By: Daniel Reynolds
The first thing that comes to mind about a David Fincher film is the surface. In Seven and Fight Club, it’s the grimy surroundings that stick with you; in The Social Network it’s the contrast of musty academia and the cluttered living rooms of tech incubators. Fincher’s eye for detail and sense of place is all-consuming. This approach bleeds into all aspects of his filmmaking. He’s known to do hundreds of takes of a scene in a Bresson-like attempt to strip the “acting” from his actors. It sounds extreme, but it makes technical sense. Fincher needs the characters to look and feel as unaffected and natural as his settings. The surface is everything.
In Fincher’s latest film Gone Girl, the opening credits show snapshots of small town suburbs, cookie-cutter houses, and a quiet main street in North Carthage, Missouri. As a setting, it is fairly innocuous, but in Fincher’s hands it courses with a foreboding energy. That’s the second thing that comes to mind about Fincher: the surface only tells a small part of the story. Adapted from the Gillian Flynn novel of the same name (she wrote the screenplay, too), Gone Girl is a film about a relationship, both the inner workings of a marriage and its outer appearance. We’re introduced to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), freshly relocated to his hometown from Manhattan to care for his dying mother, as he visits his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) at the bar they now own. Today is Nick’s five year anniversary, but his marriage to Amy (Rosamund Pike) is souring. Margo commiserates with her brother until a call from a neighbour summons Nick home. The front door is open, a glass coffee table is smashed, and Amy is gone. Gone Girl is about a marriage, but it also functions as a mystery. Alternatively, it gets us thinking: maybe those two things are more alike than we realize.
Affleck plays Nick as a man first confused by his wife’s sudden disappearance, and then frustrated by the investigation into his personal life. He doggedly assures detective Rhonda and officer Jim (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. But something in his shrugs, his smiles, his surface, suggests that we’re not getting the whole story. The other side of the narrative is rendered by Pike’s Amy in a voice-over reading of diary entries that gradually fill in the relationship’s timeline – the courtship, the anxieties, the uneasy point at which the Dunnes find themselves after five years. Amy grew up as the inspiration for a series of children’s books authored by her parents called Amazing Amy. She laments that her fictional analogue has led a better life than she has. We are instinctively drawn to Amy as her story unravels; we feel sorry for her lot in life, but acknowledge that she’s not entirely passive.
While the background details of any Fincher film are important, his casting is always impeccable. In Affleck, he has the perfect Nick, one part smooth seducer and one part hapless bro. We believe Affleck could be charming enough to seduce a worldly New York City socialite, and it’s not a stretch to see that same charm sanded off with a slide into a lazy homecoming. As the media circus in the film grows, Affleck’s own paparazzi-targeted past helps to shade his character; the frustration his Nick exhibits feels natural. His smile for photographers and TV personalities can be read as cordial or it could say “get that camera out of my face.” The character of Amy, meanwhile, relies on Pike’s presence to radiate a particular icy awareness. Her eyes reveal a woman of intelligence who deeply understands and rationalizes the effects of her decisions. Having found herself in the margins of other movies (as a Bond girl, or adjunct to Tom Cruise), Pike’s performance here is a star-making breakthrough.
The supporting cast also capably assist in driving the plot and playing off the film’s leads. For their parts, Dickens and Fugit are appropriately bemused and folksy in their investigation. Coon is believable as Affleck’s sister, his confidante and sardonic voice of reason. And Neil Patrick Harris is revelatory as a wealthy, creepy hanger-on. Of particular note, however, is Tyler Perry as the celebrated and successful defense attorney Tanner Bolt. His injection into the film lends a certain note of humour and charisma. Perry knows this material is lurid, and he definitely knows he can do lurid quite well.
But that’s really as far as I can go with any discussion of the finer details of plot and character in Gone Girl. The surprises of its narrative are many. Flynn’s script uses the signposts of a thriller to guide us through the life cycle of what appears as a typical romance. We gasp at what the police find, but also at the events from within the Dunne’s marriage. For his part, Fincher nudges these inner and outer workings into action with a subtle hand. His camera, as always, coolly studies everything with a dispassionate eye, which is all the more unsettling. He’s aided by a moody score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – the trio’s third collaboration – that seeps into scenes and sneaks up on the audience. And finally there’s that third thing about Fincher, after his construction of immaculate surfaces and his ability to hide depth behind them: his ability to explode the entire enterprise and bravely gaze upon the results.
Upon reeling into the second half of Gone Girl and staggering towards its conclusion, the film’s full effect is brought to bear. Nick and Amy’s relationship is more twisted than we first realize, their roles in the film’s central mystery far more complicated. We wait breathlessly for the resolution to the film’s central question poised by a reflective Nick at the outset: “what have we done to each other?” Fincher’s hunt for an answer, through the couple’s shared history, through the police work, through the collage of lawyers and televised talking heads, displays his uncommon understanding of why his characters do what they do, and why audiences will join him on this disturbing trip: they love it.