By now, lots of ink has been spilled about how Ben Affleck’s years as a pop-culture punchline have suited him for the lead role in Gone Girl as a man who is demonized by the public and the media. The truth is, he probably didn’t need the experience. When he tried to be a nice-guy leading man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it didn’t work because that’s not his strength. Instead, this actor has always excelled at playing guys who are smart enough to recognize how flawed they are and hate themselves for it. That talent has never enjoyed a better showcase than in David Fincher’s complex, black-as-the-grave murder mystery.
Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a downsized magazine writer who has uprooted his Harvard-graduate wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) from her native New York City and moved her to his small town in Missouri to take care of his ailing parents. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy vanishes from inside their house amid broken furniture and blood spatters, and Nick finds himself the prime suspect in her disappearance. If that’s not bad enough, the national media pick up the story — as so often happens when a beautiful white woman is involved — and waste no time in portraying Nick as a murdering bastard roaming free.
If you’re familiar with the Gillian Flynn novel that this is based on, you’re aware of the almighty rug-pull that the author executes midway through the story. As in the book, the movie’s first half alternates between Nick’s worsening ordeal and the entries in Amy’s diary, describing a once-happy marriage curdling into infidelity and physical abuse, both on his part. Flynn’s script excises some bits like Nick’s on-air retribution against the Nancy Grace-like TV host (Missi Pyle) who leads the mob against him. It’s sad to lose those, but the novice screenwriter Flynn writes dialogue like a seasoned veteran, especially in an early scene when Nick proposes marriage to Amy. Meanwhile, Fincher’s expert screw-tightening direction and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ fearsomely detached score evoke a feeling of sickening dread, both in Amy’s growing fear of her husband and in Nick’s frantic attempts to change his public image while figuring out exactly what happened to his wife.
As with other Fincher movies, this one is full of tasty performances, including Kim Dickens as a sharp-witted police investigator and Carrie Coon (from TV’s The Leftovers) as Nick’s sarcastic twin sister. As Nick’s expensive New York defense lawyer, Tyler Perry seems liberated playing a high-grade sleazeball, albeit one you’d want in your corner if you were ever accused of killing your spouse. The misstep here is Neil Patrick Harris, who needed to be several shades creepier as Amy’s stalker ex-boyfriend. As for Pike, I’ve never been a fan of hers, but her remoteness is used smartly here in the role of a woman who’s harboring some dark, twisted secrets of her own.
Despite what you may have heard, the movie’s ending is only slightly tweaked from the book’s, hinting at further violence to come. Gone Girl draws a devastating portrait of a hellish marriage with a scheming psychopath. This movie tastes like death. That seems like a strange compliment to pay, but the effect is oddly, wonderfully clarifying. Like so many other couples, Nick and Amy are victims of their own unrealistic expectations, people who pretended to be better than they were to impress each other, then were disappointed when they found out their partner was doing the same thing. Their poisonous bitterness is encapsulated in Amy’s private rant adapted from the book’s most famous passage: “My husband wants a Cool Girl, someone who laughs at Adam Sandler movies and eats cold pizza and never gains a pound.”
Near the end, Fincher presents us with an impeccable, sunlit tableau of Nick and Amy as a cheerful happy couple, and it comes off as hideous parody. The last time Fincher tried to go this dark was in the glib, sophomoric Se7en. This time, his nihilism is well-thought-out, and it’s wounding as a result. Here’s a tonic for all the rosy romances that parade through our cineplexes, a film that looks at all the illusions that those movies peddle and says, “No.”
Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Directed by David Fincher. Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel. Rated R.