20th Century-Fox (2014) 149 min. R
Director: David Fincher Screenplay: Gillian Flynn; based on the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth; Editing: Kirk Baxter
Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Douglas A. Mowat; Costumes: Trish Summerville; Score: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Stars: Ben Affleck (Nick Dunne), Rosamund Pike (Amy Elliott-Dunne), Neil Patrick Harris (Desi Collings), Tyler Perry (Tanner Bolt), Carrie Coon (Margo), Kim Dickens (Det. Rhonda Boney), Emily Ratajkowski (Andie), Missi Pyle (Ellen Abbott), Patrick Fugit (Officer James Gilpin), Sela Ward (Sharon Schieber), Lola Kirke (Greta), Casey Wilson (Noelle Hawthorne), Leonard Kelly-Young (Bill Dunne)
While it’s a welcome relief to see a book adapted into a movie that isn’t grounded in another teen fiction franchise, the Book-of-the-Month club mentality Gone Girl grew out of gives me pause. Big screen bestsellers come with a built-in audience, a guarantee that makes them a relatively safe investment for producers, but the sort of bookworms they attract to cinemas and who regard them as great films in the same way they classify great literature, aren’t the type who generally go to movies so can’t be the most discerning judges. If Gone Girl weren’t adapted from a bestseller for instance, its dust jacket would likely have been changed so that the nondescript title wasn’t so easily lost between Amanda Seyfried’s Gone and the Ben Affleck directed Gone Baby Gone, especially since all these movies had vaguely similar setups concerning the search for a missing person. This premise has become a perennial; last year we had Prisoners and this fall brings us Gone Girl, the idea behind which may have been inspired by the self-engineered disappearance of Agatha Christie in the 20’s, which drummed up untold reams of publicity for the famous author.
Like many movie adaptations of respected literature, the script, which Gillian Flynn adapted from her novel, approaches the material too timorously. As with most authors, Flynn is in love with her own voice. Becoming uncertain and hesitant when required to prune and proof her own material; she doesn’t want to let a precious word go. Gone Girl comes bathed in a certain hallowed, hide-bound toniness that leaves director David Fincher walking on eggshells not to disappoint the expectations of the literary gentry. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an open and shut case to which the movie makers seem incapable of adding anything further, a two-and-a-half hour summation. Everything is so preordained it’s suffocatingly airtight, leaving cast and crew no breathing room to extemporize on the material in order to bring it to full life. The concept, the art of crafting mystery novels out of notorious true crimes, is largely literary based, which made the source such fascinating reading, and the movie is almost defiantly determined to maintain its literary ties with its scenes of book signings, references to the fictional series based on the Amazing Amy character, the writing professions of its two author protagonists, handwritten clue cards, calendars, and reliance on diary readings to unravel the mystery. Dates are even posted in titles at the bottom of the screen, like copy from old newspaper blurbs.
Where the novel used words to lead us astray, contrasting the tangled web of misleading lies captured in persuasive print with the reality of what actually occurred, the movie brings out the attendant mass media circus and carefully scripted performances of its leading characters before the camera. This more visually centered atmosphere seems appropriate for an age when the accused are convicted in the press long before they ever reach trial. Instantaneous eSnap judgments have replaced the old snail mail pace of the official court system. With movies like Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, director David Fincher has proven himself a past master at this sort of psychologically chilling, mystery suspense thriller. With its mordant, pitch black comic tone, this fine film noir is nowhere near as dark as those earlier, dead serious offerings, but it’s still on par with Fincher’s best work. Gone Girl has the same twin narrative structure as his previous Girl movie, which was split between the story of Rooney Mara’s character and that of Daniel Craig, at least up to the point when their lives crisscrossed. Gone Girl may recall another Rooney Mara title as well, Side Effects, Steven Soderburg’s noir from last year in which our perception of a dysfunctional marriage likewise shifted drastically as events unfolded.
Engineering her own disappearance to frame husband Nick (Ben Affleck) for murder, Rosamund Pike’s sardonic, unmoved Amy delights in her ice-cold deviousness the way fellow English actress Lena Headey does on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Even in her disguised state, with a dark dye job, heavy rimmed glasses and fifteen extra pounds, when the editorial crossfire show modeled after Nancy Grace comes on, we expect Amy to turn the set off rather than risk being recognized, but instead she perks up at news of her nationwide notoriety. Having been lost in anonymity for so long, it’s gratifying for this girl who believed herself gone for good and all to have her existence acknowledged in such public fashion. A life that enticing is enough to prompt her to resurrect herself from the dead. Fincher has a definite knack for bringing out unsuspected depths in actresses who never made much of an impression before, by casting them in well-regarded literature.
Gone Girl has a heroine whose deceptive surface appearance covers a spirit as equally fierce as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rooney Mara was Oscar-nominated for her reinterpretation of the role that had made Noomi Rapace’s international reputation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Pike manages to snag a citation with her equally impressive, image-altering performance (she’s already up for a SAG, Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice award). Her work is just as surprising in its unexpected ferocity. She not only scores extra points for presenting us with an impressive physical makeover, but digs down deeper, beyond the surface to show us fascinating facets of the sphinx-like, haughty ice queen other people can’t get a read on. At times she suggests Carrie Ann Moss’ unforgettable hot and cold turn in Memento.
Rosamund Pike is a revelation, but Neil Patrick Harris matches her with a dark character turn equally suggestive of unexpected new depths to his own talent. He’s won raves for his musical comedy skills and has hosted nearly every televised award show on the planet. It’s the Oscars this year and he deserves recognition for this one since his role is more challenging than anything he’s done on the big screen since his days as a child actor. And it must give him a certain measure of satisfaction to definitively shake off the veneer of Doogie Howser in a movie specifically designed around the idea of someone determined to lay to rest the shadow of childhood fame that has haunted her all her life, a thorn in the side. If our perception of Amy shifts according to circumstance, the roots of her psychosis are brought into stark relief through her relations with Harris’ Desi, a desirably eligible bachelor who seems such an ideal catch, the proverbial prince charming by most standards of measure.
But despite everything Desi has to offer the right woman, he makes us understand why Amy broke off their relationship and fled to a less daunting and domineering specimen of manhood as Nick, who she felt she could control rather than vice versa. As Desi manipulates the situation to his own advantage, using Amy’s fugitive status as leverage to bind her to him, holding her hostage in his gilded cage, he assures her that “I’m not letting you get away again,” and we have no doubt that he really means it. She finds herself imprisoned by this rich psycho pervert who proves even better than she is at playing freaky mind games intended to keep everyone under his thumb. Through him we can see where she learned to ply her own trade, his subtle suggestions that she change herself, Vertigo fashion, back into the ideal woman of his dreams are delivered with the chilling chip of an ice pick. Rather than trying to mold him as she did her husband, Amy passively submits to his attempt to make her over without resistance.
While he never raises a hand to her, Desi seems so eerily self-contained we shudder to think what perversities lie in store and of what exactly he’s capable and must have subjected his beloved to in the past. If even Amy, loco as she is, trembles at his touch, we know he must be bad news. This refined, cultured man of the world strikes us as far more horrifyingly barbaric in his veiled threats than the two-fisted, blue collar bear she married. Suddenly we understand who all those delusional yarns about an abusive Nick she committed to paper were really based on. Telling her not to trust the instincts that left her homeless, abused and sleeping in her car, Desi gets this woman who seemed in such complete possession of her senses to begin doubting and second guessing herself, wanting her totally dependent on him in all ways, the same reason she claims Nick relocated them back to his home town in Missouri. “Amy, I’m not Nick,” Desi assures her, but he proves to be the precise sort of abusive monster her husband stands accused of. In effect Amy is living out the fantasy she dreamed up for the cops, detailing her entrapment in a destructive relationship by escaping from him, a catharsis that allows her to come clean in her own peculiar fashion. Gone Girl begins the morning after July 1st, Independence Day, implying that someone has been liberated.
Nick claims that his wife’s parents plagiarized her childhood by modeling ‘Amazing Amy,’ the much beloved fictional heroine of their children’s series after her, like the blind boy of that smothering mother in Butterflies Are Free. Apologizing for them, Amy claims they improved upon her life by idealizing it and selling it to the masses, which is more or less what she’ll have managed to do herself by story’s end, by commercially marketing a manufactured persona that never existed in real life. Claiming to have lived through an astonishing scenario that could never have been dreamt up for a children’s book, her diary reveals an unbounded imagination equal to her literary parents. She confabulates on the epic scale of an Adele H., astounding us by proving herself every bit as formidable as the Amazing Amy character she never felt she could live up to. Nick says that Amy always attracts drama but her disappearance is only the second time she’s ever stolen the thunder from her illustrated alter ego. The first was when Amazing Amy got married in the book, and her real life counterpart felt pressured to beat her to the altar, preempting the publicity. Luckily Nick was there to save face by proposing in the nick of time.
