1 October 2014

Review: Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 2014)

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Gone Girl 
2014, 149mins, 18
Director: David Fincher 
Writer: Gillian Flynn (novel & screenplay)
Cast includes: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon 
UK Release Date: 2nd October 2014 

Some may choose to disagree, but for me, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestseller “Gone Girl” isn’t a cinematic text. Filled with interior voices, unreliable narration and characters incessantly explaining themselves, the book is a craftily woven examination of marital disharmony, society’s relationship to gender and the sensationalist depravity of modern media. Flynn’s prose are indebted to high-quality airline fodder, but her articulation of character and theme ascend the norm. “Gone Girl” is a riveting and cleverly assembled work, but again, not one I’d immediately have pegged for film. Nobody is going to argue that David Fincher isn’t a cinematic director. Even his Netflix series “House of Cards” feels too big for laptop monitors or TV sets, bustling with the same rich visual storytelling motifs that govern his more reputable work. With 1995’s “Se7en” Fincher turned a procedural into a morality tale of nightmarish beauty and to an even grander extent, with 2010’s “The Social Network” (clearly his best film) he wove the tabloid-worthy narrative of Facebook’s mischievous inception into a powerful odyssey of brotherhood undone by pride, greed and pitiful insecurity. In “The Social Network” modern Trojan wars erupt through a relationship status, and Helen isn’t a physical beauty, but a small, squared digital image tucked beside the tempting option of requesting her friendship. On paper the story of Mark Zuckerberg isn’t that ripe for movie treatment, but with a skilled visualist and master storyteller at the helm, it became one of 2010’s most satisfactorily epic pictures. This brings us back to “Gone Girl”.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home one morning to find evidence of a struggle, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. The authorities are alerted, Nick is questioned and the community rallies around Amy’s image, an intelligent, beautiful totem of perfection. As the search widens and evidence begins to present itself, Nick becomes a key suspect, his smug, unconvincing demeanour incurring predictable suspicion. Working with his sympathetic sister Go (Carrie Coon) and slick attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick doggedly protests his innocence, but the public have become obsessed with accusations of his proposed monstrousness.  

Flynn’s book is dominated by journal entries and stream of consciousness, cutting between Nick’s growing distress and the history he and Amy have shared. Its use of character to critique our own superficial judgments is inspired, and at times very brave. How refreshing it is to have a young, female author challenge our perception of female as victim, tossing aside much of the desperate slop that dominates new feminism, overturning the barbaric untruth of suburban man’s innate incompetence and evil. I’m a staunch advocate of feminist practice, and see much good work being done, but there is an overarching tendency for the movement to politicise everything, fighting menial, needless battles with materials unworthy of their time. To paint themselves as the martyrs of mankind, forced to suffer the selfish, uncaring whims of patriarchy, especially within the realms of pop culture. Somewhere along the line this all became the done thing. “Gone Girl” toys slyly with our newfound assertion that women are warm and maternal, perpetually raped by the debilitating stupidity of man. Flynn indulges the falsity, before dispelling it through tight character designs and a good, old-fashioned switcheroo. Her screenplay preserves the novel’s unapologetic precision, with Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter moulding it into a cohesive and flowing whole. As somebody familiar with the source, the pleasure of the film’s reveal was non-existent, but the skill with which it’s enacted deserves plaudits. Fincher exposes us to the dark, unsympathetic glare of the media, in which the murderous husband must always be responsible for his virtuous wife’s demise, building the commentary alongside a female cop desperate to see sense, but presumably blinded by the expectations of close-minded gender rules. Then he pulls back the curtain like a pro, pointing the finger at us fools determined to demonise Affleck’s slob.

The great film-maker George Roy Hill believed a director had two key jobs. The first was to collaborate with writers and producers in ironing out the screenplay to suit their vision. The second was to cast it as perfectly as possible. With “Gone Girl” Fincher accomplishes both. Pike and Affleck are as actors obviously limited, but both fit the requirements here. Affleck has a natural screen presence and handsome veneer, but there’s always been that aura of coasting, a sense of doing an adequate job in exchange for exceptional riches. It’s become clear over the years that he’s a creative of substantial talent, alongside a considerate and charming man, but as a performer, well, likability’s never been the strong suit. He’s an exact mirror of Nick Dunne, seductive by sight and sound, but unmotivated and douchey by nature. Nobody wants to like Ben Affleck, and thusly, we never really do. We believe the dramatized media accusations, and imagine Affleck’s smug gaze stooping over Amy’s bloodied remains with each whispered suggestion of guilt. Complimenting his acting (which is pleasantly astute) almost seems redundant. His being fills the role with unease more completely than Daniel Day Lewis dialled up to 11 ever could. The same goes for Pike. She’s a smart woman and a classical beauty, but mainstream success has always seemed illusive, a base coldness and superiority rising from each clearly enunciated line of dialogue rendering her an isolating figure. Ideal then, for Amy. She fills the aesthetic requirements, and when the drama requires it, uses her normally alienating tendencies to devastatingly believable effect. Fincher’s camera seduces us with her innate allure, before opening the film up to a shower of corrosive interior. Pike’s asked to do heavier lifting by default, and she handles the shifting perceptions of her role adeptly. She’s angel and devil tucked succinctly into one. Maybe the greatest joy comes from Neil Patrick Harris, never onscreen for long, but so symbolic of Flynn’s agenda. Harris is of course famed for playing the 21st century’s most celebrated chauvinists, “How I Met Your Mother”’s Barney Stintson, a character who comes over as lovably flawed in sitcom territory, but emits toxic sociopathic alarm bells in any universe approaching reality. In “Gone Girl” he meets a sticky end. In a sequence that demonstrates the levels of synchronicity and mood Fincher demands from music, cinematography and the edit, we see Pike’s Amy manipulate and viciously execute the Bro king mid ejaculation. It’s a cathartic feminist image, but also a potent critique. Harris’ character (a rich, entitled former suitor) is fairly ghastly, but there’s no way he deserves a butchering, especially given the lusty power Amy exercises over his judgement and manhood. We cheer Amy as she dispatches the bogeyman, but recoil seconds later when the context hits home. This woman has used him, and forced upon him both pain and an unflattering legacy. Why do the audience feel any affection for Amy? We know she’s controlling and merciless, and the levels of Harris’ crime are cloudy. Yet, in the moment, with the sensory bombast of Fincher’s touch behind her, we cheer. We align ourselves with notions of female victimisation before essaying surrounding circumstance. In a way, that’s the entire property reduced to one lavishly designed chapter.

Fincher is able to elicit splendour from the mundane, he’s always had a knack for doing so, and it pays dividends with “Gone Girl”. Police interrogations and expository conversations are lit so sublimely, that they feel like major action set-pieces, and the cuts are implemented just regularly enough to promote momentum without inciting distraction. At 149 minutes the film’s final act plods ever so slightly (especially after the aforementioned Harris bows out), even Fincher struggling to find big moments in Flynn’s quiet and knowingly black denouement. This might prove less problematic for the uninitiated, who can digest every stinging twist with fresh enthusiasm, but for me, the finish feels obligatory rather than exciting. Refocusing on issues of crass journalism and public blindness, “Gone Girl” wraps up its macabre voyage obviously, underlining certain blunt messages with underserved meticulousness. It must also be argued that in the book, Flynn’s characters cease to evolve near the end, and any suggestion they do feels hollow. The film can’t sidestep this issue. The media perception of Nick and the unmasking of “cool girl” are so superbly rendered, that the late patter of revelations and monologues don’t stack up. By about the 120 minute mark, the movie’s been squeezed of juice, but Fincher perhaps unwisely keeps wringing the skin.

It’s nice to observe “Gone Girl” played with blackly satirical undertones, soliciting chortles amid the mire of disgust. People never really think of Fincher as a humourist, but he his movies rarely unfold without intelligent laughs, be it the fearsome observations of “Fight Club” or the absurdist eccentricities of the villains in “Panic Room”. “Gone Girl” explores its ideas with the gorgeous detail one expects from the film-maker, merges genre satisfactorily and is a miracle of intuitive casting. The feature loses virtually none of what made Flynn’s work so beguiling to begin with, and expands upon it with virtuoso feats of technical craftsmanship. Not bad for an uncinematic book.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014




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