Gone Girl, the new film from director David Fincher, lives or dies, aptly, on appearances. The veneer of things. The assumption that what you can see is what something is. Watch the trailer and you’ll be given the impression this is another Fincher procedural. Something mixing the sensibilities of Dragon Tattoo with Zodiac. It almost seems a little too obvious. A little too Fincher, as though he’s sticking to a comfort zone. But appearances can be deceiving. And if this is Fincher playing safe, it feels dangerous all the same.
Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her own bestseller, Gone Girl depicts a relationship as all out war. Our young couple here are Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike). Both writers of varying success. It’s their five-year wedding anniversary, and Nick is at a bar tended by his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), bemoaning his struggling relationship. Hardly auspicious behaviour. When he gets back to their luxurious middle class home, however, Amy has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. There’s evidence of foul play.
Nick is quick to get the police involved, and soon Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, highlight of Deadwood and Treme) is on the case, flagging Nick’s home with post-it notes, getting the facts down. Pretty soon, however, she’s drawn to two conclusions; Nick’s apparent disinterest in his wife’s affairs are troubling, and the supposed crime scene doesn’t add up. Discreet text in the corner of the screen keeps us appraised of the passing days, but as the number increases, Nick’s culpability rises too. Damning pieces of evidence such as Amy’s diary start painting Det. Boney a very distinct picture, while the media circus shapes its own snarling outlook on Nick. Soon, things are escalating out of hand.
If it sounds as though Pike’s involvement in the film is minor, nothing could be further from the truth, as a healthy number of flashbacks breathe life into the disappeared character of Amy. It’s fair to say that she even outstrips Affleck here, creating a memorable ghost of a woman; there and not there. Delicate and dangerous in equal measure. Her existence in the film distorts through perception. Affleck, meanwhile, is shrewdly cast to say the least. His public persona as the Hollywood nice guy it’s easy to hate (see the whole Batman furore) is nursed into something knowing and caustic. Gone Girl takes a hefty swipe at our obsession with ‘reality’ drama, as Nick’s life and his very freedom becomes a PR battle as much as a case file.
And yet this still all sounds like trodden territory. Something you’ve seen before. And while it’s true to say that the elements are pulled together from the staples of genre fiction writing, Flynn and Fincher are ready to unpin them and send the pages flying. This is a two and a half hour movie and I’ve given you a light sketch of maybe the first hour. Just the veneer. Like a modern-day unpicking of suburban America previously seen in the likes of Blue Velvet, American Beauty or The Ice Storm, Gone Girl feels like another dig through polite society’s garbage, albeit one skewed through the sensibilities of Thomas Harris and 24 hour media coverage. Harris’ pulpy fiction is an apt signpost for Gone Girl, as Fincher brings us one of the best, most enjoyable Hollywood thrillers tailored for adults since The Silence Of The Lambs. No small feat as that movie is now over 20 years old. The ghost of the aforementioned Blue Velvet is openly conjured also in the swooning romanticism of the score; Fincher’s best collaboration thus far with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
In truth, however, Gone Girl doesn’t exactly share those films’ mystique of dirty-nail scrutiny as a subversive peek behind the veil. Instead the 21st century suggestion is that all of our private lives are externalised in today’s culture, either via narcissistic infotainment or the indulgent simplicity of the ‘selfie’. That we’re all preparing ourselves for our 15 minutes of fame. That we’re somehow entitled to it.
While its influences are legion, this is a quintessential Fincher production; elegant, cold, flawlessly detailed. Gone Girl readily brings to mind a number of traits from his past works; the procedural elements hark back pleasingly to Zodiac, recalling the chilly possibility that this might never get solved at all; the central relationship has the unhealthy sting of Norton and Pitt in Fight Club (though without that particular twist) in that it is literally a battle of wits between the two of them, both parties provoking the other. The photography and editing are pleasingly understated, bringing to mind The Game or The Social Network more than the ‘flashy’ Fincher of Fight Club or Panic Room, while Gone Girl earns its deep red 18 certificate by picking up Fincher’s unnerving and sadistic fascination with the ways sex and violence can combine, most memorably visited in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Through all of this the film’s concerns are both maximal and minimal. On the one hand there’s the depiction of a society as content-hungry, social media fixated soap opera lovers, on the other there’s the intensely introverted examination of how we obsessively hurt the ones we love.
What’s new? Well, tonally, the last half hour takes a decidedly wicked and unexpectedly humourous turn. Fincher’s done funny before (Fight Club bristled with cynical laughs, as does Netflix’s House Of Cards), but never with quite this degree of schadenfraude. It’s a canny move to make such an overt step so late in the game as audience members start to feel the size of the movie. As entertaining as it is, like the relationship between Nick and Amy, Gone Girl is a marathon not a sprint. Which is not to say it isn’t entertaining throughout, but more to suggest that there’s a lot to unpack in this film, so the length is necessary. It helps the film a great deal, elevating it above similar dour crime thrillers like Prisoners. As Gone Girl pushes credibility it cannily changes tone, inviting the viewer to suspend disbelief and enjoy it. Suddenly, Paul Verhoeven seems like an apt touchstone. Another filmmaker who’s adults-only mandate feels distinctly absent on the modern Hollywood canvas.
Leave it to Fincher then to fly the flag for those of us who want something other than superheroes and remakes from our popcorn cinema. Gone Girl does for dime-a-copy trash novels what The Shining did for page-turning horror yarns; magnifies them, celebrates them, expands them onto a grander scale lending them a strange, austere credibility. I must admit I didn’t think much of the last three Fincher movies. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo left me cold. Gone Girl, however, sees me right back beside him. Easily his best film since Zodiac, and the most twisted fun he’s been in absolutely ages. Definitely make time for this.