David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’: Top-Shelf Mystery and Pitch-Black Comedy

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David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl opens not with an abduction or a murder, but with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), in voice-over, talking about his wife’s head. “I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains,” he says, over a close-up of the cranium in question. “Trying to get answers: What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” This is how the movie begins; this is what it’s about. Gone Girl may come advertised as a thriller, but that’s Fincher being a trickster—he’s gone and made the curtest, nastiest, most acidic black comedy about the marital accord since The War of the Roses.

The story, as over 8 million readers can tell you, concerns Nick and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike, terrific), a married couple celebrating their fifth anniversary. Yet on that very day, she disappears. The house is ransacked; it looks like kidnapping. But something’s not right about Nick; he’s not acting the way a husband with a missing wife is supposed to act. And the lead detective (the perpetually underrated Kim Dickens) can’t quite get a read on him—is he standoffish, or suspicious? As the days stretch on, he starts to look more and more like their guy, and the public and the media turn on him, and we find out a little more, and then a little more…

And that’s where I’ll stop, because that’s where the trailers are drawing the line—and if, like me, you’re walking in cold, without having read the novel (I know, I know), there’s real pleasure in watching the twisty narrative unfurl. Suffice it to say that the set pieces are appropriately moody (an abandoned-mall-turned-squatters-paradise is a particularly terrifying suburban wasteland) and horrifying (an unsettling sex scene that turns gorily murderous), that the smooth transition from whodunit to battle of wits is immensely satisfying, and that procedural elements are executed with clockwork precision.

But most of all, it’s funny. Unexpectedly, unapologetically, and darkly funny, borne out of the view that, basically, it’s surprising husbands and wives aren’t all murdering each other. And that’s also its more serious subject—the “narcissistic armor” that we don, “the vision of ourselves that we all project and construct, for our parents, for our teachers, and as we go out in the world and try to mate,” as Fincher explained, at the press conference following Friday’s New York Film Festival press screening.

So it’s a slightly irreverent take on a serious subject with serious ramifications—look, Fincher pulls off a tone here that I can’t even begin to put my finger on, aside from conveying that it works. He seems to struggle early on, in the passages of romantic whimsy that encapsulate the “good years” they’ve fallen so hard from, but even then, when he hard cuts from their proposal kiss the cops swabbing Nick’s mouth, it’s pretty clear that he’s having a go at us. The photography and music are as moodily effective as ever, the unnerving score and velvety wicked darkness seeming to hide all sorts of secrets.

Discussing his director, Affleck noted, “What’s interesting is there’s a bifurcation of directors. There are technical, shooter, music video, commercial guys and girl directors who sort of come from that world, speak in that vocabulary, and have that expertise. And on the other side of that line you have your performance directors, your writer-y directors, your actor/directors, and there tend to be two camps.” Fincher, he says, is the rare director who is in both camps—and to be sure, the film both looks great and feels natural and inhabited, filled with fine performances. Much will be said and written about Pike’s multilayered turn, all of it well deserved, but Affleck’s work, though not as showy, is striking for how deftly it plays to his strengths. (“Just because it’s perfect casting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” Fincher says he told the actor, while he was circling the role.) Even as emotional characters, there’s always been a kind of aloof unknowability about Affleck; here, that quality works to his advantage.

Gone Girl is not one of Fincher’s masterpieces, not another Zodiac or Seven or The Social Network, and I don’t think he intends it to be; it is, like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a commercial adaptation of a genre bestseller, a pre-sold package. But those built-in audiences seem, paradoxically, to free him up for experimentation, at least with regards to a flexible tone and a grim worldview. Most movies deliver less than their trailers promise; this one gives us a good deal more, and that’s just one of the many reasons to applaud it.

Gone Girl was last night’s opening film for the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival. It opens Friday nationwide.

Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire