Silver Screen: Gone Girl ****1/2
How appropriate that Fight Club director David Fincher is behind the big-screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s hothouse psychological thriller Gone Girl, because the first rule of Gone Girl is: You do not talk about Gone Girl.
At least you can’t really talk about Gone Girl, not without giving away the biggest and boldest of the movie’s many delirious twists. Flynn’s novel is a thorny, seductive, elegant airport book, one so beguiling you’ll hope your flight is delayed a few hours so you can finish it. It might not quite transcend its pulp roots, but it’s complex and thought-provoking genre fiction at its best, deserving of a spot among the pantheon of unforgettable thrillers by the likes of Thomas Harris and Ira Levin. The story is meticulously constructed around a second-act twist that pivots the plot into an entirely new direction without sacrificing fidelity to what has come before it. To reveal it would be to significantly dull the movie’s impact.
Here’s what you can know about Gone Girl going in. Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, one half of the unhappiest marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. He and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) meet at a party where they discover they both write fluff features for magazines. He’s a salt-of-the-earth type from Missouri, and she’s the trust-fund baby of a pair of children’s book authors who made their fortune pillaging her childhood for their popular Amazing Amy series. The couple achieve something like domestic bliss until the recession hits and the magazine industry implodes, leaving them both jobless just as Nick is called back to Missouri to care for his ailing mother. Metropolitan Amy chafes at the boredom and isolation of small-town Missouri while Nick distracts himself by running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon).
Then one morning, Amy goes missing. There are signs of a struggle but precious few clues at the house. Nick cooperates fully with Detective Boney (Kim Dickens), whose investigation uncovers new details about their marital strife. The evidence starts to pile up against Nick.
The film opens with Amy’s disappearance, but she’s not without a voice in the story. Fincher alternates the present-day narrative involving Nick with flashbacks taken from Amy’s diary, which chronicles the giddy thrills of their earliest encounters to even darker conflicts than Detective Boney has uncovered.
And then you should see the movie. Fincher, working from a script by Flynn herself, does an admirable job of translating the novel’s alternating perspectives, and almost but not quite captures the novel’s macabre midpoint twist. Gone Girl runs a generous two-and-a-half hours but never drags. In fact, the ending is a bit rushed. But the dynamite team of Fincher and Flynn keep the suspense ratcheted up the entire time.
Fincher’s distinctive style is evident, yet he subjugates it to Flynn’s story rather than trying to put his stamp on it as he did with another bestseller adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He’s reteamed with his Dragon Tattoo and Social Network cinematographer, who gives the movie a clean, crisp look that contrasts just enough with its grim but never seedy undertones. The movie’s lone scene of gore— beautifully staged— most clearly bears the director’s signature, but otherwise the violence all comes through in sharp words and harsh truths that cut as deep as any knife.
The cast is excellent. Affleck is sympathetic while still being smarmy enough to believe the whole country could turn against him— something he’s had a bit of personal experience with. Pike, too, is excellent. The look she gives the camera in the first scene lingers long after the credits have rolled. She captures Amy’s unknowability without making the character ever seem vague or undefined. Or, as Nick puts it early on, sometimes he wants to crack open her skull and unspool her brain to find out what secrets live there.
The leads are backed up by a strong supporting cast, including the always wonderful Dickens, the impressive stage actress Coon, and nice if brief turns from Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy as a pair of Amy’s ex-boyfriends whose obsessions may factor into the puzzle. Missi Pyle is a perfect choice for the movie’s appropriately grating Nancy Grace stand-in, and Tyler Perry— yep, that Tyler Perry— is surprisingly effective and understated as hotshot defense attorney Tanner Bolt.
And don’t forget that Gone Girl was partially shot in nearby Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with some scenes filmed at Southern Illinois locations like Giant City State Park.
Gone Girl isn’t without its share of minor flaws to nitpick, but there’s nothing that should detract much from its intoxicating effect. Feminist critics are likely to find fault with a few of the plot’s essential elements, just as they’ve complained about the book, but to accuse the movie of straying into #notallmen gender-war Twitter sniping is to ignore its unflattering depiction of both sides of the divide. Flynn’s worldview is barbed and cynical, and her characters are darkly compelling. (Without revealing any more, I’ll say that Gone Girl’s villain ranks among modern moviedom’s most intriguing antagonists.) The sometimes bleak world of Gillian Flynn is a wonderful place to visit— but you wouldn’t want to live there, and if you did, you might not live very long.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.