MOVIE REVIEW: Gone Girl

  (Image: imdb.com)

(Image: imdb.com)

"GONE GIRL"-- 5 STARS

According to this website writer, David Fincher is one name that is included on a very short list of filmmakers who can do no wrong.  Even their worst work is worthy of critical examination and still an example of their immense talent and skill.  Simply put, they rarely make downright bad films.  Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Scorsese are locks on that list.  They are the top veterans still working today.  A younger addition is Christopher Nolan.  With those older three included with Nolan and Fincher, this writer's list right now is closed and fits on a single hand.  My apologies to Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Ang Lee, James Cameron, Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, and P.T. Anderson.  They're all excellent filmmakers, but their flaws and inequities are greater than those of the top five.

As I recently wrote this summer in a sponsored piece outlining a new book chronicling interviews done of the director, Fincher's resume speaks for itself.  His vitae of "Se7en," "Fight Club," "Panic Room," "Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Social Network," and the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" could fill an entire course on filmmaking at a college somewhere.  He has become the unquestioned master of modern suspense.  Your personal tastes may cause you to not like any or all of his films, which tend to be quite dark, but there is no denying his extremely superior craftsmanship as an artist.  He is operating on another level to his peers. 

When you talk about directors like Spielberg, Nolan, Scorsese, and Fincher, the word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a great deal.  Too often, even for these men, it's an overstating superlative.  When just about everything they touch is perfection, how can one film top another from their career?  If a filmmaker is still active, won't their master skill grow with each film?  Well, "Gone Girl" ascends to become Fincher's new high water mark.  It is too early to say "masterpiece," but he has crafted one of the best mystery films from this young century.  "Gone Girl" is not as overtly shocking as "Se7en," as audaciously manic as "Fight Club," or as intellectually lofty as "The Social Network," but, as an engrossing and faithful adaptation of its source material, it is the best narrative storytelling work by Fincher to date.

For the faithful readers of Gillian Flynn's 2012 bestseller of the same name, you will know the twists and turns that are coming.  To the uninformed, "Gone Girl" will grab you hook, line, and sinker into a potently swirling world of ominous fear, mystery, and relationship quandaries.  Both audiences are going to have plenty to enjoy.  What follows, is promised to be spoiler-free.

As the clever marketing has echoed for months, two-time Academy Award winner Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne.  He is the seemingly good man at the center of the story when his trophy wife mysteriously turns up missing, causing public interest and concern.  Five years before the events unfolding, Nick married Amy Elliot, a wealthy New York socialite, played by former Bond girl Rosamund Pike.  The pair of New York writers were married after two years of meet-cute courtship and torrid passion.  After lost jobs from the economic downturn, financial concerns, and pressuring outside family needs hit them, their spark faded.  They decided to downsize and relocate to Nick’s old Missouri hometown and they continue to grow apart.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears and the scene at the Dunne household points to a forced kidnapping, a violent domestic disturbance, or, worse, a potential murder scene.  Due to Amy’s moderate celebrity status as the inspirational subject of a popular children’s book series authored by her famous parents, her missing persons case garners local and national attention.  New secrets, dirty laundry, and new clues come out and the amount of time that passes with no resolution starts to sour public opinion and increase the outcry towards Nick as the man most likely responsible for what has happened. 

The supporting cast is notable and numerous.  Here are the players.  Carrie Coon, star of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” plays Margo, Nick’s twin sister, confidant, and co-owner of the bar they share in town.  Tyler Perry goes serious as Tanner Bolt, the high-powered defense attorney Nick enlists when the authorities dig too deep.  Character actors Kim Dickens ("Hollow Man") and Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") fill the roles of the local police detectives on the trail for answers.  Two skit comedy specialists, former “Saturday Night Live” member Casey Wilson and former “MadTV” star Missi Pyle play a nosy neighbor and tawdry Fox News-ish TV host, respectively, that stir their portion of the pot.  Finally, Neil Patrick Harris and "Argo" co-star Scoot McNairy represent two jilted former lovers of Amy that come into play at key times in the mystery.  There are a many moving parts to this narrative web.

That description is about a third of “Gone Girl.”  Devoted readers of the novel will tell you this is just the tip of the iceberg to a captivating development of tumbled dominoes and they are right.  It’s completely worth discovering on your own and not worth giving away.  To satiate your curiosity, the list of appropriate adjectives of what follows in the second and third acts would include twisted, dark, seething, shocking, disturbing, unsettling, rich, creepy, and engrossing.  You’ll see.

Right out of the gate, the success of this movie’s acting would not be possible without Rosamund Pike.  Ben Affleck may be the box office headliner and adds another banner performance to his successfully resurrected career since becoming an Oscar-winning filmmaker himself, but Pike is the linchpin.  To achieve the layers of beauty, fear, resolve, and intelligence that this role of Amy requires from Flynn’s novel necessitated more than just showing up as a pretty face.  The depth of her commitment is star-making.  Her role is the absolute best of the entire cast and is Oscar-worthy in a year starving for virtuous female performances.

Outside of the power couple, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry stand out among the ensemble supporting characters.  In putting away their wild comedic personae, the two veteran actors give strong and weighty performances as two sly and different types of defenders.  Their sight is surprising at first, but they steal scenes and remind us how good they are as actors when given great material.

