A viper’s nest of unreliable narrators, Gone Girl is another nasty piece of work from director David Fincher. The movie has enough cynicism about the human condition to nearly cover the whole cast, but I wonder if it doesn’t, at heart, side with one of those unreliable narrators.
Like the Gillian Flynn bestseller on which it’s based, Gone Girl is structured as a he said/she said murder mystery. We spend most of our time with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), the Missourian husband who reports to police that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has inexplicably gone missing. There are signs of a struggle in their well-appointed suburban home, but what exactly might have happened is unclear. While Nick plays the distraught, doting husband amidst the media hysteria that erupts (Amy is, after all, white and blonde), we also get flashbacks from Amy’s diary, suggesting that their marriage wasn’t quite as happy – or docile – as Nick would have everyone believe.
On the surface, Gone Girl is a conventional whodunit that purrs along on a series of red herrings and tantalizing clues. This is no deconstruction of the genre, like Fincher’s Zodiac, but a well-oiled machine. It does, however, share the brittle detachment that defines most of his pictures – this sense that there’s hardly a person on screen worth getting close to. Gone Girl is full of narcissists (The Social Network) enthralled with a consumer society (Fight Club) that serves to mask psychological horror (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Let’s all pause once again to marvel at the outlying wonder that is Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Gone Girl shares the brittle detachment that defines most of Fincher’s pictures – this sense that there’s hardly a person on screen worth getting close to.
As Nick, chief unreliable narrator, Affleck is used similarly to the way Terrence Malick employed him in To the Wonder – less as an actor than as a fixture of sturdy Americana. Nick is artsy enough to be more than a meathead (a former journalist, he now teaches creative writing), but he’s still enough of a man’s man to drink beer and watch sports. And, of course, he’s handsome. “He’s so hot,” a young woman whispers to a friend as Nick speaks at a candlelight vigil for Amy. “Eww,” the friend replies. “He’s so creepy.”
Previously mostly a supporting player, Pike earns her place in the spotlight with what is an infinitely tricky role. Especially in the early scenes of Amy and Nick as new lovers, she showcases a combination of glamour and biting wit that’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood. There are also a number of juicy supporting parts dotting Gone Girl, from Kim Dickens’ police detective to Lola Kirke’s trashy neighbor to Missi Pyle’s sensationalistic cable news host.
Gone Girl’s satirical depiction of the media circus, of which Pyle is a crucial part, is its most incisive element. Whether Nick is greeting a party of search volunteers or speaking at that vigil, every move he makes comes under scrutiny. Is he smiling? Why or why not? Does he look too tired? Not tired enough? Once the national media descends things become even more intense, so that the incessant camera flashes from paparazzi form a sort of Greek chorus. (My favorite shot of these involves the Dunnes’ cat basking in the blinkering glow.) Gone Girl recognizes that in an age of ubiquitous media, public image is all that matters.
Gone Girl also attempts to offer something of a critique of marriage, but it’s really more of a complaint. “What have we done to each other?” Nick obliquely asks over voiceover in the movie’s opening moments. It’s spoken less with regret than with disgust, for the movie’s vision of marriage is that of a diabolical hellhole. Is it even more so, however, for one side of the gender divide? (Check out here if you fear spoilers.) About midway through the film, as Nick is watching yet another defamatory news report, he hisses, “I’m so sick of being picked apart by women.” In the context of Fincher’s filmography – in which Jodie Foster’s beleaguered single mother in Panic Room is the only female character who truly owns one of the director’s movies – this is telling. Gone Girl is a story about a woman victim – of one kind or another – yet I wouldn’t say the film’s sympathies lie with her, but rather with its trapped, henpecked man.