Sunday, October 5, 2014

Gone Girl (***)

Directed by David Fincher


Nobody does the major Hollywood thriller better than David Fincher. Perhaps Christopher Nolan comes close, but Fincher is less sentimental, his films are more sleek and unforgiving. There's a distaste for humanity in a lot of Fincher's best work, and he's able to translate that feeling to an audience without us realizing that it might be us - those watching - who Fincher really has the distaste for. His latest film is the adaptation of the best-selling novel Gone Girl. The book was a whirlwind success by Gillian Flynn, who has adapted the screenplay herself. The plot is labyrinthine, circling in on itself, purposefully suffocating. It creates all sorts of tension, wielding characters with all sorts of ulterior motives, specializing in highlighting the grey area of these people within the black and white world of mystery and suspense. The film enjoys the imbalance in which it keeps its audience, with Fincher and Flynn always one step ahead - well, at least if you're one of the few people, like me, who hasn't actually read the book. It's a pure Fincher vehicle, but Flynn puts her own stamp on this as well.

WARNING: I guess I should start out by mentioning that it's almost impossible to talk about Gone Girl without mentioning a rather important plot twist, so those who live in desperate fear of spoilers can now take this cue to slam their laptops closed, run into a dark room and stick their fingers in their ears until they get the chance to visit the theater. Having not read the book, I'm told by those who have that the film is quite faithful to Flynn's original story. And after all, why shouldn't it be? It's hard to find a novelist who wouldn't want the film adaptation to be as close to their original vision as possible, especially when that vision is so overwhelmingly successful. Last month's This is Where I Leave You showed that an author (in that case, Jonathan Tropper) can torch his own work by writing the adaptation - this is not that kind of situation. Flynn's script is taught, with a novel-like structure but never impressing. I don't think I've ever seen a Fincher film with such a fractured, re-arranged narrative, and I have to think it's the screenplay that brings it out of him here. Point being, it's obvious how much Fincher respects this material, and if that's not good enough for any cinephile out there, than I don't know what is.

The film centers on the marriage of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). Married for five years, the once-blissful union has become completely frayed. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick is hanging out at the local St. Louis bar which he runs with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). They talk about Nick's dysfunctional marriage in playful terms, but we can see that the humor is coming from deep unhappiness. Then Nick receives a phone call from a friendly neighbor that his front door has been left open. Nick comes home and sees his cat roaming in the yard. Inside, the glass coffee table is smashed and Amy is nowhere to be found. Nick immediately calls the police, but there isn't a whole lot of terror in his inquiry. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) arrives with her partner Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) and they do a quick scan of the house. They ask Nick questions, seem concerned that Nick seems to know nothing about Amy - can't name any of her friends or hobbies. As the police collect more and more information, there is only one suspect that it seems to point to: Nick.

As we see the investigation unfold, the film intercuts with diary entries from Amy chronicling the history of her and Nick's relationship. The two met as twenty-something writers in New York City, and had a blissful two-year relationship before getting married and making their union official. Nick was charming, handsome and romantic in an old-school kind of way, where Amy came from a sophisticated background, a trust fund kid with parents who based an entire best-selling childrens' book series on "Amazing Amy". The Amazing Amy in the books was very similar to the Actual Amy in real life, but their successes differed just enough to inspire resentment from their beloved daughter. Trouble between Nick and Amy starts at the beginning of the recession, when they are both laid off. Cash-strapped, Nick is unable to give up his more liberal spending habits. Then a major shift happens when Nick's mother is diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. They move to Missouri to help take care of her, but she passes on anyways. Nick is embittered with unemployment and grief, while Amy sits neglected and unappreciated, and over time, the relationship turns toxic.

Gone Girl's first hour and a half charts this marriage's arc, revealing each detail as it becomes relevant to the ongoing investigation. In the present, with each day that Amy stays missing, more suspecting eyes turn to Nick. Amy's mother, Marybeth (Lisa Banes), comes to Missouri and seems almost angry at her son-in-law's lack of over-the-top worry. When Nick seems distant at the initial press conference, he is chastised by the media for seeming to not care. When he acts friendly toward volunteers who come to the base site of Amy's search party, he is criticized by Officer Gilpin for making sure everyone "sees him play the nice guy". A television personality named Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) - she's a bit like Nancy Grace-lite -  personally attacks him on television daily, criticizing his every move and even insinuating incriminating elements of his personality. It is about this time, as the noose gets tighter and tighter around Nick's neck, that the film presents its first violent plot shift. It's certainly not the last. I guess I'll go ahead and give another WARNING about spoilers here as well.

