When one thinks of the big Oscar hopeful films, those backed by major studios and a wide audience, one rarely associates such films with subtlety or nuance. They are generally grandly emotional, with inspirational speeches played against a sweeping score whilst panning shots of the environment remind us that we’re watching a Big Important Movie. Refreshingly, Gone Girl follows none of these clichés, keeping quiet where less confident films would get very loud. As one would expect of a David Fincher project, almost everything, from the performances to the score to even the cinematography is underplayed just the right amount. You’ll never be distracted from the core story, but nor will you ever get bored of it.
Based on the incredibly popular 2012 novel, the Gone Girl of the title is Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), who goes missing on the morning of her fifth anniversary, leaving behind a less than happy husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). Almost immediately, Nick is under police suspicion and not helping matters is his apparent ignorance of important details of his wife’s life and the fact that the marriage had clearly been in a bad way for a while. It is to the film’s great credit that the disintegration of this relationship feels real, even though we only see snatches of their life before the disappearance. However, we quickly learn that not everything we see in these flashbacks is to be trusted. As is the case in the book, Gone Girl plays with the technique of having both its lead characters be far from trustworthy.
This constant insecurity for the audience of what we do or do not know is a big factor in the film’s success as a thriller, as we never comfortably know who to root for, even if Nick is presented as a more obvious protagonist here than he is in the book. However, even without that element, this is still a great mystery film. By this point, David Fincher is a master at directing cold, morally ambiguous tales of murder and deceit and his infamous 30 to 50 take production method really pays dividends, lending a brilliant nuance to every scene. No performer here overacts, not even the famously over the top Neil Patrick Harris (as Amy’s creepy ex Desi) and Tyler Perry (playing ‘patron saint to wife killers’ lawyer, Tanner Bolt). The score, whilst excellent, is kept to the background and Fincher rarely uses any directorial flourishes. He’s confident enough in his story to let it unfold at its own pace and trusts his audience to remain engaged without needing to pull any real ‘tricks’.
To say too much about the plot would be to spoil a film of this nature, even if the twists and turns are now well known. Going in blind, having not read the source material, is probably the best way to experience Gone Girl, as certain developments will leave you genuinely reeling. However, unlike lots of other crime thrillers, the film does not live or die on the strength of its twists. It speaks volumes about the strength of the characterisation, Fincher’s direction and Gillian Flynn’s (the author of the book as well as writer for the film) script that a sequence in which Nick is interviewed on national television is more exciting than the bombastic set-pieces of many an action film.
On the subject of that interview, not only is Gone Girl a great whodunit, but also a savage attack on the American press and the daytime TV ‘journalists’, hounding the victims of tragedy and making up stories on the spot to satisfy their own agendas. An exchange between Nick and ‘real crime’ host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) is particularly venomous and great fun for an audience, both British and American, who are all too familiar with sensationalist news.
If there is one major flaw in Gone Girl, it is that there is no one to particularly root for. Amy herself is presented as venal and punitive, never satisfied with life’s lot, despite having over a million dollars to her name and Nick is an emotional coward, a man too lazy to ever confront his problems, let alone attempt to remedy them. Obviously, both of them have their reasons for their behaviour, and this distancing of audience and character does work for the story Fincher and Flynn are telling, making the audience struggle to take sides, just as a bystander would with an imploding marriage in real life. I, personally, did not find the alienation too much of a barrier to enjoyment, but a lack of emotional investment in a certain character means that the big payoffs are less gratifying than they otherwise might have been.
Then again, to complain about a lack of emotional satisfaction is to almost miss the point of Gone Girl. This is a brilliant story, confidently told, never boring the audience, but never pandering to it either. It has been dubbed the opener of the Oscar season, and whilst its slightly repugnant characters may bar it from any awards, they make for absolutely fascinating viewing.