it’s telling that, even at 145 minutes, Gone Girl doesn’t feel like an excessively long film. This is at least partly because, after a low-key opening stretch, the central performances become more interesting as the plot lurches into unpredictability: Rosamund Pike, in particular, is little short of mesmerising.
As a thriller, Gone Girl is pure pulp: sordid, knotty and more than a little far-fetched. But as a drama, black marital comedy and satire of a modern culture obsessed with disposable gossip, it’s as current and stinging as Fight Club was in 1999. Better still, it’s a portrait of what such a culture could make us become: constantly aware of the lenses pressing in on us, we might modulate our outward appearances to gain acceptance while seething with resentment underneath.
Gone Girl makes for a downbeat view of such a culture and of human nature in general. But there’s no denying that it’s also an hypnotic thriller from beginning to end.
Gone Girl is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd October.
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