Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Gone Girl" Goes For the Throat

It's been long enough that I think a spoiler-filled review is appropriate. A quick review up front though, if you haven't seen the film yet. Just stop reading at the end of this paragraph. David Fincher's latest film, "Gone Girl," is a domestic thriller about a woman's disappearance that takes some wild turns, and features some good performances. Rosamund Pike completely steals the show as Amy Elliott Dunne, the missing woman. Ben Affleck is no slouch either as her very imperfect husband Nick, who is not prepared for the media attention that the case attracts. "Gone Girl" is an intensely cynical, smart, and involving film that plays on all our fears about relationships and intimacy. It's the best crime film, and one of the best psychological thrillers made in years.

And Amazing Amy instantly joins the ranks of Alex Forrest from "Fatal Attraction" and Annie Wilkes from "Misery" as one of the great female screen villains. She's the embodiment of everyone's worst fear about their romantic partner, a woman who goes from picture perfect to destructive and psychopathic when things don't work out the way she wants them to. Amy is also a manipulator, who goes to extreme lengths to create a perfect sob story, and uses the voracious cable news entertainment industry to persecute her husband in her absence. Her false narrative is so convincing because it's so easy and familiar. We want to believe the wronged, victimized woman, and hate the careless, cheating man. David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn do a terrific job of playing on these tropes and leading the audience to just the right place to get the rug pulled out from underneath them with maximum force. I understand that the "Gone Girl" novel painted Nick in a much less flattering light, and the reader could conclude that he and Amy deserved each other. However, I don't mind that he's more of an everyman in the film, because it just makes Amy that much more effective and memorable.

Rosamund Pike is an actress I'm familiar with for minor parts in genre films, but I never saw her in any really substantial roles before this. Here she's got the spotlight, and there's no question that she's a star. She remains sympathetic and attractive even when she's at her worst. The second half of the film where we follow her misadventures as "Nancy" are so effective because Pike and Fincher continue to largely present her as the vulnerable, underdog figure that Amy has cast herself as in her own mind. It's only very, very late in the movie that the mask is completely off and we understand what she's fully capable of. Ben Affleck's performance doesn't have nearly the same complexity, but he does solid work and he's perfectly cast. Affleck's public persona and history with the media give Nick's encounters with the media some added impact. As Nick learns to become a public figure, it's hard not to think of that point in Affleck's career when he was better regarded for being part of the Bennifer super couple than for his artistic endeavors.

After the oddly sanitized version of "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," I was worried that David Fincher was losing some of his verve. But after "Gone Girl," that's clearly not the case. This is one of his darkest, most intense films, and he does it with very little graphic imagery or content. His style is unmistakable, but it's the tone and the mood that mark this as a Fincher film. The amount of psychological and emotional violence in play here is staggering, and far more gripping than the few instances of physical violence. That's not to say that these moments aren't handled well. Consider the jolts of Nick's fairly mild assaults on Amy and the tension created during the robbery where the perpetrators barely touch her. However, he's reduced the scale of the larger conflict down to such a personal level, while hardly sacrificing any of his usual brutality.

I also love all the little subtleties in how the "Gone Girl" universe has been constructed, especially its self-awareness about its own messages, and the way that it highlights the dangers of the media. Surely aware of the way Amazing Amy would invite discussion of its gender politics, the filmmakers offer two positive female characters, Margo (Carrie Coon) and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) to support Nick. More familiar actors - Neil Patrick Harris, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, and Tyler Perry - are used in ways that play off of or go against type. And though the scrum around Nick is reprehensible, none of the actions of any individual characters feels exaggerated or unrealistic in the slightest. Everyone, even the Nancy Grace stand-in who leads the charge against Nick, gets their moments of humanity, even if that humanity is ugly stuff.

"Gone Girl" is the kind of movie that doesn't arrive at the theaters very often anymore - a serious contemporary adult drama, chock full of issues to debate over (though not an "issue" film), and massively entertaining to boot. The closest thing I can think to compare it to, ironically, is "Gone Baby Gone," which Ben Affleck directed not too long ago. When I first heard about this project, I hoped that a little of Fincher might rub off on Affleck. Now, I'm not so sure it wasn't the other way around.

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