A movie that’s sure to make you feel better about your marriage, Gone Girl begins and ends with the screen-filling image of a woman’s head, viewed as if through a haze of powdered sugar. First, for a long moment, you see only the puzzle of her piled-up hair. Then she turns and reveals her face, which is lovely and clear-eyed but tells you nothing, except that she’s looking back at you from her pillow. Meanwhile, in voiceover, a man speaks reflectively about the impenetrable mysteries that lie at the heart of his marriage. (Gone Girl is definitely the man’s story, even though a whole series of women will vigorously contest the narrative.) These same mysteries confront every spouse, he proposes: What are you thinking? Who are you?
Yes, the viewer responds, assenting perhaps from personal recollection and perhaps from recognizing a great literary theme. Didn’t Gabriel Conroy, too, learn to his sorrow that he had understood far too little about his Gretta, who mourned for poor young Michael Furey in the gasworks? And didn’t this knowledge make Gabriel’s sympathies expand beyond himself, into the world where the snow fell (like powdered-sugar lighting) upon all the living and the dead?
You have about one second to dwell in the illusion that David Fincher’s new movie means to unite you with all humanity, including the wives and husbands who fumble toward mutual comprehension. Then the voiceover continues, and you understand in a breath that you are not in the gaslit and gossipy moral universe of James Joyce’s “The Dead” but the cable-news-obsessed America of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. What did the speaker want to do with that beautiful young female head we’re looking at, and that’s looking at us? Crack it open, he says, and “unspool” the brain.
Sprung on you even before the credits blink across the screen, this abrupt leap from dreamy meditation to brutal admission is only the first of the cascade of shock effects that Fincher gleefully sets tumbling through the chutes and corridors of his Gone Girl. Working from a screenplay credited to Flynn, he has turned the novel into a funhouse maze of chronological switchbacks and perspectival shifts, deceitful clues (some with the word “clue” hand-lettered on them) and multilayered masks, artfully suggested scenarios of violence and equally artful depictions of bloodletting.
Like Fincher’s Zodiac, though without that film’s palpable unease and defiant lack of resolution, Gone Girl revels in its own complexity. Like Fincher’s more recent The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—though without as blatant an appeal to the more brutal mass-audience appetites—Gone Girl is also a thoroughly efficient thriller that never wastes a shot or fails to make a scene pop from within. (This honesty of construction compares well with the strained first-person narration of the novel, of which it might be said: trust a suspected murderer to have a supposedly fancy prose style.) You chase excitedly, and willingly, through Fincher’s labyrinth, and when you get to the center, you are not cheated of a monster.
But the beast (not to give away the plot) proves to be rather different in form from Ben Affleck as the highly dubious husband, Nick Dunne, or even Rosamund Pike as his mysterious, and mysteriously missing, wife Amy. In Gone Girl, the flesh-eating creature proves to be a rampaging composite of dollar signs, winning smiles and TV market share.
At first, this Minotaur of American success would seem to lurk far from the film’s setting. Gone Girl mostly plays out in a drab Missouri city that Fincher has assembled from a handful of parts: a glassy modern police station, a decaying brick-and-stone downtown that’s waiting for rehab, an abandoned factory converted into an indoor skid row, some modest old wood-frame houses in varying states of repair, and a new subdevelopment where everything looks fresh and outsize and not quite inhabited. This last site is where you first see Nick Dunne, who steps out in the morning with laggard gait and sagging features to roll the plastic garbage bins to the curb. It’s also the place to which he returns in the early afternoon, his color improved by a few bourbons, to find the cat in the yard, the coffee table shattered and Amy inexplicably not at home. The date is July 5, their fifth wedding anniversary.
Already the texture of the movie is thick with post-independence implications, a troubled day of remembrance and some serious waste removal. (Just how much stinking trash is in those bins? They look big enough to swallow a corpse.) You also get a lighter and more fun-loving overlay of surface details: board games (which Nick provides for customers at the bar he owns with his sister), riddles (the teasing rhymes that Amy has left behind, to lead Nick on a treasure hunt to his anniversary present) and the always entertaining apparatus of a police investigation, from high-tech chemical swabs to low-tech yellow Post-it notes. A detective named Boney (Kim Dickens), who is studiously humorless and all the more amusing for it, sticks the latter here and there around the house as she begins to piece together her account of Nick and Amy.
To these scraps, Fincher adds still more sheets of paper bearing another woman’s reconstruction of events. These are several years’ worth of diary entries, which Amy wrote in a looping script, and which you hear her read in voiceover in the tones of a radio actress telling a bedtime story.
The diary’s tale does have its picture-book aspects. As Fincher visualizes the entries, translating them into dark-hued sequences that he intercuts with the present-day investigation, you learn that Amy grew up in public as the model for a popular children’s-book character called Amazing Amy, the perfect little girl who could succeed in everything, including making the real Amy’s parents rich. It was impossible to live up to this fictional double, Amy told Nick soon after meeting him in New York. Still, as we see, she came close enough to the image to be witty, poised and sophisticated, even while pouring saccharine-laced acid over her parents’ creation; and she found Nick to be just handsome and smooth-talking enough to stand in for a fairytale prince. From being a character in stories, Amy progressed to screwing among them, as she and Nick dared each other into a quickie in the deserted aisle of a used-book shop. They were that fascinated with their lives as a dazzling fiction. They were that determined to be sexy, clever and forever superior to the boring people.
