Sunday, 12 October 2014

What Have We Done To Each Other? What Will We Do?: "Gone Girl"

Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead

Throughout his career David Fincher has been attracted to stories that begin as straightforward thrillers but then become something more existential and haunting. Se7en and Zodiac aren’t just police procedurals about the hunt for serial killers. Se7en explores themes of confronting a force of evil beyond human imagination and whether it’s worth fighting for good in an apathetic world. Zodiac is about the affect the Zodiac killer's crimes had on the American psyche and how the search for his identity became a self-destructive obsession for one man. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo- another film about a serial killer- is a character study of Lisbeth Salander- someone who’s a genius hacker but is socially maladjusted. And Gone Girl, Fincher’s 10th film- based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also penned the screenplay- starts out as a missing person/murder mystery but transforms in to a story about perception and identity- media perception, the way people in a marriage view each other and who they pretend to be. I don’t think Gone Girl reaches the heights of Zodiac but it’s an involving, expertly paced and strongly acted film. The film blends the pulp with the prestige, making it an adult drama that’s also very entertaining.

It’s difficult to explore what Gone Girl is about without divulging its central twist. So, I’ll give you the basic set up and then jump to the spoilery parts of the story. The initial premise is that on the fifth anniversary of their marriage, Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and Nick soon becomes a suspect. Nick is not arrested and he does have the support of his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens); but he becomes guilty in the court of public opinion. A sensationalistic media personality in the style of Nancy Grace named Ellie Abbot (Missi Pyle), is also out to crucify Nick. Part of the reason why Amy’s disappearance becomes a big news story is because she was the basis for a series of children’s books written by her parents. These books are exaggerations of Amy’s own life and “Amazing Amy” succeeds whenever Amy fails.  

Okay, now I’m going to enter spoiler territory. I’ll give a little space to allow you an opportunity to leave if you haven’t seen the film yet.

Around the midpoint of the film it’s revealed that Amy is still alive. She faked her death to get revenge on Nick for his adultery. Nick was having an affair with Andie Fitzgerald (Emily Ratajkowski).  Andie is  a former student of Nick's (he lost his job after the recession). Throughout the early parts of the film- similar to the novel- we hear Amy’s narration as she writes in her diary, recounting her marriage to Nick and the supposed violence he inflicted on her one night. We then realize that the Amy we thought we knew is as much a construct as Amazing Amy. When it’s revealed that Amy is alive, we hear a monologue about the “Cool Girl” myth. A Cool Girl is someone who likes all the things a man does. But as Amy says, this Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She’s just pretending to be something she's not to win over a man. Through the character of Amy the film explores the allusiveness of identity, how carefully constructed an external identity can be. Even with Amy’s narration, we’re never explicitly told how Amy became the way she is. She’s an enigma, one that can never be solved.

It’s a difficult role to play and Pike plays it remarkably, showing us the ways in which Amy changes her identity and manipulates others, including her former boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). Pike has been on the edge of stardom since her turn as femme fatale Miranda Frost in Pierce Brosnan’s final James Bond film Die Another Day. She’s been a reliable supporting actress for ages but I think her performance as Amy is what will make her a major actress in the coming years. What I admire most about the performance is despite Amy’s cruelty I never disliked her. There’s almost something admirable about how methodical and cunning she is. Flynn was very bold when she constructed the Amy character, particularly when we’re led astray about her in the early parts of the story. As I mentioned earlier, Fincher is interested in digging deeper beyond genre tropes. Amy isn’t just the archetypal femme fatale. She’s a messier, more challenging character.