Going missing allows Amy to write her own story, taking back the life that was purloined from her in a sense, permanently separating herself from the Amazing avatar that plagued her childhood by emerging in the headlines with a new, incontestably adult identity before the public. Laid off from her glamorous magazine job in the big city, this frustrated author orchestrates events to get her own book deal and make a mint. Whereas Nick always assumed that he was the writer in the family, she proves to have an imagination and talent for invention that puts him to shame. While she acquires her own coterie of true crime fans who queue for book signings of her latest novel, her husband shrinks from the limelight, claiming to want nothing to do with her groupies or hangers on, like the one who steals a selfie with him. Though he takes note that business at his own struggling bar has noticeably picked up given his new-found notoriety, he’s the one who ends up wanting to disappear. Having lived in the shadow of her parents’ creation all her life, measuring herself against the prefabricated ideal she could never live up to, Amy has realized from her earliest days the importance of upholding her pristine image before a judgmental public unable to distinguish between the genuine article and the illustrated model on the page. Raised on it, she’s an old pro at pandering to the court of public opinion; it’s second nature to her now.
Our first clue that Amy is a past master at manipulating the media lies in the way the film itself is set up, film noir fashion, as we get our primary information about the dynamics of her relationship with her husband directly from a character presumed dead. Being gone from the outset, her diary passages afford us the only insight into Amy or her dysfunctional marriage. Fincher ‘opens up’ the book in a novel way, throwing his audience by showing us the flashbacks Amy writes about so we can’t distinguish between which parts of their past really happened and which are pure invention. It’s downright discombobulating when viewers are made to feel they can no longer trust their own sense of perception. The real Amy we meet on these pages is the one no one else sees as she begins a real emotional diary of sorts, sharing all her private, innermost thoughts and feelings with us and us alone, forging a bond by taking us into her confidence. As the diary passages chart the dips and spikes of courtship and marriage, her words swoon in accompaniment to the ominous strings.
It’s made clear that this classy, Ivy League trust funder has married down to a blue-collar, working class stiff and though all the background information we’re given is doctored through her deceptive first person narration, we can still accept it as impartial evidence since her same voiceover, which is intended to reveal the truth, states that only this beginning was factual. The dissolving feelings between husband and wife get darker as the couple’s economic straits tighten. Testing vows of ‘for better, for worse’ Amy advises, “add one recession and subtract two jobs,” and the way things are stacked, if the economy hadn’t collapsed events would never have become so dour. But even then it’s only the discovery that Nick has been cheating on her, broken the rules of the game Amy’s invented in her mind, that shatters her carefully constructed illusions about him and sends her over the edge.
Amy had taken Nick up like a special project, wanting to make him over, forging the man of her dreams out of a lumpen mass of inert clay, and considers this only fair trade since she likewise streamlined herself to meet the social expectations for a desirable woman. “Girls like a fixer upper. She managed me,” Nick relates, “made me her business.” She stage managed him alright, but from her perspective he needed a guiding hand to inspire him to ‘rise’ to her level. But once there, she couldn’t help making him feel less than a man by escorting him around her upper echelon world of privileged trust funders all the while keeping a tight hold on the purse strings. Despite the lengths to which she’s gone to meet him halfway, Nick, not wanting to be outshone by his wife, reverses the situation by relocating Amy, removing her from the big city and everything she’s ever known to settle down in his old hometown where he is established, respected, in charge and she’s a fish out of water whose cosmopolitan airs rub locals the wrong way. Here on his own home turf Nick can be king of the castle, subtly usurping the dominant position in their relationship, while the community considers his uppity, metropolitan wife standoffish and aloof. He’s consciously fashioned his wife into an outcast so that she has no social outlet, leaving her utterly dependent on him. Intent on turning her into a housebound homemaker without any intercourse with the outside world, Nick tries to curtail her independence, keeping her on the same short leash she originally handed him.
