2014 Academy Awards, 87th Annual Academy Awards, Academy Award Nominee, auteur theory, based on a book, Ben Affleck, Best Actress nominee, Carrie Coon, Casey Wilson, cinema, dark comedies, dark films, David Clennon, David Fincher, electronic score, Emily Ratajkowski, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, infidelity, Jeff Cronenweth, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Kim Dickens, Lisa Banes, Lola Kirke, media circus, misogyny, Missi Pyle, missing person, missing wife, Movies, mysteries, Neil Patrick Harris, Oscar nominee, Oscars, Patrick Fugit, Rosamund Pike, Scoot McNairy, Sela Ward, spoiler alert, spoilers, spousal abuse, Trent Reznor, twist ending, twists, Tyler Perry, unreliable narrator, voice-over narration
Whenever I review or discuss films, especially recently released ones, I always try to walk a careful line between giving enough information/support/examples to back up my points and trying not to spoil another filmgoer’s enjoyment of said film. Some films are just easier to spoil than others, however: films like The Crying Game (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Sixth Sense (1999) are predicated on their twists, prior knowledge of which certainly tends to lessen one’s enjoyment of these otherwise varied thrillers. There are just some cases where reviewers need to tread a little lighter: after all, one of my primary reasons for doing what I do is to help turn folks on to new films…what would be the point if they already knew how they all ended?
I begin my review of David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) thusly for one reason: it’s extremely difficult to really discuss the film – and my subsequent reactions to said film – without spoiling major chunks of it. Like the aforementioned films, Gone Girl utilizes several twists and “surprises” which must be experienced blindly in order to get the full effect. Since any discussion I tried to base around the meager bit of the story that IS common knowledge (man’s wife mysteriously disappears, suspicion falls on him) would be rather worthless, I find myself in the rare position of needing to spoil a film’s plot: if you have yet to see Gone Girl and intend to, read no further than this paragraph. For anyone who plans to see the film and wants the Cliff Notes version of my opinion, here it is: as with most of Fincher’s films, I found Gone Girl to be extremely well-crafted, albeit exceptionally shallow, rather silly and, occasionally, flat-out ridiculous. Most of my issues with the film are directly related to the midpoint twist (the first of several), making the following spoilery discussion necessary. Know one thing, though, gentle readers: as someone who’s always enjoyed Fincher’s output, I found Gone Girl to be the slightest, least impressive film in his canon.
We begin with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), our hapless protagonist and initial narrator, on the morning of his wife, Amy’s (Rosamund Pike), disappearance. It’s their five-year anniversary, although we get the impression from Nick’s snarky conversation with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), that the marriage has been anything but a happy one. His griping about his “awful” wife is belied by the flashback that we then get, showcasing the couple in much happier times. The film continues to cut back and forth between the present, where Nick discovers evidence of foul play concerning Amy’s disappearance, and the past, where we see the couple meet, fall in love, marry and go through all the usual trials and tribulations that married folks go through.
Our journey through the past is guided by Amy’s voice-over, as she narrates from her journal. Amy’s narration paints a picture of a happy marriage that gradually devolved into endless conflict and strife thanks to the usual economic conditions that foil many couples. Amy’s tale gradually gets darker, as she discusses her husband’s increasingly violent temper and her worries that he’ll eventually end up killing her. In the present, Nick is dogged by the incredibly determined Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, channeling Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996)) and her partner, Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), who seem convinced that Nick is responsible for his wife’s disappearance. As Nick’s sister does whatever she can to help her brother, Amy’s parents, Marybeth (Lisa Banes) and Rand (David Clennon), begin to believe that their son-in-law isn’t quite as innocent as he claims. The other shoe drops when we discover that Nick, a professor, is having an affair with one of his students, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski): by the film’s midpoint, things just don’t look good for ol’ Nick.
But then, of course, we get that aforementioned twist: as we find out, Amy isn’t actually dead or even missing…she’s orchestrated the whole thing in order to frame Nick for her murder and punish him for his affair. We come to see that everything we’ve been told, through her journal entries, has all been a web of lies, misdirection, exaggerations and innuendo. As an audience, we’ve fallen into that whole “unreliable narrator” morass and it’s grabbed us, fast: just when we think we’ve got it figured out, Fincher and friends pull the rug from under our feet, dumping us right on our collective butts.
