SOMEWHERE NEAR THE end of “Gone Girl”, David Fincher’s master- class in the art of constructing a tension-filled thriller, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) says to his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) about their marriage, “All we did was resent each other and cause each other pain,’’.
”That’s marriage,’’ she replies.
This is not the kind of dialogue you’d expect from any run of the mill thriller. But “Gone Girl” isn’t a run of the mill thriller. According to Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book and the screemplay, it’s “an adult film”
And, after waiting all year for one, what a magnificent adult film it is too. The last attempt at an adult murder mystery this year was the mannered, dreadful “The Two Faces of January”, a movie that strained both your credibility and patience. “Gone Girl” on the other hand is an outlandish story, made entirely plausible by its rootedness in its sharp, trenchant observations of marriage, deceit and the sometimes necessity of pretense.
Gillian Flynn’s best selling novel offered its readers two side of the story, a “he said, she said” mystery to unwrap. The mystery is the missing Amy. Hubby Nick returns home one day – depressed, worried about something – to find his home a scene of smashed glass and his wife missing. The lead detective (Kim Dickens) discovers blood splatters and an area where there was clearly a massive loss of blood. There is no body. But there is every sign that something dire has occurred. And then there is Nick, who seems too unfazed by it all. He does not give the appearance of the distraught man. So the police, like the media, epitomized by an attention grabbing, near hysterical newscaster, Ellen Abbot (Missy Pile) jump to the conclusion that Nick’s a murderer. Somewhere, dumped in some canal or tangled field must lie the butchered body of his, by now near angelic wife, Amy.
We follow the unfolding story both from Nick’s perspective – the absent wife, the accusative media and public, his loyal and trusting twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), his pragmatic lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and mounting evidence of his seeming guilt – and from her’s, via a diary she’s written describing their marriage. From the perspective of the diary, their once ideal marriage had descended into a relationship of occasional violence and building dread. This is a woman who lives in mortal fear of her husband, so much so that she’s forced to buy a gun.
Fincher’s unfussy directing and Flynn’s clear, brilliant plotting pulls us into its web of mystery. It’s a mystery that delivers all the forward momentum of any great mystery as we follow along waiting for the big reveal. But this one is different. On several dimensions, the movie upends the rules of the genre. For one thing there’s no body to provide an “aha” moment for some genius forensics scientist; there’s no scatter of characters, any of whom might have done it; the clues that are found have all been deliberately placed by Amy as part of a silly game; smart sleuthing uncovers nothing; and more tellingly, in a genre that’s almost 100% plot driven, this is a densely character driven story.
The two lead characters – Nick and Amy- are presented from entirely different perspectives: we see Nick from the outside – what he’s doing, how he’s reacting to events, where he goes to try to prove himself innocent etc. Indeed, what he’s feeling is so opaque that this view from the outside yields and entirely false judgment of his character. Because the townspeople and the choric newscaster see him as unfeeling, their pop psychology analyses jump to the conclusion that he’s clearly guilty. We see her on the other hand, entirely from the inside: what she’s thinking and worrying about as she writes the diary. We ’re privy to her fears and joys. Her empathetic relationship with a pregnant neighbor is seen as illuminating a woman who’s the good, pure and innocent victim.
For “Gone Girl”, in this world of media monitoring it’s not who you are that matters, it’s how you’re seen. Amy has grown up as a media darling via a series of books basically about a better version of her written by her parents. She understands the gap between perception and reality and how to be seen by the cameras around her, as becomes evident later in the story. Nick’s rite of passage is that he too must learn how to hide what he feels and and recalibrate how he is seen. His turning point comes when he realizes that the route to the truth must follow a path of lies. He learns how to present a version of himself leavened for public consumption. He learns how to dissimulate well enough to set a trap.
We’re all trained by now to know that things in thrillers aren’t as they seem and as one twist leads to another, no matter how improbably, we’re there to gasp along with the thrill of it all.
The two leads – Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike – carry the movie. Fincher’s casting is brilliant. Ben Affleck’s good looks add a layer of distrust to his character. He’s probably too good-looking, too smooth to be trustworthy. But though Ben (as my wife reminded me) is one helluva hunk, he still retains an endearing everyman aura. He is entirely believable as the suave smooth talking successful New York magazine journalist (and one who despite their twenty year difference can credibly ‘pull’ a beautiful student). But he’s equally convincing as a down in the mouth man who’s fallen on hard times and is now running a dive bar. Affleck’s acting mastery is such that we’re never entirely sure whether he’s guilty or not. He encourages us to empathize with him just up to a point. But really, he’s no Mr. Perfect. Indeed, he’s a bit of a scumbag. But is he that much of a scumbag as to commit murder?
As for her – though she’s been in a number of movies before (thirty six actually including TV roles) – this is clearly Rosamund Pike’s big breakthrough. After all, who remembered her in “Jack Reacher” or “Wrath of the Titans”. For that matter, who remembers “Jack Reacher” or “Wrath of the Titans”? Pike’s character is a calibrated balancing act between the sympathetic scorned woman and the femme fatale; between the intelligent, driven and successful professional and the plotting bitch. We’re never too sure whether we’re seeing the real person or a fabricated image of the person she wants us to see. Fincher plays up these surface dimensions, and Amy’s understanding of them: when we meet her, she’s the gorgeous, somewhat icy, perfectly coiffed blond beauty. Unlike Nick, Amy understands when it’s necessary to alter this image so that she can blend in and suggest the character she wants her image to convey. Like Affleck, Pike delivers a many layered, flawless performance. She knows how to use her icy beauty to deadly perfection.
These two anchor the movie. But the supporting cast is equally strong. In particular, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s ex. Desi. Like Affleck and Pike, the choice by Fincher (or at least casting director Lara Mayfield who also casts “House of Cards” and is part of Fincher’s A-team having worked with him on “The Social Newtork” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” etc) of Patrick Harris is perfect. He adds an unnerving creepiness; someone from whom you can expect no good to come.
So, a movie about marriage where people simply resent each other and cause each other pain. Brilliant!