“You don't know what you've got 'til it's...” the tagline for Gone Girl ominously forebodes. That common phrase takes on twisted new meaning in this hotly-awaited thriller from David Fincher, which opens with the voiceover of a man confessing how he wishes he could know what his wife's thinking; pick her brain; see what's on her mind – all worded with a queasy skull-cracking metaphor designed to unsettle us right off the bat. He truly won't know what he's got until she's gone, and when he finds out, he'll wish he never asked.
At first, as the film's marketing suggests, it's a tightly wound mystery with numerous intricate puzzle pieces; The sort of genre on which Fincher normally thrives.
In the uneventful Missouri town of North Carthage, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find a smashed coffee table and his wife, Amy, missing. Amy (Rosamund Pike) is something of a national darling, having inspired the beloved “Amazing Amy” book series by her parents, so it isn't long before the whole community is swept up in the search.
While Nick weathers the storm of news coverage and police questioning, we hear from Amazing Amy herself through her diary entries, which take us through her relationship with Nick from their first kiss to their last fight. It seems all was not well in the house at the end of the road, where, behind closed doors and drawn curtains, Nick and Amy were locked in a degenerative cycle of controlling and subverting one another.
Since everything we know about Amy's disappearance is being told from Nick's point of view, these flashback narrations – which Pike delivers with such expert frostiness you can almost visualize her breath condensing – thus give us an invaluable, albeit not entirely reliable, side of the story.
In fact, some viewers who were hoping for something akin to Fincher's Zodiak or Se7en may be disappointed to discover that the big “twist” (which I won't spoil here, though it's not hard to see coming) drops after only the first hour.
For much of the hour-and-a-half that follows, Flynn and Fincher set their parodic sights on the schizophrenic yo-yo of public perception, and on the soulless ring-mastery of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later media.
With police, reporters, and angry citizens breathing down his neck, Nick hires high-priced attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry, sans Medea costume), who schools Nick in the importance of personality politics. Bolt understands that in this case, and in a state that still has the death penalty, 'image' is quite literally a matter of life and death.
Affleck, himself no stranger to public scrutiny and ridicule in his illustrious film career, proves to be an ingenious casting stroke. He brings an uneasy glibness to Nick Dunne that's just ambiguous enough to keep him under the umbrella of suspicion while the audience tries to solve the riddle of what happened to Amy, yet when the film shifts gears he manages to maintain a consistent characterization that can still fit the new, perversely comic tone.
But this is one satire that's almost too incisive to be funny, played as straight-faced as can possibly be done by its cast while still clinging to the most skeletal definition of comedic. It's not that there isn't enough dark humour there on Flynn's page, it's just that Fincher does nothing to make it pop onscreen. Even when the third act takes things to deliberately outlandish extremes, the farce is bled out by Fincher's x-acto-ing – er, I mean, 'exacting' tone.
Of course, that exacting tone is what many Fincher fans expect to see from the master craftsman. He and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth make sure every slick composition is as dimly lit as the subject matter deserves; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have developed another trippy score that, appropriately enough, sounds artificially tender; and Kirk Baxter's editing, though occasionally rushed, settles into the same effortless rhythm that earned him back-to-back Oscars for Fincher's previous two films, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At 145 minutes, this film still moves at a brisk clip, although it could probably have ended twenty minutes earlier without losing much bite.
Well acted and produced as it is, of all the things Gone Girl tries to be – murder mystery, social satire, domestic tragicomedy, etc. – perhaps the only categorization it comes closest to fulfilling is that of a Rorschach Diagram. Different people are going to come out of this on different sides of the rift between Nick and Amy, and most likely different opinions about the film's gender politics.
Whether you love or hate its willful insincerity, this is a film that merits sincere discussion about marital hypocrisy, compromise, and trust. But if you see it with your partner, just make sure your partner is someone who already tells you everything that's on his/her mind. You wouldn't want an “Amazing Amy” scenario on your hands.
*** out of ****