Then the recession hit, they lost their jobs and most of their money, and the common rut opened before them. Nick dragged Amy back to his sad little hometown, where he was content to teach a few classes at the local college and be co-owner of a financial sinkhole of a bar. At this point, according to the history in Amy’s diary, he became neglectful, angry, frightening. At a corresponding moment in the present-day story, the one that Detective Boney is constructing, Nick’s behavior becomes questionable.
And now, as it reaches full speed, Gone Girl bursts into yet another storytelling mode, that of the twenty-four-hour TV news cycle. Here, too, the narrative is in the hands of a woman—a poof-headed blond fury (Missi Pyle) who judges people from the bench of a cable channel—aided by an ever-expanding force of video crews, newspaper photographers, and random people who want to grab a selfie with Nick and post it wherever, including on the fury’s show. American film has a long tradition of both satirizing the scandal-and-sentiment industry and drawing energy from its ballyhoo: think of Nothing Sacred, Hail the Conquering Hero, Ace in the Hole. Gone Girl stops ticking and finally detonates the moment it makes contact with this heritage—when Amy, having been reduced to a beautiful photograph, becomes permanently Amazing, and Nick turns into a TV character, known everywhere by his embarrassed grin and unpersuasive nice-guy posture.
Affleck, who is predictably good at being the swaggering and seductive Nick, is even better in Gone Girl in his moments of excruciating self-consciousness. (I cringe, even now, to think of one of the speeches he makes before the TV cameras, with every note exactly off-pitch.) With an admirable lack of vanity, Affleck also shows you the Nick who is petulant, morose, sluggish, nasty and badly in need of something to spur him into action. It’s a performance of impressive range—and so, too, is Rosamund Pike’s. Hers is more difficult to discuss, in part because she is cast for her inborn ability to look and sound like a real-life Amazing Amy. Let me just note that Pike has another side, too—it came out in the profoundly British sci-fi comedy The World’s End, in which she fought hand-to-hand against alien robots—and this quality is not wasted in Gone Girl. In fact, Gone Girl is deep in actors with strong credentials in comedy: not only Pike and Missi Pyle but also Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson and Patrick Fugit. For a thriller that is ostensibly about a man’s murderous rage against his wife—or the wife’s desperation at the boredom of her marriage—Gone Girl is cast for buoyancy, even with the actors playing it straight.
This tone perhaps explains why the ending of Gone Girl, though grim and claustrophobic, sends you out of the theater with a smile. It’s a joke to see the Minotaur of success feed on people who have spent their lives racing toward him—a good enough joke that only the most chronically self-critical moviegoer would go away wondering “Am I that bad?” rather than thinking, with pleasure, “Thank God that’s not me.”
And this tells me that the most dreadful problem in Gone Girl is finally not the terrifying unknowability of one’s spouse. It’s the corrosive effect of an American smugness that Fincher presents as almost universal, shared by everyone from the beautiful young thing with two Ivy League degrees to the casual criminal holed up in a trailer park. In Gone Girl, we all think we know everybody else, because TV tells us so. And like that trailer-park resident at the secret heart of the movie, we’re only too apt to watch a cable-news report about Amy and say, “She probably had it coming.”
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One of the pleasures that film festivals allow is the Rorschaching of themes and mini-clusters out of a big blot of cinematic this-and-that. The New York Film Festival, which opened in late September with Gone Girl, has been particularly generous to pattern-seekers this year by also selecting Mathieu Amalric’s excellent The Blue Room, a nicely contrasting mystery about an unhappy provincial marriage and suspected murder.
Adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon and brought to the screen in an appropriately brisk seventy-six minutes, The Blue Room is a story about sexual desire as an overwhelming force, incapable of being ignored or mistaken, and about the ambiguity of almost everything else: memory, language, actions and motives. This imbalance is especially unfortunate for the protagonist of the story, an agricultural agent named Julien (Amalric), who is small of stature, impoverished and hardworking by background, and seems to have been destined from childhood for anything but a grand passion.
Yet there he is at the beginning of The Blue Room, locked in voracious sex with the tall, superb Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), while a lush, minor-key string rhapsody plays on the soundtrack and afternoon sunlight seeps through a hotel room’s blinds. Brief, static views, as sharp as hammer blows—a detail of the room, a strand of pearls, a drop of blood on Julien’s lip, the opening of Esther’s thighs—nail the adulterous couple into their union.
Then equally abrupt views of a police station and a magistrate’s office nail Julien into some unspecified trouble, almost a year later. He is being asked for the details of his tryst with Esther, over and over again. From what we’ve seen, he tries to reply honestly. But something doesn’t add up for the investigators. “Life is different when you live it,” is all Julien can say, “from when you go back over it later.” Sure enough, the episodes we see in scrambled flashbacks, leading somehow to death and then more death, are no more than puzzle pieces, which can be assembled in one way by a prosecuting attorney and in another, too late, by a glance from Julien as he helplessly sits on trial.
One of the great contemporary actors—a vivid bright-eyed dancer, multidirectional fount of wit, dialogic fencing master, Pierrot and picaro—Amalric has muted himself to play Julien, rarely using anything more than a small, restrained gesture in deference to Amalric the director. Like the quick, sharp views of the visual scheme, the performance serves the ambiguities of the story. The biggest effect you get is a subtle trembling of Amalric’s face at the end, as Julien realizes what has happened—and though nobody says a word of explanation, you understand and feel the floor drop away.