“Gone Girl” lives up to its promise as the year’s “event” movie for fanboys and fangirls who prefer book clubs to comic-book stores.
That’s not an attempt to elevate the film, directed by David Fincher with equal doses of foreboding and wicked humor, above pulp status. But it’s polished, irresistible pulp, like the best-selling 2012 novel on which it is based.
Inventive and vividly written, the novel was grounded by a protagonist who, though not exactly likable, was at least relatable. Nick Dunne, a New York magazine writer turned Missouri bar owner and chief person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, Amy, did not seem up to the task of killing anybody. He was careless at times and took his wife for granted, but he seemed too entertainment-obsessed to lie in wait for anything other than the new Woody Allen movie.
Flynn, who expertly adapted her novel for the screen, excised most of Nick’s pop-culture references, thereby keeping the film more Fincher, less Kevin (Smith or Williamson). Yet Ben Affleck, leading a note-perfect cast, fills in the blanks so admirably that Nick still seems recognizably human.
Affleck now is a respected Hollywood actor and director. But think back to his “Armageddon” days, and to the J. Lo months. The Affleck of “Gone Girl” summons that guy, several pounds, disappointments and an uncanny resemblance to Scott Peterson later.
Affleck plays Nick as an affable but shallow man who loves his cool twin sister (Carrie Coon) and beer and often leads with his libido instead of common sense. Flashbacks to Amy’s and Nick’s lives in Manhattan and then Missouri show Nick’s interest wane as Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes from unattainable New York sophisticate to isolated Missouri homemaker.
When Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary, and the national media arrive in town, Nick does not suddenly turn off his affability. Faced with cameras, he instinctively grins like an idiot. Does that make him a killer, or just an idiot?
Nick’s malfeasance level will come to light soon enough. But the fewer plot points you know in advance, the more you will enjoy the movie. Fincher has orchestrated the book’s transitional moments so brilliantly that people who never read it will benefit most, because they will not anticipate anything from the novel. (But non-readers should be warned of the movie’s bloody violence and other troubling elements).
Fincher brings to “Girl” qualities common to his other thrillers (“Zodiac,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), like the use of light and shadow to cast suspicion. For instance, Neil Patrick Harris’ forehead has looked large before he appeared here as Amy’s obsessed ex. But it did not look sinister until Fincher’s camera got hold of it.
That other common Fincher element – tedium – is missing, thanks to Flynn’s energized plotting and screenwriting. Fincher and Flynn also retained the book’s humor, gallows in nature but more applicable to dying relationships than people.
Affleck and Pike, a British actress (“Pride & Prejudice”) who gives a star-making performance here as Manhattanite Amy, spark as Amy and Nick trade quips when they first meet. This pair of writers seem well-matched in wit and looks.
Mostly, the movie subtly laughs at Nick and Amy rather than with them. Their first kiss happens amid a cloud of sugar created by delivery men unloading bags behind a bakery, the moment’s storybook quality undercut by its empty-calorie symbolism.
Amy and Nick look pleased with themselves and their status in New York, though Nick’s job writing about men’s issues and Amy’s as a quiz compiler place them on the literati’s bottom rung. Just above them are Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes, striking a nice balance between concern and entitlement). The parents wrote a famous series of children’s books featuring the character “Amazing Amy,” based on their daughter.
Pike gives Amy a Hitchcock-blonde cool before any crime occurs. She appears to glide rather than walk and lends the same smooth effect to Amy’s speech in scenes with Affleck that she does to her narration of passages from Amy’s diary (discovered by police after Amy vanishes).
Pike begins to chip at Amy’s façade when Amy tells Nick, with a hint of bitterness, how her parents co-opted, then inflated, her life in their books. Where Amy sometimes failed, book Amy always succeeded.
But the books paid the family’s bills, so Amy learned to live with lies. She finds, in transplanted Missouri boy Nick, a man so enamored of her elegance that he will meet her on her all-surface terms.
The loss of both their jobs to the recession, and a subsequent move to Nick’s hometown, break the spell. Amy becomes a caged bird in the couple’s rented Missouri McMansion (only Fincher can make crown molding and stainless-steel appliances look menacing) while bar owner Nick’s hours grow later and later.
He named the bar he runs with his sister “The Bar,” because he’s that cool. Affleck and Coon, from HBO’s “The Leftovers” and a big-screen natural, share a lived-in rapport. The sister serves as an audience stand-in, reacting with appropriate disbelief to events surrounding her brother’s case.
Matching Coon’s earthiness is Kim Dickens as a canny police detective – the Marge Gunderson of the piece – who assures Nick she wants to help him find his wife while quietly assessing his less-than-forthcoming behavior.
Missi Pyle does a pitch-perfect Nancy Grace as a cable host feasting on the Dunne story. Sela Ward is more measured but equally charismatic as a Diane Sawyer-like interviewer.
Unafraid to go deep into the Hollywood casting pool, Fincher also makes inspired use of bigger stars. Harris plays against lovable-scamp type as a controlling character. Tyler Perry brings smarts and charm to his role as a famous attorney who takes on Nick’s case and remains unflappable in the face of a voracious press.
I could go into “Girl’s” indictment of a 24-hour news cycle that tries famous defendants before a jury can. But the book resonated most with readers when it put a marriage, rather than the media, under its microscope. Nick and Amy offered an outsize version of the smaller betrayals and half-truths that exist in many relationships.
Fincher’s microscope offers beautifully composed shots but dissects the marriage in the same clinical manner as the book. So the book’s main problem, which is that the story eventually goes wackadoodle, also factors in the movie. But the nuts part comes well into a 2-hour, 25-minute film that has spellbound its audience up to that point.
* * * 1/2
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon
Director: David Fincher
Rated R (a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, language)