For much of David Fincher’s career, the filmmaker has crafted films that are best enjoyed – at least the first time – without any advance knowledge (spoiler-free, as it were). From “Fight Club” to “Se7en,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “The Game,” and even fact-based features like “Zodiac” and “The Social Network,” going in without knowing the outcome has proven to be the best way to approach a Fincher film. Fincher’s films have long rewarded his audiences with tricky, clever surprises – from actual content to his often-unique narrative styles – but that’s all changed with the director’s latest film, “Gone Girl.”
Based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name (and get ready to read that phrase a lot more in the coming months, as another one of Flynn’s novels is soon set to hit the big screen, while yet another is going the television series route), “Gone Girl” is a rare bird: a tricky, weird mystery that benefits from people knowing its twist from the outset. Knowing what’s “really” going on in the film may not be absolutely essential – Fincher’s dark-as-night humor and ability to build a hell of a thriller works for audiences who know what’s going on just as well as they do for audiences that don’t – but realizing what everything is building up to adds a layer of excitement, anticipation, and yes, even some amusement that’s quite special (and especially enjoyable).
In the most basic (and spoiler-free) terms, “Gone Girl” chronicles the sudden disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) from her well-appointed Missouri home, and the subsequent fall-out heaped on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) from the media, their families, and a pair of sharp-witted detectives who never let up. Nick has some secrets – is one of them that he hurt Amy? – that make him act, well, a little funny once he’s thrown into the spotlight as the country searches for his wife. Is Nick’s bad behavior (he oddly smiles during a press conference, he takes a selfie with a pretty stranger at the search team’s headquarters, he just doesn’t seem all that concerned, not to mention all that blood in the house) indicative of his guilt? Or is it proof that someone else is guilty of something much more cunning and evil?
Flynn’s novel flips between narrator and time period, allowing us to get to know both Nick and Amy through each other’s perspective and from their own words (Amy writes a diary, and while putting that kind of stuff on screen can be hard, Fincher does it with aplomb, using it as a reliable method of flashing back). In order to understand what happened to Nick and Amy in the present, we need to understand their past, and Affleck and Pike do one hell of a job presenting a pair of people who – on the surface – seem wonderful and lovely and perfect, while infusing them with a creepy menace that permeates even the most warm flashback. The real trick of “Gone Girl” isn’t the twist – though that’s a good one – it’s that both Nick and Amy are bad people. Terrible people, really, the kind of people capable of much more than a simple domestic disturbance and a little basic violence.
Fincher bathes his film in dark colors, sick yellows, and plenty of shadows. Quick cuts zip us between scenes and characters, and the effect is thrilling and unsettling and very exciting. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, so overpowering and overbearing during its first few uses (the party scene where Nick and Amy meet is particularly prone to too much reliance on the chords), soon settles into itself, and the discordant tones and creepy sounds help drive the narrative into ever-stranger territory. “Gone Girl” has been accused of being some kind of elevated trash, a high brow Lifetime film, but Fincher doesn’t treat it that way, and his audience shouldn’t either. This is dark, twisted stuff, and Fincher approaches it with respect and reverence. It’s just good.
Affleck and Pike are both stellar as the dueling Dunnes – Pike, in particular, has long been due for a breakout role, and this is definitely it – but the film’s supporting cast is one of the best assemblies in a film this year. Tyler Perry’s work as defense attorney Tanner Bolt is confident, assured, and weirdly comforting. Kim Dickens’ Detective Boney is witty and wise and sharp as a tack, with Patrick Fugit as Detective Gilpin easily slipping into the role of her slightly less-than foil. Both Carrie Coon (as Nick’s sister) and Casey Wilson (as Amy’s best friend) make smallish roles feel big and strange and real, richer than what the book has to offer. Neil Patrick Harris is saddled with one of the film’s toughest roles, Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi Collings, and he balances between charm and smarm without batting an eyelash.
Still, “Gone Girl” comes down to its twist – one that shows itself just after the film’s first hour has ticked right past – and Fincher’s take on it (helped along by Flynn’s own script) remains faithful to the novel. It’s the kind of twist that packs a punch, both for those who know it’s coming and those who have only wondered when Fincher’s seemingly straightforward was going to take a flying leap into unknown territory. It’s so wild and so wide and so wily, that it can only force newbies to the material to re-evaluate what they’ve just seen, the very stuff that fans of Flynn’s novel has been smirking over for sixty or so minutes. But even knowing what’s going to happen – or, more precisely, how it’s going to happen – doesn’t dilute the thrilling, voyeuristic power of a film so canny that even spoilers can only make it better.