‘Gone Girl’ finds satire in domestic dysfunction

By Alex Frail

(Twenty Century Fox Corp.)
(Twenty Century Fox Corp.)

If you’ve ever seen a film by David Fincher, you know it never opens quietly. His most recent film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” opened with a haunting rendition of “Immigrant Song” over images of cascading black sludge. That’s why his new film, “Gone Girl,” catches you off guard. It wakens to crisp visuals of a rural town. A barely-there score accompanies the opening shots, tracking the dawn before the town’s inhabitants have rolled out of bed. Rather than soften Fincher’s point, the serene images whip up a sense of dread before we plunge into the twisted and captivating narrative that follows.

An adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller of the same name, “Gone Girl” tells a tale of a failing marriage from the words in the diary of its titular missing woman. After the reserved opening, Nick Dunne returns home to find the scene of an apparent struggle and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing. Played with unnerving apathy by Ben Affleck, Nick soon becomes the thunderhead of a national media circus. An apparent sociopath, Nick assumes the blame for Amy’s disappearance.

Affleck boasts some marvelous acting. His apathetic expressions may be mistaken for lazy acting, but here, they wonderfully represent Nick’s dissatisfaction with life. You’ll have no qualms believing he’s capable of staging Amy’s murder. When the media skewers him as an abusive husband who doesn’t care enough about Amy’s disappearance, Affleck plays the part of a slimy suspect to perfection. When Nick ponders what he and his wife have done to each other over the years, it’s enough to make you shiver.

Rosamund Pike is equally brilliant as Amy, a woman who is overshadowed by the “Amazing Amy” children’s books her mother publishes and is beleaguered by a laundry list of creeps in her past. Pike’s narration indicts Nick from the start when the couple meets and follows years of financial and health hardships. It inevitably leads to a powerful incrimination of her husband, but never ceases to surprise along the way.

Flynn, who adapted her best-selling novel for the big screen, is a powerful trickster. She slowly chips away at Nick. He shows up at the bar he co-owns with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon), clearly spread thin from some domestic dispute, but when he returns home to find the living room a mess of shattered glass, he might as well have found out Amy would be home late. He describes the scene to Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) as if reading a grocery list.

Aware that it’s in danger of an inexorably obvious conclusion, the script wisely pivots midway to a satire of the media. After all, the film is built on Amy’s words, and Flynn reminds us that there are two sides to every story. It arrives at a mighty twist that turns the film into two disjointed narratives, but both Flynn and Fincher thread them together seamlessly.

Although the narratives enjoy cohesion, the tones don’t always achieve the same fluidity. “Gone Girl” begins as a neo-noir with Fincher’s gift for dark visuals. It’s not quite the same film by the end. It ranges from thriller to mystery to satire, and the transitions are rather abrupt. The ending fits the story that builds to it, but “Gone Girl” fumbles the execution and converts a few scenes that should be satire into melodrama.

“Gone Girl,” for all its tonal inconsistencies and occasional melodrama, exceeds other crime thrillers with its cerebral study of American life. The plot has been done before. It’s not the first Fincher film with a wicked twist, either. It excels by critiquing the American economic system, examining the zeniths and nadirs of marriage and the lampooning of the media. Any viewer familiar with our 24–hour news cycle will laugh, roll their eyes and nod their heads in dejected agreement.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score, which was a fixture of Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” takes a backseat this go–around. It appropriately changes character as the narrative does – as Nick stares down the death penalty, the score creeps up on you and catches you sleeping. For the most part, however, it’s not as impressive or innovative as its award-winning predecessors.

“Gone Girl” exhibits an airtight mystery, powerful performances and beautiful cinematography. Despite these assets, it still falls short of Fincher’s finest. The crime narrative can’t match the spooky brilliance of “Se7en,” while the social commentary is less subtle and effective than it was in “The Social Network.”

That being said, it’s still a Fincher film. And that means “Gone Girl” is better than almost anything else you’ll see this year.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected]