There is a lot of great stuff going on in "Gone Girl", the new film from director David Fincher ("Se7en", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"). Working from a screenplay adapted by the novel's writer, Gillian Flynn, the director and his team create a haunting, twisty, dark tale of the marriage of one couple. Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike ("Wrath of the Titans", "Hector and the Search for Happiness") as the 'perfect' couple, and a wealth of very good actors playing the supporting characters, "Gone Girl" goes places you don't expect and that is only one of the many fine elements of this very, very good film.
There are at least three different stages to "Gone Girl" and while much of each of these stages seems to have a definite start and end, there is a lot of overlap which you aren't aware of immediately. I am not going to talk about this because the beauty of this film lies in the discovery and surprise.
Nick and Amy Dunne (Affleck and Pike) ‘meet cute’ in a bar in New York. A few years later, he ‘proposes cute’ during an event promoting one of her mother's books. Her mother is the author of the "Amazing Amy" series of children's books, an extremely popular series plagiarizing her daughter’s life and, as Amy states, Amazing Amy always went one better. Nick and Amy get married and begin an annual tradition on their anniversary - Amy creates a treasure hunt for Nick leading to an appropriate gift for that year. First anniversary – Paper, so the treasure hunt leads to a beautiful paper journal for Nick to write his novel in. A couple of years later, they move back to Nick's hometown in Missouri, so he can be with his dying mother and his sister Margo, or Go (Carrie Coon, HBO’s “The Leftovers”) as everyone calls her. Now five years later, the perfect couple are having problems - Nick spends the morning of their anniversary at The Bar, a pub he and his sister own. He returns home to find their cat outside and a coffee table overturned and smashed in the living room, Amy nowhere to be found. He calls the cops and Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, HBO’s “Treme”, TV’s “Friday Night Lights”, “Sons of Anarchy”) and Officer Philip Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, “We Bought a Zoo”, "Almost Famous”) respond. Detective Boney walks around asking questions and placing Post-Its near suspicious things. Gilpin observes Nick, offering more clues to his true feelings through his facial expressions. Eventually, Amy's parents arrive and help Nick organize searches. And naturally the suspicions about Nick increase ten-fold every day until finally everyone suspects him of foul play. Eventually, he hires Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a high-profile defense attorney, to lead his case. Tanner wants Nick to do an interview with Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), a popular television anchor. And then Nick discovers some letters to Amy from her old college sweetheart, Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris).
"Gone" is not a short film, it runs over two and a half hours, but you will not notice that you are sitting in your seat for that long. As you watch the tale unfold and the characters begin to reveal their secrets you get caught up in the story and take the journey. Once you are on the journey, it is almost as though you are wrapped in a cocoon and time stops.
Affleck's career is an example of a filmmaker finally taking the reins of his career and creating a body of work to be proud of. His body of work a few years ago was laughable, he just seemed to make one bad film after another until no one wanted to see his films. Then he started to do good work again. And he directed three really good films – ‘Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo”. It is an amazing career transformation that we don't always see but given the roles he has done since, I'm glad it happened. It is a good example of what can happen when a suddenly famous actor gets caught up in his own stardom and begins making d choices based on the money offered. Not everyone can then go on to create a great body of work but Affleck seems to be one of the exceptions. I can't wait to see what else he brings to us.
As Nick Dunne, Affleck plays it pretty straight. He needs to. With all of the stuff going on around him, playing Nick more low key makes him seem more real. He and Amy whisper a lot during their courtship phase and Nick always seems to say the right thing, the sweet thing, the lovey-dovey thing. When Amy disappears, he doesn't change all that much except to raise the volume of his voice. He is immediately suspected of and denies any involvement, he simply wants her back. But public opinion is swayed and Nick goes on the defensive.
For a long time, Nick's everyman-ness plays well, but it seems boring. He is simply another version of the husband who denies anything to do with his wife's disappearance. Then, some of Nick's secrets start to come to light and you begin to realize he isn't the super wholesome All-American boy he is trying to be. Affleck brings those secrets to light slowly and reluctantly. And they make Nick much more interesting. It is a near flawless performance.
Rosamund Pike has worked in British film and television for years and made appearances in a handful of films you are probably at least somewhat familiar with, most notably "Wrath of the Titans" and the recent "Hector and the Search for Happiness". She is a good actress, but nothing she has done before would give any indication she might be able to make such an impact as Amy Dunne. Her portrayal of Amy is also flawless, making her a mesmerizing creation.
