|Nick, played by Ben Affleck gives us a smile during a press conference on his missing wife in Gone Girl.|
Welcome to America – 2014. Well, the worst parts of it anyway. The part that is corrupt and sensationalized. The part that promotes style over substance and flash over fulfillment. The part of us that loves ourselves just a little more than anyone else. It is nasty, brutish, obsessive, and ill informed. David Fincher’s Gone Girl reflects all of that, and as such, it is a hard movie to like.
Hell, it is a hard movie to watch. You may be familiar with the story, based on the worldwide bestseller of the same name by author Gillian Flynn and adapted here by the writer. If you have not read the book, as I have not, then know the less you know going in, the better off you will be. The movie is a series of twists and turns in the dark, interrupted occasionally by a bright and shining light that does more to disorient than illuminate. But when you reach the end, you realize you have been in the sewer the whole time.
Ben Affleck plays Nick, and Rosamund Pike plays Amy, who is married to Nick. We learn about their courtship and relationship mostly in flashbacks narrated by Amy’s diary entries. Five years into the marriage, things are not going well. Amy is dissatisfied, and Nick wants out. On the morning of their anniversary, she goes missing, and the circus begins.
Most of the rest you will recognize from real life – or the 24-hour news cycle version thereof. The husband is the prime suspect because the husband is always the prime suspect. He is scrutinized and demonized until the court of public opinion convicts him before he has been arrested. The news loves a villain, and the public loves a victim. How could he have done this to her? What monster could? And so on, and so on it goes. These points are both part of the film and part of a pattern of sensationalism you will have seen on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, all equally culpable in this farce.
Fincher’s film is at its best when it is deconstructing the role the media play in these cases. The classic “I go where the story is” defense is trotted out for maximum irony – because of course, there was no story until you got there. The benefit of Gone Girl is its privileged viewpoint on Nick’s side of the camera. Rightly or wrongly accused, the newly minted villain’s life will never be the same. Convicted or not, he will forever live under the cloud of suspicion fashioned out of whole cloth by the media’s intractable desire to quench the public’s insatiable thirst for justice – or vengeance, take your pick.
If I have so far avoided much discussing the movie at hand, you will forgive me, but the role of the news media in our culture and in our public consciousness is a near and dear subject to me (see this review). I have made my living as a journalist for four years now, and it is hard to like what I see: the pandering, the lowest-common-denominator thinking, the appeal to our basest desires. In Gone Girl, there is a mirror held up to us, and the reflection is ugly.
For his role, Affleck studied the real-life subjects of these feeding frenzies, in particular Scott Peterson, to whom Affleck bears a striking resemblance in this film. This is probably not an accident. Affleck hits every note on both sides of the persona – the public and the private. When he is in front of the cameras, he displays a smug charm that is a little too self-satisfied to be genuine. At home, however, he is unravelling, caught in a whirlwind that has no end. Guilt and innocence mean nothing when your life is a perpetual blur, and Affleck is remarkable in helping the audience understand what it is to live in such a haze.
Floating above it all is Pike, the victim. She is immediately lionized and canonized, as though death has washed away her sins. However, Amy’s diary reveals her to be more complex than all that – as I would hope we all are – and Pike digs into every facet of “Amazing Amy.” Rarely has an actress used her voice to such effect, modulating her pitch, tone, and cadence to match the mood of the character and the scene. It is a great physical performance as well, but Pike wields her voice alternately like a weapon and a shield.
A notoriously demanding director, Fincher gives his cast and crew a darkly funny and hypnotically histrionic canvas on which to paint, and everyone seems to have fun going outside the lines – from the actors’ deranged-in-the-best-way performances to the propulsive jangling of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter collaborate to create a pace all their own, using a disjointed fade-to-black style that would seem more at home on an episode of Law and Order but fits this material like a glove.
And therein lies the rub: the material. The filmmakers could use the boldest colors in the spectrum, but if the picture they are painting just is not that good, then what have they really created? Flynn’s story is a boardwalk caricature drawing placed on an art pedestal by Fincher and his crew. Character motivations are frequently murky, and events seem to happen often for the sole purpose of moving a frankly ludicrous plot forward.
The story wants to take the audience to some dark places, but to what end, it is unclear. The movie is an expert evocation of the darkest sides of ourselves and revels in laying bare the most awful aspects of our humanity. This would be wonderful subject matter to explore, but those involved in Gone Girl seem less interested in exploration of the soul than in titillation of the senses. In this way, perhaps, it is the perfect film for America now – a pulpy exercise in high style that lacks any real substance.
See it? Yes.