If airport fiction too often gets a bad rap, as a genre popularized by page-turners considered superficially engaging but never truly profound or philosophical, then director David Fincher is its unlikely hero, a filmmaker restoring dignity to the genre through adaptations of some of its most wildly successful novels and proving that even the most overtly sleazy tale can contain profound statements about the world in which we live.
In step with its genre counterparts, Fincher’s latest film Gone Girl is superficially engaging, no doubt about that, a mystery about a missing woman and a quickly evolving air of suspicion that builds around her husband while the media places him on trial in the court of public opinion. But I’ll be damned if the film isn’t profound or philosophical; with the help of screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who adapted the script from her own best-selling novel, David Fincher has taken the massively popular property and proven that resonant themes and powerful subtexts can be found in places we may never have expected.
The writer-director pair juggle a variety of compelling and complex ideas, including the concept of projected self versus real self; the institution of marriage and what it means to commit to vows that promise “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer”; and the rise of the 24-hour news media and the role it plays in shaping and shifting public opinion. Each of these is examined via the unraveling mystery at the film’s center, a fantastic corps of characters, and a darkly comic riptide that flows pervasively through the picture.
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives home to find the living room a mess: a smashed coffee table, an overturned ottoman, debris everywhere. His wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is nowhere to be found. Where is she? No one seems to know, Nick especially. Seemingly unaware of things the police think he ought to know, Nick quickly goes from husband of the vanished to prime suspect and public enemy in one fell swoop.
More information becomes available with each passing day, including forensic details and possible motives, causing a media frenzy and a public witch-hunt. But as we’ve come to understand, there are two sides to every story, and the narrative can change in a moment’s notice.
The story plays out like a page-turner, the tale flying by with each passing frame, but while we come for the sheer entertainment of the mystery — what has been marketed in trailers and TV spots for the past few months — we leave in awe of the story’s many twists and turns, the machinations of the fast-moving plot, but even more so we leave truly transfixed by the themes and subtext held deep within the story’s core.
Those themes are explored chiefly through the characters we see on screen, of course Amy and Nick, but also Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and his high-profile lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry); Amy’s best friend Noelle (Casey Wilson) and former boyfriends Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) and Tommy (Scoot McNairy); TV personalities Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward); and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), who have been assigned to the missing persons case.
Each member of the cast works well within the constraints of their character and the story at large, with Rosamund Pike and Carrie Coon emerging as the standouts, both women churning out truly memorable work in a highly competent film. As for the men, Affleck is solid, but beyond that, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris play each of their more minor parts to near-perfection.
There are layers of themes strung throughout the film, and both David Fincher and Gillian Flynn have done their respective part to ensure those come across on screen and remain in our minds well after the credits roll, weaving them through the film’s multiple plot twists and narrative shifts.
They examine the idea of projected self versus real self, the social principle that we put on different masks for different people and only let certain people hear certain parts of our story. Few of us are truly open books, utilizing deception as a tool of self-preservation. Amy and Nick each use deception to craft an evolving impression about themselves, and Pike and Affleck play their respective parts to stunning results, Pike in particular.
The film is also a sprawling dissection of marriage. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? These are the questions we ask many times over during the course of a relationship, particularly during those times where things are not as bright and shiny as they were during the courting process or the honeymoon phase. Gone Girl examines the coming together and drifting apart of two people who have vowed to stay together “for better or for worse”, especially when good times grow hard to come by.
Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph, however, is the way in which it satirizes the news media. Once the news outlets, namely Pyle’s Nancy Grace type character, catch wind of Amy’s disappearance and possible death, they skewer Nick and place him over the hot coals of an angered public. The opinion of the small Missouri town in which Amy and Nick live shifts with each new development, a phenomenon none too foreign for our society. Fincher knocks this bit out of the park with a brilliant comic tone and spot-on execution.
Told through the perspective of two unreliable narrators, Gone Girl is a film about a couple whom we eventually realize are pretty much perfect for each other, albeit in a way that makes their union a punishment and not a gift. Deeply resonant and sharply funny, it is a thriller worthy of its place among David Fincher’s stellar cinematic oeuvre. After the work he’s done on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now Gone Girl, the acclaimed director might just be airport fiction’s new for-hire savant — whether he likes it or not.
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language
Runtime: 149 minutes