Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Emily Ratajkowski, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, Scoot McNairy, Boyd Holbrook, Lola Kirke
Running Time: 145 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There's a certain amount of baggage that comes with arriving to a movie's party late. And while lateness, by today's standards, constitutes only about a week or two, it takes mere minutes for reactions to seep out and spoilers to leak. It seems in only a matter of hours, a movie's critical and commercial prospects are already written. A hardcover of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl sits on my bookshelf still unopened, with the plan always being to dive in only after I've seen the film. But trying to go in cold is a pointless exercise, as it wasn't long before I accidentally found out more than I wanted to know. And that's tricky, because with this film, ANYTHING is more than you want to know. But it's not because it's some twisty thriller that heavily relies on plot, as could have been with a director other than David Fincher behind the controls.

There are twists and turns in this for sure, but it never feels like it's at the service of something other than exploring the psyches and motivations of these characters, as well as the disturbing, sickening corrosion of outwardly normal relationships. It's easy seeing how such a dark movie has managed to strike this universal chord, but explaining how without spoiling it becomes trickier. What it will do is likely scare anyone in a committed relationship, and maybe even those who aren't .

On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Missouri bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. Signs of a struggle and blood at the scene shift a potential missing person case to a murder investigation with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) honing in on Nick as their primary suspect. And apparently for good reason. Interspersed  flashbacks and voiceovers from Amy's diary reveal how they first met and became engaged in New York. He, a laid back, corn fed mid westerner. She, an aloof, Type A city girl whose wealthy parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) created a popular "Amazing Amy" book series based on her life, or at least their rose-colored version of it.

We slowly discover why they returned to his Missouri hometown and what eventually caused the deterioration of their marriage. With evidence mounting and Nick crumbling under intense media scrutiny, he's rapidly losing the support of everyone but his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), signaling it just might be time for him to lawyer up. All that can be safely said is that Amy's disappearance and potential murder isn't the mystery it appears to be.

"Amazing" isn't likely to be the first adjective anyone besides Nick would use in describing the ice cold Amy, as it's difficult to decipher what he initially saw in her that went beyond looks and a somewhat alluring, sophisticated presence. For him, it was enough. Then again, we're given the impression she never really saw it in herself either, always failing to measure up to the idealized fictional book character her parents created and profited from. This could be why something seems really off with this woman right off the bat, making her almost instantly unlikable and aligning our sympathies with him before even knowing the full details of their relationship. Early flashbacks establish in our minds he's too nice a guy for her and will probably be eaten alive. Until we find out he's no boy scout himself, wrestling with his own issues after they've tie the knot. Our allegiances shift back and forth, with only Amy's diary as our guide post, despite her reliability always being in doubt.

That Amy's played by English actress Rosamund Pike is important in so far that no one seems to have any idea who she is, even with a handful of major screen credits to her name over a decade-long career. I'd have trouble naming a single one of them, which is exactly the point. There's a blankness and anonymity to her that Fincher uses to his advantage, even going so far as to claim in interviews it's one of the primary reasons he cast her. We know literally nothing about the actress, which lets no preconceived notions in, allowing Flynn's story to be projected on a clean slate.

If ever there was a case where a big name actress wouldn't work it's here since objectivity (or at least the illusion of it) needs to be retained. It's a casting choice in the vain of mysterious blondes like Grace Kelly or Kim Novak that would make Hitchcock proud, but Pike does the rest of the work, which is more than we imagine it will be when the film begins. And what is "amazing" about Amy is how much life the actress breaths into the character with often only her eyes. Regardless of anyone's familiarity with Pike, this does at least feel like we're seeing her on screen for the first time, with Fincher using that anonymity as a weapon to club unsuspecting audiences.

How Affleck's image and persona is subverted and twisted is an even better example of how Fincher (much like Kubrick before him) uses his actors, transforming their real or perceived weaknesses into strengths that fit the story. Correctly considered a superior director than actor now, Affleck the performer is at his best when playing against his pumped up superstar persona and inhabiting desperate characters whose backs are against the wall. Seemingly overnight, Nick becomes an infamous celebrity and proves as ill equipped at it as anyone else would be in his situation. Unfortunately in his case, this behavior makes him comes across as a guilty sociopath when filtered and magnified through the media's glaring lenses.

Watching Affleck squirm, panic and appear dumbfounded at each new development that further stacks the deck against Nick becomes as exciting as watching a sports event in which you haven't a clue of the outcome. At times it's even darkly hilarious watching this guy's reactions and comparing it to how you think someone in his shoes would behave. It's understandable the police immediately suspect him, and use his apparent cooperation as a means of manipulation. Kim Dickens is perfect as the cop who's perfectly logical and professional. She's really just doing her job, only exceptionally well.    

The worst thing about Neil Patrick Harris' performance as Amy's ex-boyfriend Desi is that I can't address it, as revealing anything would be a spoiler. What can be addressed is that his portion of the film is the strongest and most suspenseful, which is really saying something. His total screen time probably doesn't exceed any more than 10 minutes, but those curious to see how NPH would fare in a seriously dramatic role guided by a top tier filmmaker should prepare to be blown away. Consider this restitution for the actor having to suffer through the final season of How I Met Your Mother and a thrill for viewers getting to see him earn an opportunity he's deserved for a long time. And he absolutely nails it.

The eclectic casting even extends to Tyler Perry as high powered defense attorney Tanner Bolt. Yes, that Tyler Perry. Again a small role, but he's superb in it, proving to be the eyes and ears of the audience sitting in disbelief and shock at what's unfolding. In the midst of  this craziness, he's our voice of reason. Toward the end of the film he has a hilarious line that's just classic and will surely be quoted for years to come because of how perfectly it summarizes Nick's mess.

This third collaboration between Fincher and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is by far their most unusual in that there's a lot lurking beneath the surface, more specifically these weird, unnerving electronic sounds that fade into the background only to kick up again and accelerate during pivotal scenes, ratcheting up the suspense. It works, creating a nearly constant sense of impending doom in even the quietest moments. The tense atmosphere extends not only to the story and music, but its look as cinematographer Jeff Croneweth manages to makes even daytime scenes feel and appear as if they're occurring in the dead of night. You can almost think of Gone Girl as the twisted cousin of Zodiac and The Game, with the former's theme of obsession meeting the latter's clues and puzzles that similarly constitute the "game" destroying Nick's life.

The last act makes you wonder how something so sadistic could still be this much fun to watch without compromising any of the seriousness. This wasn't necessarily going to be a slam dunk for Fincher, since his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, also based on a best selling fictional crime novel, was a rare case of him being dragged down by the material. But this is nothing of the sort, instead returning the director to top form. It's impossible to know how much of the depth was fine-tuned by him and what originated from Flynn's screenplay, but the two prove to be a formidable creative alliance just the same.

There comes a point where it seems the narrative has written itself into a corner, with seemingly only one way out. "They wouldn't do THAT? Would they?" It's an ending that justifiably leaves you talking and thinking. Other directors would have just let the credits roll, but Fincher's smart enough to hang around a while and let the characters have that conversation themselves, and rub our noses in the aftermath. Just the idea that we never truly know who we're with and reveal only the parts of ourselves we want is frightening enough, but this ratchets it up to the most extreme level. After watching it, you'll come away contemplating a whole new meaning of being "trapped" in a marriage. 

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