Monday, October 27, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

*Full disclosure: I have not read Gillian Flynn's 2012 novel of the same name, though I understand that there are significant differences between the events of the novel and those in the film.*

She's called "Amazing Amy." Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) spent her childhood as a celebrity, serving the basis of the "Amazing Amy" children's books that her parents authored. Yet as Amy herself explains to then-boyfriend Nick (Ben Affleck), that version of her past is fabricated: where Amy failed to make the volleyball team, "Amazing Amy" was on the varsity team. Where Amy's life was complicated and often disappointing, "Amazing Amy" succeeded at just about everything she attempted. Her story was not her own. She was two different people: Amy Elliot Dunne and "Amazing Amy." But who is she really?

That bifurcation is important, because as a film Gone Girl is very interested in binary distinctions. When Amy disappears, Nick - now her husband of five years - is suspected of killing her. But what is the truth: Nick's claims that he didn't harm his wife, or the increasing mountain of evidence that he is responsible coupled with his erratic behavior?

More (spoiler-y details) after the jump.

Of course, there's more to this story than meets the eye, and to divulge any further plot details would be detrimental to one's enjoyment (if you want to call it that) of the film. Needless to say, Gone Girl is one of director David Fincher's darkest films, which is all the more startling when you consider this is the man behind Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Per usual, Fincher's work here is masterful, collaborating once again with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth to bring out the menace in the Dunnes' peaceful Missouri burg. And there's a lot to admire in the script, too, penned by author Flynn herself and brimming with both macabre wit and gobsmacking twists.

Since the film's arrival (and really, since the novel's arrival over two years ago), it has been met with claims of misogyny in how the story unfolds. The film has been hit particularly hard, since the interior thoughts of the characters are no longer clearly evident as they can be in prose. And to be fair, this is not a accusation that Fincher has never faced; The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were also met with these claims, each to varying degrees of accuracy. The claims are that the film fully takes Nick's side in this tale of marriage-turned-nasty, reducing Amy to the role of manipulative, nagging "bitch" and making Nick the beleaguered male hero.

But that's not completely true, and Fincher and Flynn have done a masterful job at subverting this reading. Nick and Amy Dunne have the perfect marriage on the surface, but the film picks at that flimsy veneer to expose the festering rot beneath it. When Amy disappears, Nick reveals to his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) that he's relieved that she's gone, because he had reached the point of hating her. In voiceover flashbacks, Amy reveals that she's afraid of her husband, his violent outbursts, and his lack of interest in anything about her except her body. But once the big reveal arrives, suddenly it seems that Nick may have been right. He's a woman-hater, she's a manipulative shrew. Both of their views seem to be confirmed.

Yet Fincher and Flynn side-step the issue of having to "pick a side" through point-of-view. Because Amy has to disappear, Nick is the logical "protagonist" of the film's early scenes, and the film builds up the audience's sympathy for him a bit before it starts to point the finger at him. Amy's voiceovers fill in the couple's history, from those thrilling early moments in their relationship to the recession that cost them their jobs, their New York home, and the happiness in their marriage. Nick's version of events doesn't quite line up with Amy's, though, and as Nick's duplicities become more and more evident, he becomes harder to trust.

Then comes "that moment," and Amy's version of events is thrown out too. The film casts both of them as unreliable narrators, and the audience is given two choices of surrogates into the story: Margo, who stands up for her brother, or Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), who doesn't trust Nick and is convinced there's much more to disappearance of Amy than meets the eye. This is where different readings of the film come into play. With Margo as entryway, the film forgives Nick of his masculine transgressions, proving he was right about Amy - and women - all along. With Detective Boney, however, it's not nearly as clean-cut. The truth isn't Nick's side or Amy's side, but some other, unknown option. It's a choice of A or B, but the answer is C.

This is where the binary discussed at the beginning of this review comes in. Nick and Amy want everything to be clear, black-and-white obvious in their feelings for one another. That lack of ambiguity fuels their resentment of each other, and the ways they tear at each other is what makes them perfect together: they need each other to destroy. But the film refuses to view their marriage so cleanly. It plays in the grey areas surrounding the story, avoiding any easy generalizations about who these people are and why they would do this to one another. They both have horrifying inner demons, and they use each other to exercise (rather than exorcise) them.

The committed performances from the cast drive these points home. Affleck turns in what is easily his best performance to date here, engaging with the qualities that heretofore have made him a dull screen presence - smug confidence, limited emotional range - and imbuing them with sinister energy. Pike is wholly remarkable as Amy, twisting her Beautiful Blonde image into an awe-inspiring range of masks, often within the same scene. It's the kind of star-making turn that an actress of her caliber deserves to have. Neil Patrick Harris makes good use of his limited screen time as a creepy presence from Amy's past. But the film's most quietly terrific performances are those of Coon and Dickens. Coon easily gets the most laughs, but she makes Margo more than just a quippy audience surrogate and gives her rich interiority. Dickens, meanwhile, turns Detective Boney into the most fascinating small-town cop this side of Marge Gunderson, taking what could have been nothing more than a plot device and making her incredibly human. The film's grander points couldn't possibly work without these strong performances.

Gone Girl takes the bones of a twisty, pulpy thriller and turns it into a chilling, thrilling portrait of a marriage infected with seething hatred. It toys with the idea of objective truth, and how impossible it is to find that when two people bring out the worst in one another. Fortunately, this tale brought out the best in Fincher, Flynn, and their cast. A

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