The oft-quoted, if under-read, existential philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Satre once said, “Hell is other people.” For David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, Se7en) and Gillian Flynn (adapting her own bestselling 2012 novel), hell isn’t just other people, it’s other married people. It is a theme – among other related themes – they explore, examine, and dissect to often scathing, caustic, and corrosive effect in Gone Girl. The adaptation is one part socio-cultural critique (of contemporary relationship mores and unrealistic, ultimately destructive expectations), one part mordant black comedy, and one part pulp crime-thriller. Unfortunately, Gone Girl stumbles repeatedly when it sets aside the socio-cultural critique and black comedy for the trope-heavy crime-thriller that takes over the plot in the second half, ultimately making for a frustrating, conflicting experience.
In Gone Girl, a decidedly unhappy marriage leads to distrust, deception, and betrayal (among other things). It also leads to a possible murder or, at minimum, the disappearance of the titular “gone girl,” Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). She is a trust fund owner and NYC magazine writer turned semi-impoverished Missouri housewife to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). Nick, like Amy, lost his full-time job as a magazine writer and with it the social status and prestige that followed as a result of the 2008 recession. Amy loses her trust fund (or rather she gives it away) to her debt-ridden parents, Rand Elliot (David Clennon) and Marybeth Elliott (Lisa Banes), child psychologists who once made a highly fictionalized, highly idealized version of Amy the center of a series of bestselling children’s books. It results in the decision to move back to Nick’s hometown, Carthage, Missouri. She buys him a local bar. He supplements his income and social worth by teaching creative writing at a local community college. With hopes and expectations dashed, they inevitably, inexorably drift apart until the day Amy disappears under mysterious circumstances, leaving signs of a struggle behind.
Following Flynn’s chosen structure for her novel, Gone Girl unfolds through shifting, alternating points of view, both Nick’s (privileged here given their present-time presence) and Amy’s (depicted as a series of diary entries delivered via voiceover narration). Signs of trouble in Nick and Amy’s marriage appear in the first scene as Nick shares a particularly troubling variation of how, even in marriage, we really don’t know the other person. The mystery of human personality, each person an unknown in a vast sea of unknowns, offering only facet, one face to the world among possible multitudes, of authentic and inauthentic selves (in one interpretation, one and the same), and with that, the centrality of performance in not just Nick and Amy’s prefabricated, artificial home life, but presumably the audience’s as well, gives Gone Girl a thematic impetus through the majority of the first hour. It plays with fluid, boundary-less notions of victim and persecutor, protagonist and antagonist. Nick could be victim or persecutor (and killer). He could be all or none. Each character, however, sees the other as the antagonist. They’re both right.
Ideas and themes, however, can only take you so far. As a pitiless dissection of a marriage in extremis, Gone Girl offers a bleak, even nihilistic vision. This is assuming, of course, that Gone Girl is meant to extend a particular case, Nick and Amy’s, and turn it into a broad, universal indictment of the institution of marriage (possibly, possibly not). But when the inevitable turn into pulp crime-thriller territory occurs, Gone Girl never fully recovers, trading in social observation for genre thrills, the latter delivered with little regard for the rules of logic or common sense. The fault lies primarily with Gone Girl’s screenplay and thus Flynn (though Fincher doesn’t and shouldn’t escape blame). It’s not that Gone Girl dives headfirst in Lifetime-inspired plot turns, but that it handles them so clumsily, the obvious effect of Flynn beginning with an ending in mind and working backwards from there, regardless of the contrivances and IQ-challenged decisions made by key characters to get to that predetermined result. There too, Flynn and Fincher err on the side of one too many denouements (allowable in novel writing, less so in narrative filmmaking), ending on a note of certainty and finality rather than the uncertainty and ambiguity the material deserves.
For all of its second-half disappointments, Gone Girl offers more than its share of positives: a never-better Affleck using his callow, recessive onscreen persona to often devastating effect; an often enthralling performance from Rosamund Pike, making the most out of a rare lead role; Kim Dickens as the sharp-witted lead investigator into Amy’s appearance; a revelatory Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) as Nick’s initially supportive, increasingly troubled twin sister; and Tyler Perry, giving a surprisingly naturalistic performance as Nick’s high-powered, celebrity defense attorney. Gone Girl also deserves points for taking multiple digs at our voracious, scandal-hungry, sensationalistic media, but it’s over-broad and over-obvious. Thankfully, Gone Girl explores its other key themes with more subtlety and nuance (when, of course, second-half crime-thriller tropes aren’t getting in the way).
Fincher, of course, delivers yet another meticulously, methodically directed film, typical for a filmmaker often compared to Stanley Kubrick for his obsessive perfectionism (multiple takes are the norm, not the exception where Fincher is concerned). Fincher’s underlit, over-precise visual style can often feel suffocating, overbearing, and oppressive, but here it functions as a near-perfect complement to Nick’s increasingly nightmarish experience from bereaved husband to accused killer. Elevating material from commerce to art has been a Fincher specialty for the past two decades. He’s better served, however, by finding better material to match his skill set and talents.