The second half of Gone Girl parallels Amy’s efforts to finish off Nick and stay out of the public eye with his efforts to clear his name and prove his innocence, especially once he finds out that Amy set him up. Amy’s scheme is nothing if not thorough, however, and it seems like Nick doesn’t have a hope in hell of avoiding death row, even after he gets help from Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a larger-than-life lawyer who specializes in messy “relationship” issues like this. Nick’s only hope for clearing his name hinges on the testimony of two of Amy’s former boyfriends/victims: Tommy O’Hara (Scoot McNairy) was falsely accused of rape and had his whole life implode, while wealthy Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) was branded an obsessive stalker and put on the business end of a restraining order. If Nick and Tanner can get either of the men to tell their stories, they can prove that Amy’s actions follow a very definite pattern, one that aims to destroy any and every man she’s with.
Since one major twist isn’t quite enough, however, we get another “shocker” when Amy ends up back with Desi: she pleads for his help, claiming that she fled the abusive Nick and only wants the safety of her “true love,” the still head-over-heels Desi. While with Desi, Amy is treated like a queen, although his odd personality and some rather sinister proclamations indicate that Desi might have a few screws loose, too. In a rather bravura moment, Amy slashes Desi’s throat in the middle of a particularly aerobic lovemaking session, ending his rather pathetic existence. She then “escapes” back to the safety of her husband and the waiting media circus that surrounds him 24-7: she tells everyone that Desi kidnapped and repeatedly assaulted her before she was finally able to dispatch him and escape. Above all else, she tells the world, she’s just glad to be back with her loving husband.
Except, of course, for the little fact that Nick knows the whole thing is bullshit. Amy knows that he knows, too, and is confident that any attempt by her husband to clear up the whole mess would only result in him hanging himself all over again. The film ends with the couple in a holding pattern: Amy is back and their projected facade is nothing but happy and sunny. Behind the scenes, however, Nick must face the fact that he’s stuck, for all intents and purposes, with an exceedingly clever, amoral, murderous and cold-as-ice sociopath: til death do they part, indeed!
Up to the midpoint twist, I didn’t love Gone Girl but felt it had lots of potential: Affleck and Pike have a tremendous amount of chemistry in the early scenes, as do Affleck and Coon, and I was genuinely intrigued by the inconsistencies between Nick and Margo’s version of Amy and what we get from her flashbacks. If anything, this had a bit of the feel of Rashomon (1950), albeit filtered through the pulpy sensibilities of film noir. It seems as if the film will drag the mystery out across its 2.5 hour running time, maybe even leaving us in doubt as the final credits roll…not the worst case scenario, if you think about it.
The revelation of Amy as not only coldly calculating but also wildly misanthropic, however, effectively drops the film on its ass…hard. For one thing, it removes the mystery angle, which significantly curtails one of the most effective aspects of the film, up to that point: our collective doubt over Nick’s guilt. Once we see that not only is Nick innocent but that Amy is kind of a monster, Gone Girl becomes an entirely different film. At this point, Pike becomes a scenery shredder: she’s so villainous that it becomes impossible to really side with her, despite whatever might have happened between her and Nick. We know that Nick had an affair, one of the few facts that both he and Amy seem to agree on, but we get no sense of the details or even the time-frame: was the affair what set Amy over the edge or was the affair in response to Amy’s original behavior? We’re never told but, thanks to how unreliable the rest of Amy’s narration proves to be, it’s not difficult to guess.
Once the truth comes out, the film lurches from one unrealistic scenario to another. While the first half was just pulpy enough to feel unique, the second half is a complete mess of over-the-top performances, eye-rolling coincidences and wild tonal shifts. While Affleck and Coon still seem to be playing it fairly straight, everyone else seems to be stretching for comedy beats that just aren’t there: particularly egregious is Perry, whose Tanner Bolt never comes across as anything more than a spectacularly goofy, forcefully “quirky” character. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Missi Pyle’s silly “Nancy Grace” impression, however, or the way in which quirky Casey Wilson seems to have wandered onto set from her previous role in the TV show Happy Endings.
