Saturday, October 04, 2014

Gone Girl

How do we talk about Gone Girl? The new David Fincher film arrives with bestseller pedigree and it fulfills our need to find cultural relevance in our big-ticket movies. The novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is popular enough that online outrage erupted when rumors emerged that Fincher might change the book’s ending for the film. Though the story has the framework of a mystery it’s Flynn’s portrait of a marriage in recession-fueled crisis that’s the real engine of the story, and it’s what allows an audience to feel they’re watching something more substantial than a well-shot potboiler. That’s the parlor trick that Gone Girl almost pulls off; the film is a grabber (two and a half hours go quickly) that for a while makes you think it should be taken seriously.

The particulars are well known: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne fall in love and marry in New York but are forced to return to Nick’s Missouri hometown after losing their jobs to the recession. Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary, with signs of a struggle left behind at the Dunne home. The initial wave of sympathy for Nick doesn’t last long. When the cops and media get involved Nick’s private foibles are exposed to the world and he becomes this week’s cable news object of derision. Neither Fincher nor Flynn can do much with the too familiar media subplot; there’s a Nancy Grace-like host (Missi Pyle) who fuels the outrage on her show and Sela Ward (who fares better but isn’t onscreen enough) as the interviewer who snags Nick’s I-didn’t-do-it TV appearance. The police procedural scenes are livened up thanks to an excellent Kim Dickens as the lead detective. Dickens gives her Detective Boney a wit and native intelligence that energize scenes that could otherwise have been formulaic. Two other supporting performances stand out: Carrie Coon is bracing as Nick’s twin sister, who gets to speak most of what the audience will think about her brother. Tyler Perry has a ball as Nick’s high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt. Perry seems to understand exactly what kind of film he’s in, and  every time Tanner comes onscreen there’s a welcome burst of urgency.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay toggles between the aftermath of Amy’s disappearance and the couple’s early days in New York. Nick, whom Affleck plays with some repressed anger and just the right swagger, is immediately taken with Amy after a chance meeting at a party . If Gone Girl is a hit then Rosamund Pike will be a star; Pike is asked to play an astonishing range of emotions. Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Baines) have cannibalized her life for a series of children’s books, and Amy is looking to be swept away by someone who doesn’t already know her history. She falls for Nick’s confidence but (as we hear in the diary that is used as narration) becomes afraid of his disappointment and anger after the couple’s fortunes take a turn. There is a central idea at work in Gone Girl that the film keeps working, which is that changes wrought by time and circumstance can be irreparable fault lines in a marriage. That isn’t an uninteresting subject, but Fincher gets stuck having to service Flynn’s plot and after a while hearing the theme stated again becomes too absurd to bear. If we’re meant to find the final revelation (involving a well-used Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex of Amy’s) and the film’s last act darkly humorous then that’s fine, but Gone Girl has chosen sides in the marriage and we’re left with a half-baked ending. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn are in their way as shaky a couple as Nick and Amy. By committing to Flynn’s baroque plotting Fincher has undone any chance of Gone Girl cutting as deep as he would like it to. Enjoy your popcorn.

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