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Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

David Fincher is certainly one of the great directors of our time, one of the few that is able to create movies that are both critical darlings and mainstream favorites. This weekend sees the release of his newest film, Gone Girl, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay. In many ways, Gone Girl combines some of the most interesting elements of Fincher’s oeuvre: the objective look at impenetrable characters like The Social Network; the engrossing unreliable narration of Fight Club; and the frighteningly tense mystery of Zodiac. Just at a glance, it seems like the perfect project for him, and the hype has, as always, been immense–and I think it lived up to it.

I’m going to try to cover most of my thoughts in this review without spoiling the movie, though that may be a little difficult. Here’s what Gone Girl is about: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are a married couple whose best years have gone by, and on their fifth anniversary, Amy suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances. The film then follows Nick as he struggles to make the right kinds of appearances for the media while we see a glimpse into their past through Amy’s diary entries. Along with the detectives, we too are trying to decide whether Nick is guilty, and as the movie progresses things get far more complicated and darker as we learn more about Amy and the truth of her disappearance.

Let’s start with the acting: one of the things that makes Gone Girl endlessly fascinating is how its two main characters are both on very gray moral ground. While Nick may or may not be guilty of killing his wife, he’s a pretty shitty guy on a couple levels, and Amy’s innocent exterior belies an intense darkness that becomes quite terrifying over the course of the movie. Affleck and Pike play their roles with believable coldness, and while they are unlikable protagonists in many ways, their performances and the script provide plenty of moments for the audience to uncomfortably empathize with them, adding to the general uneasiness that pervades the film.

Gone Girl has a strong supporting cast as well, with the main highlight being Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. It’s a fantastic character, a smart and witty country detective with shades of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, and Dickens brings a touch of humor and a lot of personality to what ostensibly should be one of the side characters. Her partner, played by Patrick Fugit, also works very well at providing some lightness in a sea of black. Another highlight is Carrie Coon, who plays Nick’s sister and business partner, the only person behind him when the accusations begin to fly. Her role ironically has parallels to Deborah Morgan on Dexter, perhaps an intentional move, with her foul mouth and intense love for her brother.

Gone Girl was edited by Kirk Baxter, who edited Fincher’s last three films, and is worth mentioning as the editing is unique and pretty impressive, especially knowing Fincher’s tendency to shoot literally up to 100 takes from several angles for any given scene. From the opening credits, the tone of the movie is set: each credit accompanies an establishing shot of the Missouri setting, and the credit fades in and fades out almost before we have a chance to read it, and then we cut to the next shot and credit. This establishes a strong uneasiness, a feeling that although we’re looking deeply to find the truth, it always disappears before we can grasp it. The first half of the movie is rife with cuts that are made earlier than you expect, lending the pace a potent tenseness, never giving you enough time to contemplate before moving on. There’s also the unusual technique of making the film fade to black and fade back in in the middle of a scene very quickly, used in scenes of violence, that goes right to the edge of distraction but instead provides a sense that the actions on screen are so intense that the viewer is almost losing consciousness.

Along with the anxious editing is the killer cinematography by longtime Fincher collaborator Jeff Cronenweth. He often employs a strong use of shadow, much like Social Network, which often assists the characters in hiding their true motivations. This ties into what I feel is the main thrust of the narrative, encapsulated perfectly by the opening lines spoken by Nick, something like this: “When I think about Amy, I think about her head. I think about her soft hair, and think about cracking her cranium open and seeing what comes out. What is in her head?” The idea that no matter how close you are to a person, you can never know their true thoughts and motivations is one that pervades the film, from its unreliable narration that is turned on its head at a key moment halfway through, to its lying protagonists that tell a different story and turn on a different personality for each person in the room. It’s a frightening concept, one that’s taken to bloody and terrifying extremes here, and the entire craft of the film contributes to this unsettling theme.

I can’t talk about a new Fincher movie without mentioning the score, done again by the wonderful Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Since The Social Network, their scores have become more subtle, but still incredibly appropriate to the subject matter. Here they pull out all the stops to add to the anxiety with quiet distortion that slowly creeps to destructive levels as the tension rises. They also use synths and sounds that are a bit nostalgic, but with a feeling of being just out of tune or not quite right that mirrors the depth of the narrative itself. In the last act, the score takes a bit of a romantic and lighthearted turn that seems to mock the anything-but-romantic tone of what’s on the screen, as if the music is trying to hide its true nature as well.

Although the strangeness of where Gone Girl ends up isn’t quite as strong as it’s tense thriller act one or it’s shocking act two, the whole movie is utterly absorbing. It’s impossible not to become totally engrossed in the mystery, one that on its surface seems to be resolved–but the real kicker is in the act two reveal, which makes us question everything we’ve seen up to that point, and perhaps even what is to come afterwards. It’s a movie you’ll be thinking about for days, sorting through the details to try and grasp the truth, but the pervading idea here seems to be that even in matters of love and violence, there is no truth, only our own subjective experience. Gone Girl as a masterful achievement in cinema, one that is without question near the top of Fincher’s impressive body of work.
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