DIR: David Fincher • WRI: by Gillian Flynn • PRO: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen • CAST: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry,Patrick Fugit
The sense that David Fincher has a lot of ground to cover is clear from the outset as the zippy credits blink by. Somewhat lost within their muted brevity is the fact that the bestselling source novel by Gillian Flynn was optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.
Odd then that the lead role of missing wife Amy Dunne was entrusted to Rosamund Pike rather than its superstar producer. On paper, it’s well within Witherspoon’s wheelhouse. Amy is an all-American sweetheart who deliberately conceals a vat of contradictory behaviour and emotion beneath a placid veneer. As written, Amy is an enigmatic, inscrutable, seemingly fragile figure. It’s a stand-out part and frankly, Pike has been given the role of a lifetime out of the blue.
Her character begins off-screen as her husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to their palatial McMansion to what looks like the aftermath of a home invasion. The actual incident is rather low key but insidiously disturbing. Especially when Amy appears to have disappeared. As days slip by, Nick slips into a mounting vortex of media and police suspicion. Nick isn’t the most emotive guy in the world and his taciturn nature isn’t synching up with the wider world’s vision of a worried husband. Sadly for Nick, anyone looking for problems within his superficially picture-perfect marriage can find them much more easily than his elusive wife.
Adding layers of confusion via regular revelations and flashbacks, the film shuttles back and forth between the giddy heights of the couple’s courting days while simultaneously chronicling the on-going cooling of ardour within the subsequent marriage. At the point of Amy’s vanishing, all warmth and affection has drained from the relationship. Instead bitterness, resentment and according to one version of events, outbursts of domestic violence have begun to define a deeply unhappy union.
Even at this late hour, delving too deep into plot still threatens to ruin the enjoyment of those unfamiliar with the novel. Suffice to say, the film depicts the Dunnes’ crumbling alliance from both perspectives but it’s pretty evident from early on whom the (more) unreliable narrator is. Wisely, Affleck’s Nick is no angel. The nasty but deliciously dark notion that Nick is better off without his wife is floated early and often. The significant flaw in that mostly desirable scenario being that Nick could easily face the death penalty for killing his wife. The lingering lack of a body initially saves Nick from the chair but when new and damning evidence starts to surface with alarming regularity, Nick detects an element of intelligent design behind his nightmarish plight.
Naturally, Gone Girl is brilliant in places. This is Fincher after all. He doesn’t come out to play lightly and again credit must surely go to Reese Witherspoon for attaching him to material that could easily be unwieldy and wildly implausible. How she talked him into it in the wake of a rather cool reception for his last adaptation of a literary behemoth – namely The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – is intriguing. I’m more enthralled by how he talked himself into this. Wrestling massively popular mammoth tomes into mainstream entertainment is starting to become his thing. And selfishly, I want more from him than that. That said, Gone Girl is four fifths a stunning film but the final fifth is deeply unsatisfying and can’t help but retrospectively tarnish what came before.
The problems surely emanate from the source material. Flynn’s adaptation of her own work is a dextrous, slick and skilful job across the board but the worlds of books and films share a universal truth – endings are a bitch. Great stories rarely have great endings. In that context, as an esteemed film buddy remarked to me recently – only obscenely successful books get to keep their utterly bonkers plots entirely intact. Daft developments within novels are seemingly sanctified by vast literary success. Reflect on that after you see this and ponder whether a novice or even a lauded screenwriter could get this ending past a studio boss as part of an original screenplay without being laughed out of the room.
Many observers contend that the film has ventured into satire by then but I don’t concur. After all, the actual story of this film can be distilled into a perfect Hollywood pitch. This is fundamentally an uneasy marriage of Sleeping with the Enemy and The War of the Roses. Since Gone Girl is depicting an uneasy marriage, you might say that setting a drama in the shared area of that particular Venn diagram may be fitting but both older films knew exactly what they were – however flawed they were. Gone Girl deals with issues of identity but it has an identity crisis of its own. Worryingly the parallel for this film within Fincher’s own back catalogue starts to become The Game – the distant memory of the hollow machinations of that film start to invade as we are dragged deeper into an elongated coda.
I refuse to end on a downer. Don’t be put off by my enduring gripes about the ending. There is much to admire and value here. Fincher is on fine almost playful form. Adroitly articulating mostly internal anxieties with real cinematic flair. Precise yet never constrained. Meticulous but as humourous as he’s ever been. Affleck will surely be a better actor and director after the Fincher experience. Whereas Pike’s improvement is immediate and obvious as she alternates impressively between a brittle survivor and an empowered avenger. Yet for me, the real treasures of the cast reside in the supporting female roles. Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick’s sparky yet snarky sister while Kim Dickens is a true delight as an investigating detective worthy of a film of her own. The quirk factor of the ensemble extends to comedy veterans Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris accepting atypical roles that they clearly relish.
The only audience demographic that should give this film a wide berth are even moderately unhappy couples. Any remotely strained relationships will probably not survive any post-film discussion after witnessing this raw autopsy of a modern marriage turned toxic. Fincher’s films have always kept people awake before and disturbed sleep patterns. Yet, the agent of malevolence has most often been external. Sowing the seed that the real evil is already inside the house, across the bed – that’s true horror. Maybe that’s how he talked himself into this. Maybe he’s right. Maybe.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Gone Girl is released 3rd October 2014