Based on a bestselling novel and directed by David Fincher, ‘Gone Girl’ has all the hallmarks of an awards-courting prestige movie on paper. Thankfully, the film is nothing of the sort. It’s a gleefully trashy, twisty, nasty, lurid little thriller filtered through Fincher’s meticulous style and morbid sense of humor. The movie is no earth-shattering masterpiece, but it is a hell of a lot of fun and brilliantly made, which is more than enough.
Discussing the plot is tricky given that, as anyone who read Gillian Flynn’s novel or sees this movie will tell you, it’s filled with twists and gearshifts that deserve to be kept secret. I wouldn’t dare spoil the glorious fun. So, in the most basic possible terms, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as a seemingly perfect couple. They met cute in a fancypants Manhattan party and court over an endless stream of flirtation and glorious spontaneous sex. Five years later, they live in a beautiful house in one of those idyllic small towns that every American is supposed to crave. Affleck even runs a bar with his sister (Carrie Coon) to extend the happy family. Then one day, Affleck comes home to discover signs of a struggle and his wife missing. A massive manhunt funded by his wife’s wealthy parents ensues, and even though Kim Dickens’ inquisitive local detective refuses to admit it, there’s no shaking the fact that Affleck is the most likely suspect. Cue media scrutiny, jaw-dropping plot twists, unexpected flashbacks, and I should probably stop there even though the story has barely gotten started.
There are many things to love about how well the ‘Gone Girl’ film turned out, but the most pleasant surprise is that David Fincher seems to have turned it into a sneaky comedy. That’s not to say that the movie is a laugh-a-second riot by any means. Far from it, the actors play things straight and Fincher films it all in his usual cold and clinical style that can make the quietest of throwaway scenes feel inexplicably creepy. In fact, many people will take the movie at face value and not even notice what Fincher’s up to. Certainly the opening act keeps the tone rooted in the world of the chilly thriller. Little signs slowly appear (like a shot of a frilly pink pen framed in a creepy thriller manner) that start to feel subtly silly.
When the big twist comes and many others follow, the movie starts to play on two levels. Take it all at face value and ‘Gone Girl’ is twisty airport novel trash par excellence. But, if you start to notice the deadpan wit that Fincher has brought to so many of his movies, the film transforms into a dark comedy gently mocking its own sensationalistic impulses and the absurdity of the storytelling. Beyond that, the plot starts to bring out themes of gender subversion and media satire that play straight into Fincher’s bleakly comedic impulses. ‘Gone Girl’ feels like Fincher’s version of an early Brian DePalma or Paul Verhoeven movie that is simultaneously an artfully crafted thriller and act of self-parody. The difference is that there’s no camp value here; it’s all straight faced, deadpan and satirical rather than parodic. It’s kind of brilliant and hard to miss if you’re attuned to Fincher’s cynical sense of humor, especially when a stunt-cast Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris show up to signal the movie’s real genre. (One of those actors is clearly in on the joke of his casting and one isn’t. No points awarded for guessing who’s who, but don’t forget which actor in ‘Starship Troopers’ was the only who got the joke.)
Beyond the clever black comedy/morbid thriller double act of Fincher’s direction and Flynn’s script, there’s plenty to admire in the film. Ben Affleck is ingeniously cast in a role that toys with his image and relationship to the media in amusing ways. He’s good at handling his uncomfortable husband role, but even better considering how the film uses his real life image to its advantage. Rosamund Pike is remarkable for reasons that can’t really be discussed at this time, but should blow up her career stateside. Harris is hysterical. The cinematography is beautiful. The pacing is carefully controlled so that the structure never feels episodically novelistic, and suspense is always on simmer ready to burst.
The plot eventually transforms in a way that allows the filmmakers and actors to explore issues of gender and social satire that elevate the material beyond its simple pulpy thriller status. Above all, the film works as a ripping yarn and pulpy fun for grown-ups that goes well with overpriced popcorn and soda. Yet, the layers that the filmmakers have woven in make ‘Gone Girl’ special in a way that Fincher’s last blockbuster novel adaptation ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘ never quite achieved. It’s ultimately just a bit of lurid fun, but lurid fun made by a director who has already mastered thriller mechanics and knows how to deliver the goods while subtly commenting on his own work for like-minded viewers. It’s Fincher at his most populist and sneakily subversive.