From the moment they meet cute, Nick and Amy seem to be madly in love. But this seems to be at direct odds with what Nick tells his sister at the beginning of the film. Things aren't good between them. So why does Amy seem so in love? As we learn more about Amy, we learn about her relationship with her parents and it seems particularly painful. Amy clearly has a lot of resentment about being the subject of a series of highly successful children's books (despite enjoying the benefits of a trust fund and a bank account filled with the royalties) and holds a certain amount of resentment towards her parents. Nick almost seems like an escape hatch. And as their relationship progresses, Nick and Amy have some problems as well. And these seem to lead the police to suspect Nick.
Throughout the film, Pike keeps Amy intense, but also low-key. It would seem like these two things would be at odds, but the actress makes it work and creates a character who does nothing but hold our attention.
One of the great surprises of "Girl" is how exceptionally good the entire supporting cast is. I really want to single out one or two of these people, but I can't. They are all good and none should really be singled out. Carrie Coon plays Margo "Go" Dunne, Nick's sister. She and Nick own The Bar (thanks to Amy’s trust fund) and it is interesting to watch her match the changes and developments in Nick, she is clearly influenced by her brother and will follow him to the ends of the Earth. Neil Patrick Harris' Desi Collings is quite simply a revelation; I have never seen Harris do anything this complex and nuanced. From the moment Desi first appears, he seems like a creepy groupie when in fact he takes the creepiness and adds a lot more dimension to it, amping it up but also making it more human. Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit are both letter perfect as the two detectives in charge of trying to find Amy. They have a practiced routine down and don't alter it when they initially meet Nick. Dickens' Detective Boney uses a conversational 'you-can-tell-me-everything' tone while Fugit's Officer Gilpin is less experienced and practiced at putting on this persona. He merely stares and listens, but his version of the smile Boney so readily uses is more strained. Tyler Perry is also great as Tanner Bolt, the high-powered handler Nick hires to help him wade through the media frenzy. Maybe this is a good indication for Perry that he should appear in more films made by other directors? The Madea films (that Perry writes, directs, produces and stars in) aren't getting him the praise and applause they once did. Missi Pyle (lots of TV credits) plays Ellen Abbott, one of the 24-hour-news pundits that latches onto a case like Nick’s and constantly debate the story as long as the ratings are there. Sela Ward plays Sharon Schreiber, more of the equivalent of Katie Couric or Diane Swayer. And even her short appearance is very memorable. In her two scenes, you know immediately who she is and what she wants from the interview with Nick.
"Gone Girl" is also a very well-made film. But the music by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Rose, who worked on the music for "The Social Network", is a real stand-out. It is a haunting score that works extremely well to punctuate and highlight the key moments. The music is so different from the typical - it almost seems non-existent until it is necessary to bring attention to a key moment. Even with this happens, it doesn't hit you over the head, as say the work of John Williams would. In fact, the score is so ambient, I almost forgot it was there, it lulled me into missing it.
And Fincher deserves a lot of praise for creating this intense film, yet another in his canon of work. Fincher seems drawn to unique stories and brings his unique skills to each project, giving them a polish and shine many filmmakers are unable to even contemplate. Letting the various threads of the narrative unfold to a haunting music score is something only David Fincher could and would do. He has done it before and each time, it seems to get a little better.
Fincher also seems to have a gifted hand at storytelling and he works with some really gifted screenwriters. For “Girl”, Fincher and Flynn craft the screenplay to reveal specific parts of the narrative as they are needed. More to their credit, this stylized method of storytelling seems completely natural. Just as one thread seems to be reaching its conclusion, the next thread of the story begins. At a later point, you realize this new thread actually started quite a bit earlier, it just blended in with the rest so seamlessly. With each new film, Fincher's skills seem to get better and the overall experience is more tense. Given the level he is at now, I can't even imagine how good his next five films will be.
There has been a lot of press about Fincher asking Flynn to change the ending of the story for the film. I did not read the book (although I still might, I suspect this might be an example of a book and film that can co-exist) so I can't comment about how extensive or impactful this change was. It doesn't really matter, because the film's ending is very powerful and leaves you wishing it would go on, so we could see more of this twisty, weird, unexpectedly great film.