“What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done?” At the opening of Gone Girl, Nick Dunne asks these questions regarding marriage to his wife, Amy. He also says he wishes he could get these answers by cracking open her skull.
This thin, delicate balance between love and violence, control and chaos, is a major draw of Gillian Flynn’s breakout 2012 novel as well as David Fincher’s film adaptation. Amazingly, nearly everything that made the book so engrossing has found its way to the screen.
It’s tough to discuss the film’s plot without giving away the many twists and turns, but here’s an extremely basic summary: on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) gone without a trace. Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), along with Amy’s parents, police and seemingly the entire town of North Carthage, Missouri begin a dogged search for the missing housewife. Soon, Amy is the subject of a national media frenzy. But, as the days go by and revelations begin to pile up, everyone begins to ask the question that has already been on their mind: could Nick have killed his own beloved wife?
The movie shoots back and forth between Nick’s search for Amy and Amy’s rosy (and then, gradually, less and less so) recollections of the early days of their marriage. This parallel structure worked so well in the book, and helps the film build a slow, relentless intensity. The audience is forced to piece together each part of the mystery at the same time as the characters; we never feel like we’re ahead or behind Nick in figuring out what happened to his wife. This pacing imbues even the plot’s small revelations with greater meaning.
The pacing is only one of the things that makes Gone Girl one of the best book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. The source material is tricky to say the least, but Flynn has done a bang up job adapting her own book for the screen. If anything, the tight screenplay improves upon the book, keeping the story’s unique dialogue and pitch black humor while excising some of the overlong book’s more extraneous elements.
It also helps that the acting, down to the smallest part, is spot-on. Everyone here seems perfectly cast. Ben Affleck has never given a more natural performance; he’s totally believable as a down-and-out unemployed everyman, kicked to the curb by the recession but finding ways to stay positive in the midst. Not a movie star, but an average guy put in the middle of a very bad situation. Coon is given a very juicy supporting role as Nick’s sister, and Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, cast against type, do wonders with their small but pivotal roles.
But there’s no denying that Pike is the breakout star here. Hers is an incredibly deep, layered performance, revealing Amy’s character slowly, never giving everything away. Pike’s eyes alone convey the idea that we’ll never quite figure her out, no matter how much information the movie gives us. I guess you could say she plays a woman, a real, flesh-and-blood one who refuses to be categorized or put in a box. Such a performance is surprisingly rare in our modern movie landscape. She even helps make the book’s somewhat unpalatable denouement infinitely more intriguing.
Apart from being a faithful adaptation, Gone Girl is exquisite genre filmmaking. Although some initially questioned it, David Fincher is the perfect director for this material. Although he has made a career off of crime thrillers like Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac, Fincher has really always been concerned with issues of identity. He explored it as it relates to our modern media saturated landscape in Fight Club and Zodiac, and here he’s interested in those fundamental questions Nick asks at the beginning of the film. How can I ever truly know this person in my bed? Or myself? Or anyone, really?
These are questions another famous thriller director, Alfred Hitchcock, asked repeatedly throughout his career. In fact, Gone Girl feels like the type of movie Hitchcock would have made if he didn’t have to tiptoe around the Hollywood production code. Amy strikes me as the perfect quintessential bombshell blonde, a tough-as-nails woman who won’t live her life by anyone else’s standards but her own. Nick is the film’s Scottie Ferguson, endlessly chasing after a woman he can never truly understand. I’m sure Fincher would chuckle over all the comparisons to Vertigo, but the film seems to invite them at every turn.
Fincher was wise to bring along his crew from The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for scoring The Social Network, have crafted another killer soundtrack that helps ratchet up the intensity to obscene levels. I love the now recognizable Fincher “look” cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth brings to his films, and Gone Girl’s sumptuous color palette and uncomfortably slow camera movements give it a unique rhythm all its own. Kirk Baxter won an Oscar for editing Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his name may be in the drawing again here. A sequence near the halfway point of the film in particular is easily the finest cutting job I’ve seen all year. It’s the kind of editing that dares you not to breathe as you watch it work its magic.
The quintessential question in Gone Girl is not “do we really know or spouse?” but rather, “do we really know anyone?” And how to do we go about the process of knowing? Like Fincher’s best films, The Social Network and Zodiac, the movie doesn’t provide any answers, particularly in its bitterly ironic conclusion. But it asks some provocative and uncomfortable questions that will leave you pondering long after the lights go up. This is far more than your average thriller. Be ready for it.