Spurned, Amy pieces together her elaborate, all-encompassing revenge after stumbling across Nick kissing his mistress with the same romantic gesture she believed was exclusive to her, acting emotionally despite carrying out this crime of passion with a calculatingly cool, level-headedness. A woman scorned, she’s living out many the violent fantasy of females similarly burned by a faithless spouse and though the movie tries to balance its positions, like a televised crossfire debate, in essence it still seems like a textbook example of how ‘hell hath no fury.’ Still, if Amy were as wicked as the femme fatales in whose image she’s been cast, she would’ve found a way to transfer Desi’s fortune into her accounts before eliminating him black widow fashion. Flynn’s script grants us insight into Amy’s wounded sense of pride after the man she’d sacrificed everything for – home, comfort, identity – deceives her. Experiencing a sense of displacement in her new heartland home, Amy had written that she felt disposable, like she could disappear off the face of the earth without anyone taking much notice, then proves the fact. As she states, “He took and took from me until I no longer had any identity,” so to hear her tell it, she was gone long before she ever turned up missing, having submerged her own identity to become subordinate to her spouse. According to her way of thinking “That’s murder. Let the punishment fit the crime.” As with those children’s books based on her, which pointed up little morals, “Amy loves to teach lessons,” it’s observed, “Play God – Old Testament,” and she justifies her actions on the grounds that she’s exacting an eye for an eye.
Gone Girl boasts the most intricately woven kidnapping plot since Fargo, but the familiar premise is really just a warmed over noirization of Pirandello’s The Late Matthew Pascal. Amy had been building a case against her husband for months before she ever took a powder, spinning a web of circumstantial evidence by asking him to increase her life insurance policy and making unauthorized charges to their credit cards which he assumes was identity theft. So Nick can’t help but look guilty from the vantage point of any objective third party. Given the extents to which she goes, this heroine becomes as outrageously batty as Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, whose character also spitefully accused her inattentive spouse of murder posthumously. Gone Girl’s loopily contrived narrative recalls other old suspense melodramas as well, like something out of Hitchcock. Early on, when the story is still unfolding from Amy’s perspective, we might be watching Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine believing her husband intends to murder her for the money, and from her deathbed asking him to mail a letter that will convict him after the fact. From Nick’s perspective we recall that Alfred Hitchcocks’ entire oeuvre was predicated on the similar Kafkaesque premise of an innocent man persecuted for a crime he didn’t commit.
Given the growing mountain of specious evidence, the first part of the movie manipulates us into believing Nick guilty, so we’re shocked when the mystery unravels halfway through. The suspense on that front dissipates with all the secrets revealed, allowing us to ease back and coast along on the story’s twisting, turning sea of convolutions. Our interest becomes a matter of admiring how all Amy’s devious snares are sprung one after another in a domino pattern. Giving us a play by play on how to plan the perfect crime, every time we fear she’s slipped up and things aren’t to turn out the way she anticipated, the husband obligingly places his neck back into the noose for her. This woman who loved devising puzzle games for her anniversaries ends up contriving the baffling mystery that serves as the basis of the movie itself in essence, as Nick is forced to solve it, turning him into our proxy, an amateur armchair detective. As he follows up on all the tantalizing trace clues left by his wife, the evidence steadily accumulating, the movie is set up like a board game. Nick’s thrilled exultation at knowing the answer to one of his wife’s treasure hunts tells us how infrequently he has been able to unravel them in the past, Amy delighting in pointing up his intellectual limitations, stumping him with her cleverness. One only shudders to think how she plans on topping this stunt when her next anniversary rolls around.
Fincher plays a shell game with audiences in Gone Girl, tickling us by showing how easily manipulated we can be, as our indecisive sympathies swing from one character in the marriage to another, shifting allegiances as shamelessly as the public in the movie who follow the case as it unfolds. “They dislike me, they like me. They hated me, now they love me,” a confused Nick snears at the fickleness of fandom. Fincher expertly keeps our feelings flip flopping between both injured parties. The second we find ourselves inclined to empathize with the wife in the belief that Nick got just what was coming to him, he pulls our heartstrings over the husband’s mistress selling him out. Our loyalties are completely torn. Since she’s totally psychotic and Nick is so insensitive, we don’t know whether we want her to get away with it or not. Like the cop on the beat, Det. Boney (Kim Dickens), we can’t help but acquire a grudging respect for the spurned wife at a certain point, and in a way that feels far different and more complex than the straightforward sympathy extended her when we believed she was the victim of domestic violence.
We begin to sympathize with Amy as she reveals her reasons for concocting this elaborate scheme and a strangely perverse part of us would like to see her get away with it, given all the pains she’s gone to, sacrificing both flesh and blood to create a convincing crime scene. It’s not just that she’s trying to commit the perfect murder but that she’s trying to stage events to look like the sort of botched job she believes her shambling husband would actually perpetrate. Amy becomes such an omniscient, preternatural threat in the way she springs her time delayed traps, we’d be alienated if we didn’t see how events can turn on a dime by following her through the second chapter, which plays like one of those road movies about a woman’s search for independence, relating the wife’s real story as she says goodbye to the naïve girl she once was. She may have felt like a fish out of water when Nick relocated them to his home town, but mixing it up and rubbing shoulders with the sort of transients she’s forced to on the road demonstrates how thoroughly out of her element she truly is.
We’re outraged for her when two criminal lowlifes (Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrook) she’s befriended barge into her apartment and accost her, proving that as far as true crime goes she’s in the bush leagues. Though their penny ante shake down makes it obvious they have no inkling what a golden goose they’ve run across, the juxtaposition of Amy with such hardened criminal types makes it further possible for audiences to feel for her. When her trailer park pal opines that the Amy whose picture is flashed on TV looks like a spoiled poor little rich girl she is not far off. While they may play for higher stakes, these affluent WASPs seem like dilettantes in their dangerous games, compared to the hard scrabble world of real, unremarkable, random violence one runs across on a daily basis. Being rolled is a wakeup call for Amy, implication of how out of her depth she actually is tossed among “all the other abused, unwanted, no longer wanted.” Combing skid row, the homeless scatter like roaches when the police searchlights hit them and though it seems ironic that volunteers should seek Amy in this most unlikely of places, she will indeed be reduced, as Desi states, to living out of her car. This privileged, pampered woman is forced to experience the specter of true poverty, how the other half lives for the first time in her life, sending her scrambling back to her previous life.
While the his/her perspectives on a poisonous marriage have been done before, what’s unusual here is that from Amy’s view it plays on feminist ill will toward men who stray and abuse their wives, while from Nick’s vantage the movie seems to be taking a swipe at all women who would bring sexual harassment or rape charges against innocent men in order to exert a measure of control over them. We find it’s not even the first time Amy has tried this ploy when a former beau (Scoot McNairy) exposes her longstanding history of crying wolf, relating how meticulously she staged evidence to lend credence to the false charges she brought against him. Since all the criminal accusations Amy levels in the film turn out to be unfounded, however emotionally justified they sound, Gone Girl seeks to plant uncertainty in the minds of viewers about accepting such allegations at face value. Oddly enough for a movie written by a female, it wants to prod us into more carefully accessing the validity of unsubstantiated claims of rape and abuse when they can be so easily made by unbalanced minds. Amy even claims to be pregnant at one point to make her husband seem like even more of a monster, prompting the talk show host played by Missi Pyle to foolishly fume “What is it about life growing inside a woman that turns men into beasts?” Just the hint of a suspicion has the definitive weight of concrete fact now that trashy tabloid TV passes for the real thing.
The scabrous and bruising psychological scars left by the battle of the sexes are more intensely felt here, cutting deeper than the average movie along similar lines. There’s nothing so simple as divorce in a marriage where the husband has been forced to sign a prenup and the wife has been careful to keep everything in her name, depriving him of any form of autonomy or independence. It isn’t so surprising that she remains determined to hold the purse strings after they’ve married, despite words that sugarcoat the situation, but it is humiliating for this man who’s seen as living off his wife. She treats him like an overindulged child, questioning his judgment in buying laptop and video games. She resents that he doesn’t ask before he throws away her money on toys but though it is her money the way things are arranged it’s as though she were using it to control him, making it impossible for him to leave her without losing everything. But we too come to resent the way he fritters away her funds without consulting her, anymore than he asks her feelings about moving back to his home town, before making the decision for both of them and expecting her to be on board with it. Even though the spouses in this toxic marriage never actually come to calling it quits, the missing person investigation still plays like the messiest of divorce proceedings aired in open court. “All we did was resent each other and try to control each other and cause each other pain,” Nick protests as he tries swimming against the inevitability of their getting back together, but “That’s marriage,” Amy amusingly concludes.
Husband and wifes’ Pinter-like games of one-upmanship evolve into a picture-length struggle for domestic supremacy as their competition spills over onto the national stage with each vying to court the most public favor. Whereas estranged couples generally wonder who gets to keep the friends, these two worry about who can amass the most public sympathy. Though Nick fights it at first, they both end up sharing the equally obsessive desire to be beloved by their public, which is why neither takes the initiative of destroying their hooked fans’ false illusions about their ideal marriage. “You can teach people to hate me all you want,” Nick says when he threatens to checkmate Amy’s designs by coming clean on national TV, but he couldn’t abide that any more than she could, which is why they’re so perfect for each other. He chooses to play along, jumping into the insanity with his eyes fully open, inextricably tangling himself in the web of lies she’s meticulously spun. Now in order maintain the façade of a happily reunited couple he’s forever forced to keep up appearances as the man she always wanted him to be. The concept is even floated of a reality TV show, with Nick and Amy warily circling one another like caged tigers under the same roof.
After its own fashion Gone Girl, like Chicago before it, is a canny satire on the manipulation of the mass media in our internet age. Consequently, it becomes less intriguing as crime drama than an expose of the way all-pervading TV and social media now determine the outcome of court cases by influencing public opinion. It’s next to impossible to find an unbiased jury, with accused criminals first tried in the press, convicted in the court of public opinion long before their case ever goes to trial. Presenting a modern society that might have been modeled on Orwell, in Gone Girl everyone is glued to a Nancy Grace-like television show knockoff, even Nick’s sister, who swiftly pauses the host’s character assassination when her brother walks in. No one here matches the image of themselves they present before the public and Fincher dabbles in the schism between one’s public and private personas to fashion a warped glass darkly of a marriage that’s moved beyond rocky.
In our morbid, modern, post-O.J. age of court TV and debate talk shows, image is everything. Tyler Perry even shows up as just the sort of Johnny Cochran-style attorney Nick needs, the sort of public defender who can successfully defend wife beaters. In order to engender public empathy for herself, Nick’s mistress (Emily Ratajkowski) also makes a preemptive strike before she’s maligned in the press as the wicked other woman. Exploiting the popular public perception of victimized students preyed upon by teachers in positions of authority, she dowdies herself down to resemble an innocent, chaste choir girl and secures the support of Amy’s own parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon). Nick himself cottons to being a con artist who had tricked his wife into believing he was someone he wasn’t (intellectual, worldly, wealthy, the usual poses men affect in order to snag some snatch), which is in essence what Amy later admits to having done herself in order to catch him.
Ben Affleck made his directorial debut with the missing persons melodrama Gone Baby Gone and in the neo-noir Hollywoodland, he played the victim of an intriguingly unsolved murder himself. Given all the flack he’s received for his casting as Batman, he knows firsthand the importance of maintaining positive public relations, which makes the slow burn of his characterization here all the more amusing. The actor turns in a respectably workmanlike performance that suits his unimaginative, plodding character in his early scenes. He’s so emotionally restrained we can understand why the cops believe he’s holding back information. But Fincher’s darkly comic tone brings out occasional glimmers of the dryly wry comedian we haven’t seen on screen since the days of Dogma, as the character becomes more and more media savvy. His Nick puts his foot in his mouth every chance he gets, committing social suicide by not playing the game, forcing himself to appear properly bereaved despite his actual feelings. He can’t project the grief he’s not really feeling in front of his wife’s missing poster or for the news cameras, and not playing his assigned part is as good as being guilty, condemning him in the public eye.