Make no mistake.  This is great material.  Gillian Flynn’s novel was ripe with the makings of a potentially astounding cinematic mystery thriller.  The fact that she herself wrote the screenplay to adapt her own thickly detailed novel is a testament to one level of the film’s quality.  There were exaggerated reports that Flynn threw out the book's third act and changed the ending for the movie.  From her own interviews, this is untrue and the faithful adherence to much of the chapter and verse is impressive.  Slate.com has an very good quick look at the differences for those who aren't afraid of spoilers.  Fans of the book will have their say and the usual “book-is-better-than-the-movie” debate won’t go away.  It will be interesting to see the response going forward.

Over the years, David Fincher has collected and surrounded himself with talented fellow artists that add to the technical proficiency of his films.  Collaborating for the fourth time with Fincher, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and Oscar-winning film editor Kirk Baxter never miss a single shot, angle, shadow, color, beam of light, sudden flash bulb, or filmmaking cut to craft an efficient and fascinating work of cinematic art.  Two hours and twenty minutes never looked so interesting and flew by.  Every detail is pristine and finely combed.  Former Nine Inch Nails bandmates, turned Academy Award-winning film composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross team with Fincher for a third time on another sublime and subtly suspenseful piece of musical score that veers far from the movie music norm.  This varied team has all added to make Fincher’s films their own brand of incomparable uniqueness.

With all of those elements of talent, craft, and performance in place, that makes David Fincher the most valuable part of “Gone Girl” as the man who put them together and made it all work.  He chooses perfect projects for his renowned sense of atmosphere and tone.  Flynn’s novel suits him well and he lets her winning writing shine.  This is the first time Fincher has directed an adaptation written by the actual creator of the source material, which elevates that value further.  Fincher knows when to let this film breathe for effect or choke you for attention.  It’s his organization, critical eye, and astute leadership that creates successes like this.  “Gone Girl” is easily one of the best films of 2014 and cements Fincher’s place on that list of filmmakers who can do no wrong.  Your move, Nolan.  We’ll see you in a month for “Interstellar.”  Fincher has made a tough act to follow.

Finally, we’ve come to the site’s specialty of life lessons.  As aforementioned, too much of this film can’t be talked about, even though it begs for further discussion and dissection.  I could add dozens more lessons to the ones listed below, but that would ruin the fun.  Maybe a spoiler-approved follow-up can lay more out at a later date.  In the meantime, enjoy these: 

LESSON #1: LEARN ABOUT YOUR SPOUSE-- Nick quickly comes off as the stereotypical clueless husband when his wife ends up suspiciously missing.  After years of marriage, he doesn't know the books she reads, the diary she keeps, the money she spends, the friends she spends time with, or the places she carries on in her free time.  Maybe their later marital troubles (see later lesson) played into this, but a better effort needs to be taken.  Fellas, take time to learn your wife's likes and dislikes.  Pay attention more and be interested instead of act interested.  Be looking over your shoulder, because, your wife assuredly knows everything about you right down to the way your underwear gets folded (because she probably folds it and not you).  Watch out, dudes.  We are the drooling dogs and they are the devious cats of internet meme equivalency.

LESSON #2: THE OCCAM'S RAZOR PHENOMENON DOES NOT HAPPEN IN THE MOVIES-- Midway through the film, Fugit's detective attempts to drop the badly-paraphrased "simplest answer is usually true" logic as his reasoning for who's the blame in the case.  Movies don't work like that and Flynn's novel is a head-spinner of the highest regard.  The creativity of this fictional yarn personifies the opposite of Occam's Razor.  Everything is complicated.  Nothing is ever simple and the questions never stop.   You'll see.

LESSON #3: A "LACK OF EMPATHY" IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF WHAT MAKES A SOCIOPATH-- Like Lesson #2, this quoted line of diagnosis is also dropped with equally short results in the grand scheme of things.  Look up any definition of a sociopath and you will see quite the menu of characteristics.  The lack of empathy is just the start.  Everything is complicated.  Nothing is ever simple and the questions never stop.  No two sociopaths are alike.  You'll see.

LESSON #4: THE INTENSE SCRUTINY PLACED ON THE ONE WHO IS MOST TO BLAME-- The court of public opinion is fickle and a loud monster.  Even before any arrests are made, Nick’s every action is being constantly over-analyzed and judged in different directions by his family, friends, neighbors, the local and national media, and the voracious watching public.  Every smile, gesture, action, secret, hint of smugness, or perceived fact gets spun out of control in a case that is pumped and pushed to become popular front page news.  Nick goes through the roller coaster of swinging between being painted as the dutiful and benevolent victim, the cold and calculating suspected murderer, the most hated man in America, and everything in between.  Some of that is deserved, but plenty of it isn't, no matter how guilty or not he is.

LESSON #5: WHEN FEAR AND DISAPPOINTMENT CREEP INTO A MARRIAGE—At its core, “Gone Girl” is a domestic conflict of wild proportions that starts in very simple places.  The avalanche began as a snowball of when fear and disappointment replaced love and trust in a marriage.  There were triggers and signs.  Any event, when received poorly or causing enough damage, can start this fraying rope to disaster.  You name it.  Anything from financial troubles, infidelity, angered feelings, personality differences, outside pressures, or jealousy can cause fear and disappointment that build to an irrecoverable level of fear, disappointment, hate, anger, and wrongdoing.  

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