“You have a villain’s chin,” Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells Nick (Ben Affleck) on the night of their first meeting. It’s true: Affleck has a face you want to punch. He’s good-looking but in a glib, smarmy kind of way; is that a face you can trust? And when Nick responds by touching two fingers to the cleft of said chin — an inside joke that, like Nick and Amy’s relationship, eventually curdles and turns cold — the audience is thwacked with the realization that this guy is doomed. He is a marked man. But the real question is: who is doing the marking?
Gone Girl is a funhouse mirror of many faces — brooding character study, gripping whodunit, caustic satire, pulpy “missing wife” drama that is several cuts above Lifetime movie territory — with angles that distort and slice and splinter under the skin. In other words, a vehicle tailor-made for director David Fincher, whose dossier of brutal psychological thrillers (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) gets its most unnerving entry yet via Gillian Flynn’s nimble, insidious best-seller. From the moment we hear Nick’s opening monologue, about his desire to unspool his wife’s brains from her pretty head, it is with a sigh of relief that we remember: this story is in very capable hands.
Yes, Fincher’s Gone Girl is a nasty piece of work, and Flynn’s screenwriting credit is an essential reason for that. But watching the novel’s events play out onscreen is in many ways more unsettling than reading them on the page, because hearing Amy deliciously recite her diary entries, feeling the palpable smack of a head against a wall, actually seeing the bright red blood – the garish, visceral quality that so often shapes Fincher’s vision as an auteur, and returns in fine form here — shocks and disturbs anew. I say this because I assume most of the moviegoers in my packed theatre on opening night had already read the book, and yet there was no shortage of audible gasps and even screams at key plot points, which, I should also add, remain largely faithful to the source material.
Did Nick Dunne, an unfortunate Scott Peterson doppelgänger in looks and affectless personality, murder his pretty, lonely housewife and make it look like an abduction? Suspicion rolls in from day one of Amy’s disappearance – Nick returns home on the afternoon of their fifth wedding anniversary to find the living room in shambles, Amy gone without a trace – and Detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, of TV’s Friday Night Lights) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, remember him as the kid from Almost Famous?) are split. Gilpin dislikes him from the start; Boney gives him the benefit of the doubt. But when the media circus comes to town — that is, small, burnt-out North Carthage, Mo., where Nick presumably dragged Amy from New York to care for his dying mother and then used Amy’s trust fund to build a corner bar, a McMansion, a new suburban life — it’s clear that public perception is what matters most, and Nick doesn’t fit the picture of doting, grieving husband. He smiles at all the wrong times, especially at the first press conference, when he leans in to one of Amy’s blown-up headshots and flashes teeth for the shutterbugs, click click click. Gotcha! He looks bad; he looks guilty. And the sharks are already circling in the water, sniffing for blood.
Clipping by at a speedy 145 minutes, Gone Girl suffers only slightly from a script heavy on the exposition and leading dialogue, because, ultimately, the writing is too damn good to dislike. The one-liners zing; the action is impeccably paced; and the infamous Cool Girl speech is made even more electrifying with Pike’s icy voiceover, Fincher’s signature fast cuts, and composer Trent Reznor’s whirring, needling score.
But Gone Girl’s greatest boon is the casting, which is pretty close to perfect. Pike, a Hitchcockian beauty with Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct chill, is a revelation as Amy, who may not be as “amazing” as she seems. Affleck puts his natural caginess to good use as Nick, a ladies man who is not hard to like but surprisingly easy to hate. Carrie Coon (of HBO’s The Leftovers) is great as Nick’s more down-to-earth twin sister, Margot, and Tyler Perry, better known for his Madea-style of broad comedy, is cool and charismatic as “husband killer” defense attorney Tanner Bolt. The smaller roles (memorably filled by the likes of Sela Ward, Boyd Holbrook, Lola Kirke, and “Blurred Lines” video star Emily Ratajkowski) also impress, while Missi Pyle wins best cameo for her spot-on Nancy Grace impression. The only weak spot is Neil Patrick Harris, who shoots for blank stoicism over nuance, and, when giving a tour of his tricked-out lake house, slips right back into Barney Stinson mode.
The biggest distraction, however, is the product placement — Diet Coke, Walmart, CVS, New Balance, Dreyer’s, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, and probably more that I’m forgetting because you know, that’s how subliminal messaging is supposed to work — which is one of the most blatant and forced displays of consumer pandering that I’ve seen in a long time.
Still, minor quibbles aside, the film more than lives up to its source material. Shocking, subversive, and often wickedly funny, Gone Girl is not Fincher’s best film, but certainly one of his most entertaining, and Fatal Attraction-level damning to romance (great for your anti-date night!).
Overall, the direction is sharp. The acting is sublime. And that ending? Killer.