A near-perfect mystery & media slam

David Fincher seems to have made adapting megahit airport novels his thing, but he’s getting pretty great at it.

Gone Girl 2
The Sixth Sense represents a watershed moment in pop culture history: it essentially introduced the concept of the spoiler as a social cue. Oh, sure, surprising plot points predate M. Night’s Shyamalan’s ghostly film. They are, after all, one of the hallmarks of narrative storytelling. Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Crying Game all contain equally enormous, game-changing twists in their narrative. The Sixth Sense’s shocking ending, however, meant that it was impossible to properly discuss the film with someone who hadn’t seen it without thoroughly ruining the appeal of the film to them. I’m bringing up this 15-year-old Bruce Willis movie now because David Fincher’s Gone Girl contains at least half-a-dozen plot developments that could theoretically ruin your enjoyment. It is a film that is thoroughly spoilerific and yet does not rely simply on unpredictable narrative turns and a smattering of deus ex machina to ground its appeal. I could reveal any one of the film’s hairpin turns in this review right now, and I guarantee you it would not ruin the regulated unspooling at the centre of Gillian Flynn’s story.

Gone Girl is a mystery film that does not at any moment rely on the elucidation of said mystery to wrap up its narrative. It’s a pitch-black media satire disguised as a procedural disguised as a warped update of The War of the Roses disguised as a stately Oscar bait film disguised as an adaptation of an airport novel. I have not read the best-selling novel (Flynn also wrote the film’s screenplay) on which it is based — in fact, I pretty much dismissed it based on its rampant success ’cause I’m a dick like that — but I have no doubt that it’s as compelling and narratively dexterous as the film that grew out of it.

Rosamund Pike
Rosamund Pike
Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) are a couple of transplanted Manhattanites living in the rural town of North Carthage, Missouri. Once hip and in love, their marriage has taken a turn for the worse as the recession has driven them back to Nick’s hometown in search of work, her trust fund depleted to bail out her parents. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find his front door wide open, his coffee table smashed and his wife missing. Nick immediately phones a couple of local police officers (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and sends out a missing persons alert that’s soon national news. While Nick originally seems innocent, his icy demeanour in front of cameras and the mounting evidence against him soon paint him in a different light.

It would be easy for Hollywood to grab that story and make an anonymous, icy-grey thriller out of it, but Fincher’s extremely calibrated, no-bullshit style pairs well with Flynn’s story, growing roots in every direction that Fincher then cuts down and guides with razor-sharp precision. While the film ultimately brings up more issues (it’s about class and marriage and societal pressures and the economy and nature vs. nurture and rural vs. urban and probably half-a-dozen other pressing issues of the day) than it can reasonably explore even in a generous two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Fincher chips away at it to create a film that’s both an immensely satisfying thriller and a dark, prescient satire on the media that’s as unexpectedly hilarious as it is ultimately chilling.

Pike and Affleck, from Entertainment Weekly
Pike and Affleck on the cover of Entertainment Weekly
The decisions most of the characters make in Gone Girl are driven not by morals or righteousness but rather by the way the media will spin it. By the time Nick hires an ambulance-chasing hotshot lawyer (played with surprising aplomb and wit by Tyler fucking Perry, of all people), Gone Girl feels more like Network than Along Came a Spider. Frequently hilarious while remaining one of those stark, precise, Trent Reznor-laden films Fincher is getting so good at, Gone Girl is as twisted a portrait of Nancy Grace and her rabid, desk-pounding ilk as we’re likely to get.

Anchored by terrific performances by Affleck and especially Pike (who pulls off a character that seems nearly impossible), Gone Girl certainly isn’t perfect. It’s the type of movie that’s likely to get misinterpreted by single-minded dickheads (although, having directed Fight Club, Fincher is probably used to it by now) in the way it stubbornly adheres to its characters being unlikeable and difficult, and the way it sometimes skirts around an issue without fully exploring it can feel flippant and off-putting (it uses things like false rape accusations as minor plot points). It’s a dense, difficult film that nevertheless has the propulsion and construction of a real page-turner — but to say any more would ruin the surprise. ■
Gone Girl is in theatres now