Gone Girl (United States, 2014)

October 02, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Gone Girl Poster

Early every autumn, there's one excellent studio movie released - a way to kick off the Oscar race and remind adult viewers that it's still possible to find intelligent, compelling movies in theaters. In 2014, that film is Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her own best-selling novel brought to the screen under the capable guidance of A-list director David Fincher. Fincher, who's no stranger to dark material (Seven and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being examples), understands how to get the most out of Gone Girl and the result is 145 minutes of riveting drama and surprises. And, although the movie doesn't represent a page-by-page recreation of the book, it captures key aspects including multiple (sometimes unreliable) narrative perspectives, commentary on what "guilt" and "popularity" mean in today's media-saturated culture, and (of course) a Hitchcock-tilted storyline seeded with twists and turns.

This review will steer as clear as possible from spoilers but, if you haven't read the novel, you may want to stop here. The more fresh the experience, the better. Even a stripped-down synopsis of the premise could inadvertently give away things the uninitiated viewer might prefer to discover on his or her own. (Those who are familiar with the book are safe because, although there are some changes, the overall arc tracks closely to that of the novel, which is what one would expect when the author is also the screenwriter.)

If there's an overriding theme in Gone Girl, it's one of manipulation. Characters manipulate other characters. The media manipulates how the public thinks and lawyers and victims manipulate the media. Fincher isn't telling us anything new but he's reminding us how little concepts like "guilt" and "innocence" mean in the court of public opinion when the facts are twisted, handled, and withheld to make the story more compelling.

The main narrative concerns the disappearance of a woman and the mystery surrounding what happened to her. The first half of Gone Girl switches back and forth between the perspective of the seemingly distraught husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), as he searches for his missing wife and that of the woman, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), in entries from a diary. Amy's contributions provide background while Nick's segments propel the story forward. The question about Nick is whether he's just a boorish husband with a lot of skeletons in his closet or whether he's hiding something more sinister. Around the midpoint, Fincher shifts to a neutral perspective and the narrative slides into Basic Instinct territory, complete with unconventional sex and copious amounts of blood. Paul Verhoeven would approve.

It can be difficult for any film to get two key aspects of Gone Girl right: unreliable narration and multiple perspectives. One need look no further than The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to understand how a director's intentions aren't always conveyed. With Gone Girl, however, Fincher succeeds against all odds. By the time the end credits roll, we have a clear picture of what did (and didn't) transpire.

By intention, Gone Girl feels like two different movies grafted together. The first half is more cerebral and closer to a police procedural. Nick jokingly refers to an episode of Law & Order and there's some truth to the comparison, although the movie is crafted at a higher level than the write-by-numbers standards of a weekly TV series. The Basic Instinct similarities are amplified during the second half which features a wealth of lurid material. There are some minor pacing issues toward the very end when the movie perhaps overstays its welcome by a few minutes.

Ben Affleck provides a capable anchor in much the same way Kevin Costner did in his films two-plus decades ago. From an acting standpoint, there are two notable performances. Rosamund Pike gives what may be a career turn as Amy. Considering how the story develops, she's a little like Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black - playing multiple iterations of the same individual, each with subtle variations. Then there's Tyler Perry, who is a perfect fit for the role of the high-profile defense lawyer. It's refreshing to see Perry step out of his niche and show he can play someone other than Madea. Neil Patrick Harris (as Amy's creepy first boyfriend), Carrie Coon (Nick's sister), Kim Dickens (the lead detective), and Missi Pyle (a Nancy Grace-inspired TV talk show host) are all solid in supporting roles.

Even the best thrillers often follow predictable trajectories regardless of how many narrative switchbacks and red herrings they employ. Although some of what happens in Gone Girl is expected, the progression of the storyline is at times so inventive that it doesn't matter whether all the traditional surprises work. Fincher and Flynn recognize they're not going to be able to shock viewers with every twist so they allow us to guess some things in order to keep others hidden. Gone Girl is a rare movie: a delicious thriller that provides plenty of titillation and gruesome pleasure while offering a dollop of social commentary. It's smart, twisted, bloody, and almost guaranteed to satisfy anyone with a penchant for the macabre.

Gone Girl (United States, 2014)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2014
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2014-10-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1