Under Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a perfect stylistic match for David Fincher’s brand of filmmaking, probably too perfect in fact. The risk with Fincher’s filmmaking, as always, is with storytelling. Fincher doesn’t write his own scripts, so the question is whether the plot moves along with the same crispness as his striking visuals. When the details marry what the camera captures, the result can be nothing short of entrancing and creepy—see 2007’s masterful Zodiac (still Fincher’s best, for my money). Too often Gone Girl falls flat in ways comedic and dramatic, laying duds in several attempts at humor early on and dallying before introducing some truly engaging characters and storylines that could have deepened the material or made it more sickly. Based on the 2011 novel of the same name and adapted by its author Gillian Flynn (I haven’t read the book), I came away with the feeling that Flynn’s script was missing more than just a missing wife. I encountered most of my problems with Gone Girl in the film’s first half.

I’ll try avoiding major plot points, but suffice it to say that the film hinges on a major twist occurring halfway through. For me, given the film’s focus during its first hour, I would’ve preferred resolving the mystery clarified by the twist much sooner, mostly because I was annoyed that the film cared little if you bought into the mystery. You’re probably aware that the film involves a sort of he-said-she-said accounts of a marriage before a wife’s disappearance (he and she being Ben Affleck’s Nick and Rosamund Pike’s Amy, respectively).

The film is less cryptic about who is behind Amy’s disappearance than whether Nick killed her, and while I’m not sure if this was a poor choice, I’m absolutely positive that the film was incredibly unpersuasive in selling this enigma. Plausible alternative suspects are either discovered too late or revealed as innocent too soon. Key facts that would throw your guess into doubt are withheld until you’ve already made up your mind, and one of the pair’s narrations “comes perilously close to tipping the film’s hand,” as Genevieve Koski wrote. Too often, especially in this first hour, I was rolling my eyes (at least once my girlfriend and I could finish a joke before a character could) or antsy and frustrated, just waiting until the central mystery would give way to something more interesting.

It didn’t help that insights into Amy’s past where unhelpful, both to the police investigating her disappearance and to the story at large. One in particular, that a thinly veiled version of Amy was the subject of a book series, felt like a rip off of a similarly infuriating storyline on Six Feet Under. In another flashback, of Amy’s description of the first time she met Nick, the film (as indicated by Amy’s enthusiastic voice-over) is keen on depicting the spark of romance, but that first encounter is utterly ridiculous and felt devoid of chemistry, not least when she tells Nick that her job is to write personality quizzes in tabloid dreck. This isn’t to say that Affleck and Pike are out of their element. Quite the contrary obviously—I think what are otherwise solid and interesting performances are undone by the fact that their characters are almost acting in two separate movies. Amy, for example comes across frequently as a robot, and the film could’ve used a buffer between her and the other characters.

Luckily, after the twist some of these bothersome early scenes begin to make much more sense from the characters’ perspectives, but if I saw Gone Girl again I’d still be agitated to sit through that first hour. Much better is its second act, where some characters start to appear and fill the chasm (emotional and story-wise) between Nick and Amy—the most welcome addition, surprisingly but wonderfully cast, is Tyler Perry as Nick’s celebrity criminal lawyer. It took a while, but it was mostly after Perry’s arrival that I finally cared about the film’s outcome.

From a filmic perspective, Fincher is also more comfortable in the second hour, not shockingly when blood is shed. A late murder is staged with the classic, clinical coldness for which Fincher is justly famous, bloody crimson staining the film’s eerie yellow glow. Another encounter with some Missouri hillbillies is unsettling. These scenes were too brief, however, and if the story could’ve headed sooner in this direction we could’ve spent more time with them, perhaps discovering a hidden layer of horror beneath. The film needed a splash more color—Fincher doesn’t shoot (what’s supposed to be) Missouri with the same affection as his native San Francisco (see Zodiac and The Game) and some eccentricity would have livened the proceedings. A good example of this I think is Neil Patrick Harris’ character—Harris is splendidly cast but his character’s presence is barely hinted at until he finally shows up, and it’s too little, too late. I had a similar criticism for True Detective; like that series I felt the film edged close to genuine creepiness and backed away before it could provide any.

Also only hinted at is any semblance of social commentary. Lots of reviews have described that Gone Girl is a portrait of a marriage, which misses the fact that there is almost nothing naturalistic or reminiscent of truths about relationships in Gone Girl. Though the film is set in post-recession America and Nick and Amy (and other Missourians, presumably) are struggling to find work, the film discusses this unpleasantness only on a surface level, and again it doesn’t help that I was supposed to think Amy wrote relationship quizzes. More cloying still is the film’s view of broadcast media, channeled repeatedly, ad nauseam through a Nancy Grace impersonator. If your idea of media criticism amounts to “Nancy Grace is crazy,” that’s not much more profound than a fourth grader could come up with after watching Nancy Grace breathe air for thirty seconds. Gone Girl is better described as a noir, but it’s sadly a rather shallow attempt at noir, lending me less engrossment than boredom.

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3 Responses to Under Review: Gone Girl

  1. buckeyedpeas says:

    A few thoughts I forgot to include:

    (1) I touched on this in the review but Fincher is an absolute genius at casting. Probably the best in the business. That’s most evident by his use of Perry and NPH here, plus the actress who plays Nick’s sister (from The Leftovers) and to a certain extent Affleck. I’m unfamiliar with Pike’s work so I can’t really speak to that. Sometimes you see the previews and you’re like WTF Tyler Perry is in this movie? (E.g. Timberlake, Downey (Zodiac was before Iron Man), Brad Pitt) but the dude knows who’s right for the part.

    (2) I neglected to mention the score, composed again by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It was their Social Network score that in part turned me on to Nine Inch Nails because it so elevated that movie. Sublime work is par for the course with these guys; their stuff is so of a piece with Fincher’s aesthetic.

    (3) I mentioned that I haven’t read the book, and I’ve wondered whether this is actually a case where it would’ve helped me to read the source material beforehand, something I normally avoid if I’m unfamiliar. I read a piece (can’t find it unfortunately) in which the reviewer had skimmed the Wikipedia entry before he went and so was aware of the twist. I think that knowing what was going to happen could’ve freed me up to pay attention to some other stuff going on in the first hour instead of being distracted by (what I thought) was poor handling of the central mystery.

  2. Debbie Warfield says:

    I liked the movie and having read the book, knew what was coming. So, I wasn’t so antsy. I agree that developing other, really most, of the other characters would have made the movie better. Hiwever, i do think that Amy telling Nick that she wrote personality quizzes is supposed to be a joke; some comic chatter meant to charm Nick.

  3. Mark Warfield says:

    I liked the movie. I thought it was very entertaining.

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