On the other side of things, I think Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick, in what may be his most autobiographical role to date. Affleck has never been accused of murder or kidnapping. But heknows how harsh media public and perception can be; how difficult it is to win people over once they’ve made up their minds about you. Despite Affleck’s success, including a major comeback after the Gigli debacle; and reinventing himself as an acclaimed filmmaker, you only have to look at the reaction to his casting as Batman in the Batman vs. Superman to see his name still carries negative connotations. The most fascinating sections of the film- to me at least- where the scenes in which Nick attempts to win people over to his side. It all comes down to saying the right words in the right way. When he discovers that Amy is alive he enlists the help of attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Gone Girl was shot by Jeff Cronenweth- who also photographed Fincher’s Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the opening scenes I didn’t think Gone Girl felt like a David Fincher film. But as we see glimpses of the past via Amy’s narration and more scenes set at night- including a gorgeous reminiscence by Amy about seeing Nick with Andie, set during a snowy evening- the film becomes as distinctly Finchery as the other Cronenweth photographed Fincher films. 

Fincher even in his first film, the compromised Alien 3, has always been a strong visual stylist, creating distinct worlds that seem to swallow us- and the characters-whole. There’s a murder scene here that’s- even if you’ve read the novel-more shocking and violent then most modern horror films. Fincher is also arguably the most precise filmmaker, in terms of composition and camera movement, since the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. In my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I mentioned that Fincher was maybe too restrained for such pulpy material. But it's Fincher restraint that works here. Fincher communicates the absurd humour of the book's premise but is also to make the film play like an authentic drama 

The preciseness of Fincher's films doesn’t just come from his camera work. It's also a result of whom he picks as his editor. Kirk Baxter- who won back to back editing Oscars for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall- does a masterful job of making the sections of the film narrated by Amy feel fluid and organic, taking a literary device and making it work cinematically. The montage in which we see Amy devising her plan, with her narration playing over it, is some of the best work Baxter has done for Fincher. Despite being close to 2 ½ hours, I didn’t feel the film dragged or anything was rushed, except for the ending which needed a few more minutes to bring its themes home. But I think that’s more of a writing issue then an editing one.

Speaking of the writing, Flynn does an impressive job of adapting her own novel. While there were certain elements- including a subplot involving Nick and Margo’s Alzheimer’s stricken father- that I feel should of been fleshed out more, Flynn is able to get across the major themes of the story and creates a compact retelling of her intricate novel.

Coming back to Fincher, not only is he a meticulous technician, but he also has a keen eye for casting. Aside from Affleck and Pike, the crucial supporting roles are filled by actors who may not have been another directors’ first choice. I haven’t seen any of Perry’s Madea films but I think Perry shows a new side of himself here. He’s convincing as a charismatic lawyer who knows how to sell people an image.  Kim Dickens brings a certain low key Southern charm and intelligence to the role of detective Boney. And Patrick Fugit (from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) conveys lot in an almost wordless performance as officer Jim Gilpin, sceptical of Nick's innocence. Carrie Coon- who is mostly known as a stage actress- makes an impressive film debut. While Coon’s doesn’t look like Affleck’s twin sister, from her first scene she’s totally believable as someone’s sister. Coon makes Margo someone both stern and caring. She loves her brother but isn’t afraid to point out Nick’s screw ups. Neil Patrick Harris, known for his comedic chops, nicely plays Desi’s creepiness just above the surface. I did feel that Ratajkowski as Andie came across as a plot device rather than a fully realized character.

Some will dismiss this film as ridiculous nonsense, and will wonder why Fincher is wasting his time directing an adaptation of an “airport novel.” Gone Girl isn’t a completely realistic story and does have some trashy elements. But if you get beyond the surface level plot mechanics, the film does have something to say about marriage and creates a complex portrayal of a toxic relationship in the form of Nick and Amy. Amy comes back to Nick when she realizes he’s finally become the man she wanted him to be. Amy tells Nick that the only time he really liked himself was when he was attempting to be someone Amy would like. There’s something truthful- regardless of what you think of Amy- in that statement. We constantly try to be someone else to win peoples' affection. Nick can’t win the public over unless he manipulates them. And Nick eventually decides to pretend- for what may be the rest of his life- that he and Amy are happy together. Gone Girl isn’t just about how people perceive each other; it’s also about how we create those very perceptions, in both conscious and unconscious ways. It then leaves us with an important question: Once we create those perceptions, how do we escape them?