There is an irony in the phenomenal sales achieved by Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl (2012.) It is set in a present-day world in which, as Flynn writes, people no longer “read things on paper.” Flynn’s runaway success proved that books do still sell (sometimes) and made it inevitable a film would soon follow.
The potential for anticlimax was obvious. This is a whodunit - and the key to the mystery is already possessed by Flynn’s many readers. Thankfully, David Fincher’s bravura new film turns out to be a literary adaptation custom-made for the digital age.
In the contemporary US that Fincher portrays with such satirical relish, reputations are made and destroyed on social media and TV chat shows. Guilt and innocence are not only to do with what murderous misdeeds you may have committed but with the image you present. A selfie in the company of the wrong person is as incriminating in the court of public opinion as a blood stain on the kitchen wall.
One of the pleasures of a sleek and very well-crafted movie (scripted by Flynn herself) is the ingenuity with which it combines marital melodrama with elements of the traditional Cluedo-style murder mystery. Fincher borrows from reality TV as well as from film noir and Patricia Highsmith-style cautionary tales about young charmers with psychopathic sides. Throughout, the director is as manipulative of the audience as his own characters are of each other.
As the story starts, young married couple Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have lost their jobs as journalists in New York thanks to the recession and the downturn in publishing. Much to Amy’s chagrin, they have retreated to his home town in Missouri, so he can open a bar with his sister and tend to his ailing mother.
“Whenever I think of my wife, I always think of her lovely head,” Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) declares in voice-over at the outset of the film. It’s a typically double-edged remark. His wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is indeed very beautiful in a Hitchcock blonde way, with perfect skin and long, lustrous hair. She is also thoroughly inscrutable. Poor old Nick doesn’t even begin to understand what she is really thinking or feeling. That’s why he talks of wanting to “crack open” her head.
Nick is the sap in this story: the slightly dim midwesterner with laid-back “B” personality who may or may not be a murderer. We are told that his idea of culture is “watching a reality-TV marathon with one hand down his boxers.” When Amy goes missing, he is the natural suspect.
Amy, by contrast, is an Ivy League, Alpha-personality type, complicated and perhaps a bit of a bitch.
Gone Girl is a study of a marriage falling apart. The film’s treatment of that marriage seems superficial in the extreme until you realise that the relationship between Nick and Amy is itself an extraordinarily shallow one. They buy into an image of one another that is no deeper than a profile on an online dating site.
Much of the enjoyment of Gone Girl comes from the sheer conviction which Fincher brings to a story which is based on so many levels of deception. The scenes in flashback in which Nick and Amy meet in New York could come from some Nora Ephorn-style romantic comedy. Nick is the witty and handsome man about town. Amy is the Meg Ryan-type, a sassy but soft-hearted New Yorker, looking for love. “You can’t go through a sugar storm unkissed,” he tells her as they embrace in a cloud of powdered bakery sugar. At the moment we are watching the scene, we believe in its sincerity. It is only as the story progresses over its 145 minute running time, with its multiple flashbacks and constant tweaks in perspective, that we realise that Fincher may be gulling us.
It helps that Affleck and Pike are so well cast. Affleck reprises the genial, folksy American everyman routine that we know from his earlier roles in films like Hollywoodland or Bounce but also hints at a darker, more violent side to the character. Pike, meanwhile, is part Doris Day, part Clytemnestra. As an English actress with a middling career, she was an unlikely choice to play a role as sought after as Amy but excels - and is bound to reap her rewards in award nominations. She captures brilliantly Amy’s ever shifting personality, her Martha Stewart-like perfectionism and the way that she can switch in an instant from demure, doe-eyed romanticism to unbridled fury,
The mercurial nature of the performances is matched by Fincher’s direction. As the cops’ investigation into Amy’s disappearance intensifies, the film takes on an ever darker hue. There are close-ups of Affleck’s character looking as tormented as any remorseful killer in a film noir. The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is creepy and atmospheric.
Gone Girl features its share of death and violence but the morbidity is undercut by the humour. Amy, who loves mind games and treasure hunts, leaves clues for her dim-witted husband to try to decipher. Fincher enjoys doing something similar. From the incriminating pair of knickers discovered in Nick’s office to Amy’s gushing, overwritten diary entries, this is a missing person case which constantly teeters on the edge of absurdity.
In its final third, the film takes on an improbably comic tone. As volte-face follows volte-face and the behaviour of the media becomes ever more intrusive, what has started out as a murder mystery turns into a popularity contest. As Nick’s attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Bolt in flamboyant, scene-stealing groove) warns him, the case is about what people think of him. “They need to like you.” Gone Girl is too slippery and evasive to have much of an emotional kick but it’s a superb piece of filmmaking that should satisfy devotees of the original novel as well as anyone else who likes their crime thrillers swathed in irony.
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