At last the long-awaited David Fincher film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling 2012 novel, “Gone Girl,” is in theaters. For its fans and even those who have yet to read the crime thriller, the result is an engrossing, intricately plotted, superbly crafted shock drama of the highest order.
Yet there is also a lingering suspicion that the film perhaps boils away too much to get down to the essential bones of the complicated tale. Not that this will keep “Gone Girl” from being a hit film with plenty of award potential.
Two powerful engines drive the story relentlessly forward. One, of course, is a search for the gone girl, a seemingly ideal wife and semi-celebrity, who vanishes one fine July morning. The other and ultimately stronger force is Flynn’s corrosive depiction of a modern marriage gone sour.
It is the latter force that turns a neatly controlled and nasty pulp fiction, a thing as harrowing and mordant as anything crime novelist Jim Thompson might have dreamed up, into a critique of modern marriage and media culture all marbled with insidious fissures.
This is a starting point for many late-night debates that should begin with: Is Flynn right in her ascertain that no one these days is really authentic? Is everyone, from media pundits to spouses, play-acting?
That’s a lot for a crime movie to tackle. Fincher is among the few who can manage it although I would include this film’s star, Ben Affleck, whose directing career began with a similarly titled crime story, “Gone Baby Gone.”
The job calls for a director to handle a labyrinthian plot, multiple, deeply realized characters (for the most part) and a venture into dark, murderous places.
The story begins chronologically, then finds a way to double back on itself. The opening sequences detail the unfathomable disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) from a small Missouri town, the efforts by her husband Nick (Affleck) to find her — maybe not as earnest as one might like — the media frenzy and investigation by police detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her terse partner Jim (Patrick Fugit).
Naturally, suspicion ultimately falls on Nick himself, a man supremely talented in the art of shooting himself in the foot. Soon enough national fury descends on him, egged on by a sensationalist TV talk-shower (all too accurately played by Missy Pile).
He is certainly not innocent of being a cheating husband and all-around jerk. But does this make him a murderer?
He has the unquestioned support and loyalty of his twin sister Margo whom he calls Go (Carrie Coon). But the town, his wife’s parents and eventually millions of enraged media-connected citizens view him as the de facto perp on the basis of no hard evidence.
He is forced to hire attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), (in)famous for his defense of murder suspects, as Rhonda makes him a person of interest.
The film makes effective U-turns in chronology during these sequences as Amy’s diary narrates the couple’s five-year journey to this horrible situation: The romantic meeting and wooing between two fringe journalists/writers in New York that turns them into a sexy, glamorous married couple.
Then comes a marital decline as the recession costs them jobs. The fatal illness of Nick’s mom’s brings them back to his Missouri home town.
From Manhattan and fun parties to Nowheresville where Amy has no friends. Her money buys Nick a bar he runs with Go, but Nick becomes increasingly distant and then violent toward her. She even fears for her life.
Then Nick returns home the morning of their fifth anniversary to find Amy gone.
A more radical jolt propels the film into Spoilers-ville, meaning this is where plot discussions must cease. I can say this brings with it several other persons of interest — from a narrative viewpoint — that include a figure from Amy’s troubled past, an incredibly wealthy ex-boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), and a white-trash pair of hustlers (Lola Kirke and Scoot McNairy).
This shifts the focus more and more to Amy, who grew up with a life “plagiarized” by her own parents, as Nick says. Her psychologist parents, it seems, wrote a series of popular children’s books about her alter ego, “Amazing Amy.”
(How curious that another current film, “This is Where I Leave You,” makes essentially the same plot point about a psychologist parent exploiting her own progeny for literary fame and profit.)
In any event, Amazing Amy is impossibly perfect whereas the real Amy, a mere mortal, is not.
Pike, an English actress who has made substantial impressions in supporting roles (“An Education,” “World’s End”), brilliantly digs into a thorny, complex role that continues to peel back layers as the story evolves. While no revelation — you knew she was always a supremely talented actress — it’s gratifying to see such a breakout performance.
Affleck needs none, of course, but nevertheless he gets every grubby, selfish detail right in this lout who finally reveals his true colors. But as pathetic and vulnerable as he becomes, Affleck manages to win empathy as a man descended into a hell created by the media and circumstance he cannot control.
Dickens’ cop also is nuanced, not your typical detective looking for a career-making arrest and perp-walk but rather one genuinely interested in discovering the truth. She even settles into a symbiotic relationship with her chief suspect unlike what happens in most crime movies.
Perry, removed from his self-created film world (not to mention those ugly dresses), scores with a charismatic character that dominates his every scene and gives a real sense of how effective a nationally recognized showboat-attorney can be in representing his clients. His cagey understanding of the media is equal to that of his legal acumen.
Harris’ character is shallow though if not cartoonish and here, I think, is where you start to distrust Gillian Flynn’s story. The author has no one to blame since Fincher encouraged her to adapt her own densely plotted novel.
(Side note: I see the name of top female screenwriter Leslie Dixon among the film’s exec producers so perhaps Dixon did uncredited rewrites.)
Harris’ character makes little sense, a figure planted in Amy’s back story to move into the narrative when convenient yet without any motive or integrity of his own. With so many twists and turns in this story, some are bound to feel arbitrary, more in service of a ripping good yarn than rooted in any reality.
So too the movie, when you think back on it, doesn’t exactly let you down but can’t cover up its contrivances. Just as whoever unsuccessfully tried to clean up the crime scene with meticulous care, Flynn leaves too many traces of literary fudging, of shortcuts taken and unlikely convergences of events. Nor does she successfully establish an end-game for the culprit(s).
You easily see what attracted Fincher to this project, in the dark subject matter that gives way to his usual dark palette of browns, grays, blacks and tans via Jeff Cronenweth’s clear-eyed cinematography. And once again an electronic musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross mutters beneath the fast-moving, deadly events.
But “Gone Girl” lacks the resonant depths of Fincher’s great films such as “The Social Network” and “Zodiac.” By comparison — and, mind you, only because Fincher sets such a high bar — this film feels more slick and pulpy than an emotional depth-charge that shatters an audience’s existential well-being.
Opens: October 3, 2014 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: New Regency, Pacific Standard, Regency Enterprises
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Lola Kirke, Scoot McNairy, Casey Wilson, Emily Ratajkowski, Sela Ward, Missy Pyle
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Gillian Flynn, based on her novel
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen
Executive producers: Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea
Director of photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Kirk Baxter
R rating, 148 minutes