This is a story that owns some facet of our emotions right from the first moment. The film stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, a boy-next-door-type who early on steps through the doorway of a local dive bar with all the passiveness of a defeated casualty of marriage. On the day of his fifth wedding anniversary, the farthest thing from his mind, we suspect, is rushing home to shower his wife in gratitude – a feeling that seems echoed by his sister (Carrie Coon), who engages her brother in board games while reminding him of how much dislike she has for his choice in women. Once the inevitable trip home does occur, however, Nick discovers that not only is his wife not there to greet him, but in fact a struggle has taken place (specifically in the den behind the kitchen, which is filled with the broken glass of a coffee table). What transpired in those minutes before his arrival? An immediate call to local authorities results in the arrival of two police officers – Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) – who do a quick forensic sweep before bombarding Nick with all the obligatory questions. Needless to say, both of them will carry through this investigation until the final stretch, if for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity.
Who was Mrs. Dunne, and why would there be cause for her to be suddenly taken? The movie bounces cleverly back and forth between the present and the past to provide linking details. Bridged by diary entries read aloud to the audience, we meet the saucy but romantic Amy (Rosamund Pike), who meets her husband-to-be in an almost accidental exchange of social platitudes after both of them compare notes on the boredom of a house party. Their sarcastic parley becomes the precursor to undeniable sexual tension and, eventually, lust. They can’t get enough of one another; she is intoxicated by his zeal, and he for her ability to dismantle a façade of proper social etiquette in order to become an object of wanton desires. Ultimately this leads to what she perceives as the total realization of a storybook romance: a wedding to the most exciting man she has ever been around, and the promise of eternal happiness in his strong loving arms. Alas, something in the five years between that moment and the circumstances of the present was powerful enough to displace those sentiments – and enough so that when Amy does in fact disappear and her dear husband’s sense of reaction is complacent, it creates a doubt in legal officials (and media outlets) as to how much involvement Nick might have had in her actual disappearance.
Some of these details may or may not have been ripped from news headlines, at least for establishing premise atmosphere. The infamous Scott Petersen case, now nearly a decade old, resonates enough in the mind to inspire thoughts of parallels. The Affleck character seems almost directly modeled from him; his face and profile contain the same unbothered quality to them that Peterson revealed in courtroom proceedings, and particular details in the fallout of the search – such as the discovery of extra-marital affairs – directly echo the realities of that time. By utilizing the author of the original novel to pen this screenplay, Fincher has done himself even more of a profound service than just resting on the laurels of his gifted team of behind-the-scenes artists: that is, he has allowed the narrative to retain a scope that is thoroughly in tune with all the initial intents of its writer, who is possessed here by dual agendas. On one hand, her alternating narrative hooks are good for establishing all the necessary exposition meant to emphasize a certain social implication in the possibilities of decaying marriages; in the other, they unravel the certainty of what we see and how we are witnessing it, as if to suggest an underlying doubt in perceptions may be crossing facts with illusions. The deconstruction of Nick and Amy’s fairy tale marriage is the driving catalyst for later realizations, but almost no sense of foreshadowing in the first act could accurately prepare viewers for the whoppers waiting for them in the second and third.
If I am being vague here, it’s a deliberate choice in order to preserve critical details. The last two thirds of “Gone Girl” are of a rare quality, conveyed with such startling narrative shifts and plot twists that seem to almost come from a place of hypnotic transcendence rather than last-ditch manipulation. To say that my jaw fell to the floor on no less than three occasions would be an understatement; not only was I leaning forward in my seat through most of the material, I was also staring back at it with wide-eyed enthusiasm, conscious of the absurdity of the details and yet completely enamored without reservation in all of the psychological facets that went with them. Most directors are content to simply follow the pattern and reserve the surprises for last-minute story devices; Fincher builds an entire movie around them in order to establish devious subplots. The reasoning? It all comes down to Gillian Flynn’s windy screenplay, which could have easily been dismissed as soap opera fodder if it had been in the hands of someone less inclined to see the material through more probing eyes.
What he also finds on the other side of this delectable story is a series of performances that go beyond the dramatic demand of the premise. Affleck, who recently emerged as a revelatory filmmaker after “Argo,” is top-notch here as the aloof and unbothered Nick; so thorough in that depiction, he accomplishes the near-impossible feat of seeming sympathetic even while details around him are cause for serious questioning. By the same token, the supporting performances of Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris are also spot-on; Dickens adds the critical undercurrent of comedy to the role of a detective in pursuit of truth, while Perry and Harris – each with their own stake in the legal nightmare ahead for Amy’s husband – do outstanding jobs by remaining focused and committed even as their characters are thrown into situations that undermine their own confidence. And Rosamund Pike? As a calculated puppet in some of her own psychological games, she declares herself on screen in the same manner that many of Hitchcock’s greatest heroines did: with a sense of powerful certainty that is nearly unraveled by the alarm she is incapable of hiding from her eyes. The Master of Suspense prided himself on pushing his actors to the brink of their patience; had he lived long enough to witness Pike’s turn here, one suspects if he would have been too overpowered by her sense of individualism to interfere with the momentum.
When it comes to Fincher’s own sense of being, it has always been clear that Hitchcock has, in some ways, followed him silently through his career. “Panic Room,” the director’s most underrated film, contains all of the stylistic and narrative shades of a “Dial M for Murder.” The graphic “Seven,” despite its disparaging texture, owes as much to the psychological impulses of “Psycho” as any other film about depraved serial killers. And “Fight Club,” the most lurid of all male violence fantasies, even now seems to contain feint traces of “Strangers on a Train” and “Rope,” which too were about men obsessed with the thrill of violent inflictions. With this latest endeavor, he is no longer just emulating those qualities anymore, and all of the film’s important points – ranging from the ominous soundtrack to the urgent cinematography to the indomitable sense of pacing and ultimately to the faces of his dedicated performers caught in the midst of a cerebral nightmare – reach far past the point of shock value and settle into that groove where viewers are allowed to share in all the grins and winks that the director can muster. “Gone Girl” is the embodiment of why we are still so drawn to the immeasurable possibilities of a movie screen.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Thriller (US); 2014; Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language; Running Time: 149 Minutes
Ben Affleck: Nick Dunne
Rosamund Pike: Amy Dunne
Neil Patrick Harris: Desi Collings
Tyler Perry: Tanner Bolt
Carrie Coon: Margo Dunne
Kim Dickens: Detective Rhonda Boney
Patrick Fugit: Officer Jim Gilpin
Produced by Cean Chaffin, Lesie Dixon, Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Bruna Papandrea and Reese Witherspoon; Directed by David Fincher; Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel