Three and a half stars (out of four)
R (a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, language)
If you’ve had the demented pleasure of reading Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” then you know that much of the anticipation surrounding the movie stemmed from curiosity.
How would director David Fincher handle the book’s clever dual structure, its unreliable first-person narratives? What about that uncompromising ending? And that whiplash-inducing twist halfway through. How would he pull that off on screen?
If you’ve read Flynn’s novel, you also know it’s nearly impossible to review the film without spoiling the tasty but poisonous machinations of its tangled plot.
Well, here goes nothing.
The surprising truth is that the movie adaptation of “Gone Girl” is wickedly entertaining and a success on almost every level.
Although authors often translate their works to the screen with mixed results, Entertainment Weekly scribe turned novelist Gillian Flynn bravely takes the knife to her intricate thriller, trimming the fat but preserving all the juiciest morsels. She’s done such an excellent job of condensing and streamlining that, even at two and a half hours long, the movie zings along at a near perfect pace.
As you might suspect, Fincher is just the man to tackle this poisonous murder-mystery, which oozes with the sort of outrageous domestic dramas you typically find in Lifetime television movies. By embracing the book’s camp potential and slyly underlining its pitch-black humor, Fincher transforms a story full of preposterous developments into a smart, sordid guilty pleasure.
Crime, obsession, sociopathy, kinky sex, deeply troubled misfits and people pretending to be what they’re not — these subjects are the forte of Fincher, who previously went slumming in such grim and gritty thrillers as “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and even the “The Social Network.”
At first glance, “Gone Girl” appears to be perhaps a little too conventional for Fincher’s freakier predilections. In a very meta bit of casting, Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a smugly handsome magazine writer who is vilified by the press when he becomes a suspect in the disappearance of his beautiful, blonde wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike).
(Affleck has never been charged with murder, but he does know what it’s like to be embraced and then scorned by an unforgiving media.)
We meet Nick Dunne on the morning his wife vanishes from their suburban Missouri home, leaving behind a crime scene that suggests a violent struggle. Nick immediately calls the police and a pair of no-nonsense detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) arrive to investigate, quickly uncovering an envelope cheekily labeled “Clue One.”
According to Nick, said clue is part of an anniversary scavenger hunt Amy designed for her hubby, complete with rhyming riddles and destinations rife with personal significance. As the cops go treasure hunting in search of a lead, Nick awkwardly navigates the media circus surrounding Amy’s disappearance.
His increasingly tactless, public faux pas are intercut with excerpts from Amy’s diary, recalling the couple’s courtship in New York. In scenes so sugary sweet and picture-postcard perfect they could be from a slightly ominous romantic comedy, we learn Amy is something of a celebrity, the inspiration for a series of children’s books authored by her insensitive parents (David Clennon, Lisa Banes).
We see Nick and Amy meet-cute as young writers, agree to marry after a witty proposal and bask in short-lived bliss, until the recession, lay-offs, a family illness and an abrupt move shake the foundations of their hitherto solid union.
Even when nothing sinister is happening, Fincher keeps the audience unsettled, off-balance, tipping us off that everything is not as it seems. He’s aided by a jittery, minimalist musical score by “Social Network” collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
There’s something brilliantly deceptive about the way Fincher lures us in. For much of the film, I kept wondering if “Gone Girl” was maybe too tame for his talents. It wasn’t until the film’s final act, which features a spectacular, stomach-churning outburst of sex and violence, that I finally realized how mistaken I was.
Readers will note that, as with virtually every page-to-screen transfer, some of the telling motivational detail of Flynn’s rich and complicated characterizations is lost in the film.
However, a fine cast goes a long way to remedying these shortcomings.
Affleck is ideally positioned as a golden boy whose plastic grin and glib charm suggest he’s hiding dark secrets.
Speaking of charm, Neil Patrick Harris puts his trademark charisma to supremely icky uses in a part best left to the imagination.
I actually think the lovably snarky Carrie Coon, of TV series “The Leftovers,” makes more of the character of Nick’s supportive twin sister, Margo, than is found in Flynn’s book.
Tyler Perry may not seem the obvious choice to play a hotshot defense attorney, but he’s great in the role. And Dickens is possibly the best matter-of-fact lady detective since Frances McDormand in “Fargo.”
There’s not much I can say about Pike’s performance without heading into dangerous spoiler territory, but it is pivotal to the film’s success, weirdly hypnotic and unexpectedly funny.
As for the much-ballyhooed changes Fincher and Flynn supposedly made to the book’s ending, it’s a mystery to me what happened there. As far as I can tell, there are no major alterations, certainly nothing worth getting excited about.
As a satire of America’s fascination with murder, especially the slaying of pretty, young wives, “Gone Girl” is pointed and hilarious. Its depiction of a fickle public and an easily manipulated media may be over-the-top but it’s also undeniably relevant.
Just as Flynn’s book was more than a trashy page-turner, riffing shrewdly on gender politics, the fictions we construct around our romantic relationships and the fractured fairy tale marriage often turns out to be, so “Gone Girl” the movie has deeper — if not earth-shattering — things on its mind than simply serving up a sizzling who-done-it.