As a long-time David Fincher devotee, the first half hour of Gone Girl represents the first time I’ve doubted the director (full disclosure: I’ve never seen Benjamin Button). The film intercuts between Nick Dunne – writer, bar-owner, Ben Affleck – and his wife Amy – writer, actual-owner-of-the-bar, Rosamund Pike – through the past and present. In the present we follow Nick as he plays The Game of Life at said bar with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon) before discovering Amy has disappeared from their home, with only an upturned table to hint at her whereabouts. As police investigate her disappearance the past scenes flip through Amy’s journal, recounting her meet-cute with Nick and their marital bliss before it curdled into antipathy.
It was particularly in the latter scenes where my doubts began to mount. It felt profoundly false, with Pike’s performance coming across as rigid and the rhythm of the banter escaping Fincher’s sensibilities, striving for Gilmore Girls but lacking that sharp-edged ‘snap’. Thankfully the film soon revealed that the falseness of the scenes – and the tightness of Pike’s demeanour – is deliberate, while also progressing towards material more suited to Fincher’s aesthetic. (A scene where a pair of police officers roam through an abandoned shopping centre, lit only by roving torchlight and populated by roving derelicts, is straight out of the Fincher playbook.)
Gone Girl is fundamentally about performance and persona, the masks we present to others. Nick finds the persona of the grieving husband ill-fitting – especially as Amy’s journal reveals the deep rifts apparent in their relationship. His interaction with sceptical police officers and fervent journalists sees his discomfort expressed as clumsy grins and awkward explanations, and the façade of the innocent, loyal husband begins to crumble. The scaffolding of Amy’s personality is similarly stripped back as the film progresses; early on we learn that her mother wrote a best-selling book series called Amazing Amy, presenting an exaggerated, perfected version of her daughter, and it becomes clear that Amy has created a fantasy version of herself in much the same way.
Gone Girl is adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel by the author herself, and much like Fincher’s last book adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it promises a respectable, straightforward procedural before swerving into pulpy twists. Here, though, Fincher mostly plays down the pulpiness, suggesting a strident attempt to take the subject matter seriously. I’m not sure that’s really possible with the text – which plays into the deepest anxieties of so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” – but perhaps it is with the subtext, which digs into the aforementioned theme of performance along with an excoriation of the modern media cycle.
Personally, I’m unconvinced that there’s enough meat to said subtext to justify this approach, which despite the appearance of a handful of comic actors (Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson) hews close to the seriousness of Zodiac. Reflecting on Gone Girl doesn’t leave one with anything more substantial than “we present a persona that people want to see” and “the modern media rushes to judgment too quickly,” neither of which are revelations. (I would argue there’s a missed opportunity to incorporate the self-marketing associated with social media into the narrative, but that’s a different story.) I think a pulpier take would’ve made for a better film, even if it might have scuttled the film’s Oscar ambitions.
Gone Girl is ultimately a mid-level entry in Fincher’s filmography. While it might not be on the level of upper-tier examples like Fight Club, Zodiac, Se7en or The Social Network, it’s still a good film. Pike and Affleck each do an impressive job; the former gets the showier role, but Affleck pulls off one of his better performances in a while, carefully twisting and subverting his natural charisma. The airport-novel-thriller plotline holds your attention throughout its two-and-a-half hours (though the final minutes are its least effective, both narratively and emotionally), thanks in large part to Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor keeping you on edge throughout with their insidiously compelling score. My initial doubts proved unfounded, but the film didn’t quite justify the storm of anticipation that accumulates around a new Fincher film for a fanboy like myself.