If the eyes are the windows to the soul then Rosamund Pike is blessed with peepholes to the abyss, and David Fincher was wise to cast her in his latest prestige pulp. Speaking during a press conference at the 52nd New York Film Festival, where Gone Girl was the opening night gala, the director explained that his choice of leading lady arose from his inability to “get a read on her” previous performances, making her perfect for the film’s mysterious key role. Pike’s obsidian gaze suggests something even more uncanny: Her eyes could be sculpted from the same intergalactic goo that Scarlett Johansson lured her unsuspecting prey to in Under the Skin; going, going, gone indeed.
To take the comparison any further would risk ruining the movie’s supposed Big Twist—“Spoilers!” Fincher chanted during the same Q&A, like some mantric punchline—yet suffice it to say that the reveal will be reasonably apparent to anyone with a passing awareness of rudimentary police work, even for those unfamiliar with the source material (full disclosure: I’m one of them.) No matter, because the real pleasure of the movie exists in what the filmmaker does after the narrative upends.
In adapting another best-selling novel (following his rigorously trashy 2011 take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Fincher has returned to his playful engagement with mainstream texts and the fun to be had poking fun at the pop psychology that fuels them. Working from a screenplay by the book’s author, Gillian Flynn, Fincher uses the material’s contrived plot and stabs at relationship commentary as a launching pad for a jet-black comedy that at its best approaches the japery of a Grand Guignol.
The directorial wink is right there in the opening shot. Framed in close-up, the part running down the top of Pike’s ice-blonde hair instantly evokes Hitchcock’s famous image of Kim Novak’s bun in Vertigo; ripe with duplicity, the story’s playing field is already wildly unstable.
Pike plays Amy Dunne, the inspiration for her parents’ series of beloved children’s books Amazing Amy and thus an avatar for the mythical American sweetheart. Marooned in suburban Missouri with her not-so-amazing blue-collar husband, writer Nick (Affleck), she finds herself at the five-year crossroads of a marriage about to fray. (Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays over a marital car conversation, interfacing drolly with Zodiac’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”) Beleaguered husband is readying for a divorce, until he comes home one morning to discover that Amy is missing. Foul play is immediately suspected. Foul play is where Fincher unleashes his arsenal of jokes.
“I feel like I’m in episode of Law & Order,” Affleck quips to police, his superhero jaw deflated in a schlubby parody of working-class manhood. New York’s finest might have done a better detective job. While Amy’s disappearance initially galvanizes the community, Dunne soon finds himself fingered for his wife’s murder—and sucked into a societal shitstorm that Fincher and Flynn whip up to demented effect.
Gone Girl serves up a fascinating pickle. It’s a piece written by a woman, ostensibly from a female perspective, in which we’re asked to empathize—quite rightly—with a character compelled to inhabit shifting roles thrust upon her by society. Yet it’s directed to play for stretches like a farce, by an exacting genre virtuoso who specializes in movies frequently coveted by the male gaze set. Such tension is one of the film’s compelling aspects. It’s a safe bet, for example, that when Affleck whines that he’s “so sick of being picked on by women,” the joke is very much at his character’s expense.
This discord between material and execution works as often as not. Where Flynn’s writing feels strenuously designed to make piercing statements about the treachery of intimacy, the ennui of marriage and the specter of mass media (or something), Fincher’s treatment delights in manifesting as straight-up comedy: by amplifying the silliness of the narrative, he takes the scenario into a heightened bizarro world in which his audience can either choose to be disturbed or luxuriate in the absurdity.
And mirth does abound. At one physically gruesome point, Pike performs a little hair flip as though she’d just thrown shade at a rival on Melrose Place, while Affleck appears to have been directed to act as though he were auditioning for a daytime soap opera. Later, Neil Patrick Harris looks to have wandered in from an especially deranged drawing-room comedy. At any moment I half-expected Tommy Wiseau to cameo as one of Amy’s exes, howling “I did naahhhht hit her! I did naaahhhht!”
Some of the gags are sitcom-cheap: “That’s marriage,” Pike deadpans after an angsty Affleck tirade. Others come on meta: How, for example, every time a screen is turned on the coverage of the case appears at a convenient expositional moment; or in casting cinema’s preeminent clown, Tyler Perry, as Dunne’s defense counsel, the film scrawls a pretty fat, hilarious punctuation mark. There are back-catalog goofs to be savored, too: the Dunnes’ stoic feline, assailed in close-up by strobing blue police lights through horizontal drapes, could be waiting for Madonna to return home from expressing herself.
Stirring the tonal acrobatics are Fincher’s regular musical collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose alternately suspenseful, maudlin and outright satirical score gurgles along like a conspiratorial laugh track. The comedy stylings of this grim bunch reach an apex in a late-film shower scene that might be about the funniest thing Fincher has committed to screen.
At a certain stage, however, I began to wonder whether all this added up to terribly much. Fincher’s technical prowess and immeasurable gift for draining the sincerity from his actors’ performances mean Gone Girl is great fun, but too often it feels shackled by the Important Things About Relationships the underlying material wants to say. Armchair cultural pundits will inevitably lap all of those things up, because human beings, bless them, keep getting involved with each other and the perceived Male-Female dichotomy is good traffic. But I couldn’t help getting the sensation that Fincher is operating way below his league. Again. For a genre film with shared elements, Gone Girl is no Side Effects.
As one of the few auteurs in such a position of commercial privilege in mainstream American cinema, might he it be reasonable to want Fincher to push things a little further? Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t complain about someone screwing this gleefully with genre pictures. He may be the new Hitchcock after all.