David Fincher’s first movie – Alien 3 – was a ropey mess, and one subsequently disowned by the director. But despite the studio-meddled final result, the film showed a great amount of promise – there was a bleak, uncompromising quality to Alien 3 – here was a movie which killed off beloved main characters with a shrug, and ended with the suicide of its heroine. It was a movie about hopelessness, and it made audiences uncomfortable. This glib style made up most of Fincher’s early career, finding a home in the brilliant but distressing Seven – a downer of a movie which begins at the bottom and only sinks from there, landing with one of cinema’s most brutal endings. Fight Club, despite being beloved worldwide by naïve teenage boys, was an uncompromising stripping of modern masculinity and consumer culture; a movie which said the world is wrong, with little in the way of counter argument. Fincher’s style broadened and matured with Zodiac in 2008, leading to a run of measured, tight movies across a variety of genres – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which share the theme of questioning. Fincher’s movies are all about questioning things – who is the killer, how did two friends end up in court, why do we do the things we do – an idea developed with his newest movie, Gone Girl. The film, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, is a series of muddled questions, with Fincher bringing his modern maturity but returning to the darkness of his earlier works, a movie which pulls apart the façade of relationships and marriage and asks, can we ever really know someone? Gone Girl is a twisting, nightmare of a movie, both cynical and fascinating.On his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Affleck) returns home to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Signs of a struggle point to something sinister, and the subsequent media frenzy paints Nick – who comes across cold -as the killer. Through a series of flashback’s, we learn that Nick and Amy’s marriage wasn’t perfect beneath the surface, and that Amy’s disappearance could be far more complicated than it first seems.This is a difficult film to discuss without giving away the plot, and the plot is one of the film’s biggest strengths, lifted fairly faithfully from Flynn’s novel, though streamlined somewhat and tightened. Gone Girl is a shifting thriller, starting with an intriguing opening mystery before falling into a he said/she said back and forth with an unusual flashback structure. We see the crime and how Nick reacts to it, though Fincher is careful not to present a full picture; we are never, for the first half of the movie at least, entirely sure where Nick’s innocence lies. There’s an emptiness to the opening sections of the movie, a feeling that we’re on the outside looking in, which means the audience have no comfortable place to stand. This is reinforced and countered by a series of increasingly grim flashbacks, told from Amy’s point of view, which run parallel to Nick’s story. As with Nick’s half, however, we get the sense that there’s something missing here, and that potentially both of our leads are unreliable narrators.
This dual structure splits a second time at the movie’s middle, where surprisingly, Fincher reveals what happened to Amy. This re-energises the movie and sends the narrative into exciting new directions; it’s almost impossible to guess where this story is going to go, which makes for a fun cinematic ride. Gone Girl constantly moves the goalposts – what starts as a simple mystery story becomes something considerably more complex and interesting, with each reveal along broadening the story. The effect is similar to modern television, a series condensed into a couple of hours, which isn’t surprising considering Fincher’s recent House of Cards. When broken down, the plot is quite silly – pulpy and Hitchcockian, though this isn’t a criticism and Fincher seems aware, sprinkling the movie with a few black humour jokes which highlight how ridiculous the narrative actually is. In this sense, it’s similar to The Silence of the Lambs, another dark and silly thriller with moments of levity; as with Lambs, Gone Girl works by being so committed; in lesser hands, both movies would have fallen into completely into camp.
Fincher is also remarkably good at keeping hold of the material; for the big sprawling mystery this turns out to be, you never feel like it gets away from you. Fincher provides just the right about of infomation to pull the audience through. The directing is strong in that you barely notice it, and unlike Panic Room or Fight Club, there are no visual, meta-tricks here – Fincher lets his actors and story do the work, though there is a measured restraint to his style and framing throughout is excellent; Gone Girl is the work of a confident director. The wonderful score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross has a lofty, Angelo Badalamenti quality, somewhat dreamlike and at times, terrifying and desperate.
What’s frightening about the movie is its frank, cynical and arguably honest treatments of relationships. The entire movie works as a twisted metaphor marriage, asking if you can ever really know your spouse, and prying into the both the secrets you keep from one another, and the face couples portray to the outside world. It’s a movie about couples – which explains the distance the audience is kept at a distance – and some of Amy’s monologues, particularly the vile with which she criticises the concept of ‘the cool girl,’ reflect Tyler Durden’s speeches on society in Fight Club, though this time from a feminine POV. It’s in these monologues the film becomes uncomfortable and ties back to early Fincher, as the way to unsettle people is to pick apart what’s culturally considered normal, and show how easily the normal collapses when you pull threads; essentially, that a lot of humanity’s rules are false. In Fight Club, this was about the emptiness of consumerism; here, it’s the ridiculousness of marriage; all long term couples actually hate each other. Nick and Amy are initially self-aware, with constant meta-jokes about becoming ‘one of those couples’ and this idea is taken to its extremes when Amy vanishes, and Nick realises he may never have actually known her. Its easy to see why the story has been so appealing – on some level, it says the things people are afraid to say. The story has been called misogynistic, though Flynn herself has discussed this at length. Ultimately, the movie paints both sexes as problematic.
Gone Girl also works as a criticism of the media. Media is an intrusive, manipulative force in this movie, and there’s a nightmarish, almost Kafka-esque way in which the media distorts and twists reality to its own means. Nick is ripped apart for not being media savvy – he doesn’t play the victim husband like he’s supposed to, so the television turns against him. The ideas presented here – that the media is completely fake – aren’t anything new, but they remain chilling and there’s an escalating, powerless horror to everything. In almost every scene, someone is taking a picture – phones are everywhere, and Nick’s plight is played as entertainment for the masses. It’s only by playing into this media hell that Nick is able to help himself.
The cast are excellent across the board. Ben Affleck has had his fair share of criticism in the past, though recent hits like The Town and Argo have helped turn perceptions of him. He’s brilliant here, an everyman but with an uncomfortable, darker streak – he seems uncomfortable to be in the movie, like he doesn’t want to be here, though this helps with his character. It’s fitting that Fincher cast an actor who is often mocked by the press and public to play a character who is ripped apart by the media. As his counter, Rosamund Pike gives the performance of her career as the impenetrable, cold Amy. It’s almost impossible to get a grip on her character, especially in the beginning, and Pike keeps all of her emotions at bay. There is a sense that there’s more to her left in the book, however. Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens are the warm centre of the film, serving as audience surrogates, though its important to note both are proven to be wrong – there’s a dark mocking to the movie; and this plays out into a suitably anti-climatic and very fitting ending. Neil Patrick Harris turns up as Amy’s WASP-y ex, sleazy and uncertain with a unhinged edge.
Gone Girl is a dark, haunting movie and well worth seeing in cinemas.