Gone Girl plays like a noir where the femme fatale is actually missing, doing more damage out of sight than she would in broad daylight with a gun in her hand. Much has already been written about the problematic gender issues that are presented, and perhaps perverted, through the character of Amy (I'd recommend Wesley Morris' review of the film on Grantland, which is great even I don't fully agree with him). As the film unfolds, we learn just how unreliable Nick and Amy are in their version of events. Nick is having an affair with one of his creative writing students, and Amy, as spectacular as it may seem, is not really missing - or at the very least, she's lost on her own terms. The film's final hour showcases the shockingly shrewd Amy's meticulous plan to leave home and frame Nick for her murder. Enraged by the infidelity, Amy has decided to punish her husband in the worst way she can think of. Even the diary, which we've been following for most of the film as doctrine, was conceived by Amy just before her "abduction" so it could be conveniently discovered by police. Amy doesn't seem to be "Amazing Amy" after all. When everything is exposed, she is actually one of the more vicious noir villains in quite a while.

Amy's scheme is so thought out, and yet so absurd. Like the torturers in Oldboy, this seems like a lot of work, and as we get to the sequence which showcases how Amy made it all possible, you can see the moment in which events probably made sense on the page, and then seem unbelievable on the screen. And this is not for lack of trying on the part of Rosamund Pike; Amy seems like a pretty impossible part to bring to full flesh, and Pike immerses herself in the truly grim, unsavory parts more than most in the audience might expect. But the contradictions in Amy coincide with the tonal shifts of the story, and while Fincher has often made hay out of selectively inserting humor into his perpetually bleak mise-en-scene, something seems a bit off here. Perhaps it's the score - his third straight collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - which presents nothing but doom and gloom, even in the moments that don't necessarily call for it, especially in the flashbacks that are meant to be happy. Fincher spends the first 90 minutes of the movie preparing the audience for something shocking, instead of allowing us to be shocked. Apples and oranges, but it left me curious to see how Steven Soderberg or the Coen Brothers would have dealt with a character like Amy.

Since The Social Network, Fincher has taken a liking to spitfire dialogue and he's careful to fill the parts in Gone Girl with appropriate actors. Above all else, the casting in this film seems to be inspired. Placing Affleck in the role of Nick is the best decision of all. Affleck has won a lot of credit recently as a film director, but he's not entirely beloved as a thespian, and it wasn't that long ago that he seemed despised as an overexposed celebrity. Affleck is the exact kind of guy whom we wouldn't give the benefit of the doubt to in Nick's situation, and as a performance, Affleck nails the ten essential lines that he needs to nail for the film to work. As Nick's plucky twin sister, stage actress Carrie Coon makes her film debut, and gives the film a much-needed lighter touch, playing Margo with enough humor to make us laugh, but not so much that she's wearing a shirt reading "comic relief". Fincher is probably trolling us pretty hard by casting Tyler Perry in the role of Nick's lawyer, Tanner Bolt, but the decision pays off well, as Perry is the one rolling his eyes at everyone else - that dichotomy is one of the film's more fascinating elements. In another surprising supporting role, Neil Patrick Harris plays one of Amy's exes, a character more talked about then seen, but when his moment comes, brings the most menace of anyone else.

At two and a half hours, the film feels a bit bloated. Like Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac, the film sort of starts over again at its midway point and becomes something completely different. This is why it's sort of tough to judge it on a single viewing. At this point, Fincher has already established his visual palette and he seems unlikely to change. His films always look great, as does the cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth and the set design by Donald Graham Burt. As a canvas, Gone Girl is top notch. And the performances are so wonderfully sculpted, especially for a filmmaker known for grilling actors on forty take sprees. All signs point to a master working at the top of his craft. And yet Gone Girl is not amongst his best because it never finds the right balance in its emotional tone. It's ending makes plenty of sense within the logic of its story, but it feels both too gloomy and not gloomy enough - either extreme being preferable to the grey area it finds itself in. Once again, multiple viewings will probably be kind to Gone Girl, where we're not focusing on the intricacy of plot but on the high level of filmmaking. But the blemishes are there. It just depends on how closely you choose to look. 

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