Wanting their emotions big, he fails to meet societal expectations of how grieving spouses are supposed to behave, which is pretty much what convicted Lindy Chamberlain in the Australian press in A Cry in the Dark. Yet when Nick displays genuine concern about his city’s homeless problem, he’s accused of just playing up to the camera in order to show everybody what a good guy he is. A psychoanalyst is even brought in to interpret uncommunicative Nick’s body language on screen. He seems so hapless at defending his innocence, he’s told maybe he should thank Amy for having had a change of heart and returning to save the life she’d endangered. Amy says the villainous cleft in his chin makes it impossible to believe anything Nick says, which is also how the public feel once he takes the missing person search before the cameras, inducing them to consider him guilty until proven innocent. Even we experience twinges of doubt, especially as the less savory elements of his past, such as his extramarital affair, begin to surface. When even the sister who shares his same disdain for the media circus, flipping off the paparazzi, experiences second thoughts, all hope seems lost.
Torn to pieces by female talk show hosts on national TV, Nick’s misogyny toward the weaker sex is almost understandable somehow as he admits to being “So sick of being picked on by women.” The movie’s structure permits us to see his side of the story as well and understand his resentment toward his wife and why he would delve into a relationship with a ardent young student over whom he could exert his dominance. When her wealthy parents-in-law hijack his lackadaisical manhunt, Nick ends up trailing around after them like an obedient dog and we see the basic dynamics of his relationship to them, in which he was never considered good enough for their daughter. His incompetence at heading the investigation just exacerbates the general view of him as an inept and ineffectual.
Slapping a dopey smile on his face at the insistence of his legal representation to make him appear more socially affable, Nick, who seems the most moral of the leading characters relatively speaking, comes to accept the fact that whoever controls public opinion rules the world. Fighting back with Amy’s same weapons, he goes on national TV to plead his case before the public after the black eye his uncaring actions had given him threatened to undermine his pleas of innocence. Nick proves himself at least equal to Amy in his ability to manipulate the public. He even manages to pull the wool over Amy’s eyes with a televised confessional inducing her to believe that he’s contrite. Claiming he’d gone on air to beg her to save his life, telling her what she wanted to hear, it’s incredible that a woman this savvy about projecting a false image for the public could be so thoroughly taken in. The supreme irony is that Amy proves as susceptible as the rest of us sheep to the mass media’s lies and false representation. She’s as transfixed by Nick’s coming clean on national TV as the gullible viewers he intended to sway to his side, recognizing a kindred spirit in his ease at manipulating media.
Once this couple discovers the real person behind their spouse’s false façade their ardor for one another cools in proportion to the disintegrating ideal. Kirk Baxter’s editing smoothly segues between the beginning of the affair and the end, searching for the root cause of why it all went so sour. Gone Girl gives us a satisfyingly cyclical feeling of closure, like an ouroboros eating its own tail, beginning by counting from the first day of Amy disappearance then, following her return, resetting the date stamp at the bottom of the screen to Day One, indication that turnabout is fair play. As penultimate proof of how looks can deceive, this man twice his wife’s size huddles behind locked doors in a house of horrors the public has been led to believe is a dream home, as scared of her as her diary entries claimed she had been of him, now that he knows what she’s capable of.
There’s a noirish creep to the cinematography’s dark overtones and the premise of a man led down the wayward path by a deceitful femme fatale. But classic noir is known for its pared down, brutally clipped pacing and Gone Girl’s nearly three-hour running time speaks volumes on its pretentious determination to exceed high expectations. And there’s an additional problem. ’40s noir grew out of the tough, hard broiled detective fiction that gave rise to Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and the breed. Gone Girl on the other hand has a greater affinity to the glossy, gossamer, modern murder mystery genre which doesn’t lend itself easily to the same rules and conventions. So we’re left with something of a hybrid, the way we were with Mildred Pierce.
If anything, Gone Girl feels like a more elaborate variation on television crime dramas like CSI, Prime Suspect, The Profiler, which have been working over similar material for many years now with equal success. There’s even the requisite Luminol scene to find trace evidence of blood that’s been mopped away. The generic cops assigned to the case are sub-CSI. They have less dimension than most of the characters on TV and the film betrays a near-clinical interest in exploring the mechanics of conducting a missing persons investigation, complete with a real website, findamazingamy.com, setup just for the film. Rather than tarnishing the movie’s aura, however, its link with TV actually serves to reinforce its message concerning the ubiquity of the mass media in shaping our perception of events. “We have each other,” Amy reassures Nick, “everything else is background noise.” A suitably static visual statement for our internet age.