Gone Girl is a sick dispatch from the dark center of a poisoned culture. It’s a missing person thriller imbued with the tick-tock urgency of a well-wrought procedural. But for all his precise surface sheen, David Fincher is a director interested in implications far more troubling and upsetting than any given episode of any given crime drama. Just look at how he turned the true crime Zodiac into a masterful investigation of obsession and unknowablity. With Gone Girl, the screenplay by Gillian Flynn, from her novel, obliges his impulses, creating a world that snaps into revealing action when a woman in a small Missouri town vanishes from the home she shares with her husband of five years. In doing so, it exposes a culture that’s selfish, prejudiced, misogynistic, easily misled, and eagerly superficial. And in the middle are characters who exploit these flaws.
At first, we know the drill. And because Fincher is a director who loves process and information, we appear to be on solid genre ground. The front door is open. The glass coffee table is smashed. There’s a bit of blood on the kitchen cabinet. And Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is nowhere to be found. Her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) calls the cops. Officers (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) show up to collect samples and rope off the suspected crime scene. He’s interviewed, then released to stay with his twin sister (Carrie Coon) while his wife’s parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) race to town. Search parties are gathered. A tip line is established. The media flocks, from local station vans getting all Ace in the Hole on lawns and sidewalks, to the tabloid media sharks (Missi Pyle and Sela Ward) ripping their teeth into the story’s details from the desks of their cable news channels.
This is how these things always go, whether in Law & Order or in real life. The husband is a source of suspicion. The wife is valorized. Fear and excitement creep through the community, media whips the nation into a frenzy of judgment, and the police chase down clues with professionalism. It's dryly funny, a mixture of unease, bewilderment and practicality. This is the least showily directed of Fincher's work, but he still ably deploys Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography – clean, simple images, clear shadows and soft colors – to keep the vice grip of tension screwing tighter. Sinister steady shots glide together with propulsive, clever editing – like a cute, creepy cut from a flashback to the couple’s first kiss to his mouth being swabbed by forensics – to bring considerable menace and dread to the procedural beats as the story grows more complex.
As the investigation moves forward, Amy narrates past scenes from their marriage, happy days and growing ominous inklings alike. In the present, clues begin to add up to an unpleasant picture for Nick. The police grow more skeptical of his story. They and we see uglier sides of his personality. What begins as a wrong-man thriller starts to gather a nauseous nagging weight. But that’s not the end of the story, and it doesn’t end up where you’d think from that set up. The film takes loop-de-loops with audience identification, recontextualizing characters, shifting sympathies with each new piece of information.
The cast expands. We meet a high-powered defense attorney (Tyler Perry), a mistress (Emily Ratajkowski), a chatty neighbor (Casey Wilson), a wronged ex (Scoot McNairy), a stalker (Neil Patrick Harris). But, with confident and nuanced performances across the board, none are as they seem. Dangerous people end up victims. The sleazy end up noble. The helpful are dupes. The clueless are shrewd. It’s important to consider not only what we know, but from what perspective we learned it, what we’ve seen and what we’ve only heard. Fincher deftly navigates the script’s developing mysteries and twists with a dread as steady as his eye for accumulating detail, even if some of the plot devices come across as only that.
In the center remain the couple, the husband left behind and the wife who is missing. They’re each playing a role in this case, exposing their lives to the world and leaving it up to the media’s interpretation. They weren’t perfect. They weren’t happy. They left New York crushed by the recession to take root in the Midwest, and found their seemingly perfect lives crack under the pressure. Selfish motives filled the cracks and pulled them apart. And now this. Now what?
Affleck and Pike play complicated roles that develop from stock types into richly complicated contradictions. They are both convincing as normal people trapped in a marriage that’s nearing a turning point, and heightened genre constructs heading towards a startling conclusion. Fincher gets them playing the easily digestible surfaces and the roiling ugliness underneath, hanging everything out for us to see them fully. The better to twist the plot in directions that are as surprising as they are sickening. The resulting gender politics are queasy, either sloppy or too clever and more than a little troubling in the ways it plays into a sexist’s worst nightmare assumptions. But the performances carry the film over anyway. It’s worth puzzling over because of how ice cold complicated the actors manage to be, by steering into the ugliest aspects of their characters.
Our culture values easy surface details and convenient narratives. They let us avoid the need to look further, think more deeply. In Gone Girl, there are those exploiting this for their own benefit. And I’m not just talking about the villain(s). (I’m being purposely vague there.) The cops make assumptions. The media finds easy targets. It’s easy to frame people, mislead the public, and obscure the obvious. Public relations becomes a way to win a case, or at least wriggle out of suspicion. Even Amy’s parents turned her childhood into a series of idealized kids’ books, then enjoyed conflating the character and their daughter for financial gain.
So it’s not merely a story of lurid violence and voyeuristic chills with fear mongering, although that’s certainly exploited here. (The film’s closer to De Palma than Hitchcock, if you catch my drift.) It’s also a movie about psychological damage of many kinds, drawing upsetting conclusions about the lengths people will go to appear good, to appear innocent, to get what they want and look right in others’ eyes. Why else would a do-gooder snap a selfie at a vigil, then get offended when asked to delete? She wants proof of appearances for her own use, no matter how unsettled or difficult it leaves those in her wake. It’s a film full of such troubling details.
Being so detail-oriented, Fincher makes films with impeccable craftsmanship of the highest order. Handsomely photographed and hermetically sealed, Gone Girl looks and moves like hard-edged blockbuster pulp, confident, prurient, and expensive. And yet it’s a wholly pessimistic and scathingly misanthropic Hollywood thriller, an eerily beautiful and darkly funny poison pill swallowed straight into the heart of our chaotic frivolousness. It resolves thematically with a chilling snap, leaving its implications dangling, lingering, and staining. What’s going on inside the minds of others? You can think you know someone, but once you learn the truth, there’s no unknowing.