Dickens, as mentioned earlier, just plays Det. Boney as a variation on Marge Gunderson (you can almost, subliminally, hear her delivering the lines in regional dialect) and I was never sure what Patrick Fugit was doing: his entire performance seemed to involve him sagely nodding or cocking his head to one side…it was almost a pantomime and rather odd, if I do say so. In a suitably ironic moment, the only cast member who consistently under-acts is Neil Patrick Harris: his take on Desi Collings is as far from any of his previous roles as possible, yet is also so dry and uninteresting as to be largely a wasted opportunity…I didn’t think it would be possible for Harris to come across as “dull” in a performance but Gone Girl proved me wrong.
One of the biggest surprises, for me, was just how over-the-top Pike ends up being, despite the fact that much of her performance is a slow-burn. I expected quite a bit more from the performance, especially after she secured an Oscar nomination, but it never really worked for me: all of the beats and character tics were way too obvious and there was no nuance to the role. Critics (and audiences) tend to love performances where actors get to simultaneously portray both sides of the coin but I never felt that Pike’s portrayal of Amy ever got above surface-level: she’s “good,” then she’s “bad” and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
Affleck, by contrast, comes across as more likable (by default) but he also becomes a bit of a non-entity after the revelation: in many ways, the film becomes more about Amy’s continued attempts to fry Nick than it is about his attempts to clear his name. On a purely nitpicking level, I was also rather turned-off by Affleck’s oddly mush-mouthed delivery, especially in the early sections of the film: there are parts that seem like he’s just sort of mumbling to himself, which (sometimes) fits the character but more often feels like lazy delivery.
The film also felt more than a little misogynist, to me, which seems a strange complaint given that both the original source novel and the screenplay were written by a woman, Gillian Flynn. While Flynn has been quoted as being surprised at being labeled a misogynist for simply writing about “bad women,” my complaint with Gone Girl actually goes a bit deeper than that. In an era where we have several high-profile examples of women coming forward with rape and abuse allegations only to be largely dismissed (the recent Bill Cosby controversy is only one example), it was a little bothersome that part of Amy’s evil plan involves falsely accusing men of rape and abuse. To me, it almost felt as if the film was making a silent condemnation of these various real-life incidents, as if to say, “You just can’t trust these lying women, can you?” Since the film never firmly establishes whether any of the men in her life ever abused her or whether Amy has always been dangerously disturbed, it makes the case that every man in the film is a victim, whereas she’s the only real “villain.” Again, hard to say whether this an issue with the script or Fincher’s direction but it was something that kept rearing its head, time and again.
As far as filmcraft goes, Gone Girl is up there with Fincher films like The Panic Room (2002) or The Social Network (2010), although it’s nowhere near as “dark” as his classics like Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999) or Zodiac (2007). One thing that I noticed was how lukewarm the normally reliable Trent Reznor score is: while I was really impressed with Reznor’s work on The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake (2011), the subtle score, here, blends into the background, becoming the equivalent of white noise. It certainly doesn’t take one out of the film but it also seems like kind of a waste: I definitely expected more.
More than anything, I can’t help but wonder how the film might have played if the “twist” hadn’t been delayed as long as possible, allowing us to stew (along with Nick and the others) in the juices of our own indecision. By establishing that Amy is a monster (at least in relation to the film that we’ve been given), the element of mystery is gone and we’re left with the decidedly odd situation where we’re supposed to root for (I guess?) a sociopath as she frames innocent people for her actions. Nick might not be innocent (again, aside from the affair, we’re not given anything else to go by) but he’s practically a saint when compared to Amy. While the film functions just fine as a rather middling, if decidedly silly, take on film noir, it just never came together enough for me to fully embrace and enjoy it. Fitfully intriguing, mostly frustrating and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious (for all the wrong reasons), Gone Girl stands as one of the larger missteps in Fincher’s oeuvre, to this point. While the masses seem to have embraced Gone Girl, count me as one of the ones standing on the sidelines, wondering what the fuss is about. Going once, going twice…gone, girl…way gone.