Gone Girl“Did he do it?” is only the beginning of this one.

If you are at all inclined to see Gone Girl, and you should be, considering that along with Boyhood, it is one of the two best American films of 2014 so far, go to the theater immediately. It is a movie that begs to be spoiled. While there is no single “Luke, I am your father” moment, the story has so many twists and turns that even the most innocuous of commentaries, the most restrained of reviews, the briefest of clips runs the risk of ruining the fun. And that’s what this is: glorious, gorgeous, edge of the seat, what the heck is going on, bravura filmmaking fun.

Director David Fincher’s accomplishment cannot be overstated. He has taken film noir out of the shadows and exposed it to the fierce sunlight of middle America as well as the crueler spotlight of cable news scrutiny. Call it a mystery, call it a thriller, Gone Girl shares DNA with Double Indemnity, Body Heat, and a host of other wicked little pictures that hold up the rock of human nature and show what’s crawling underneath. Fincher’s co-conspirator is Gillian Flynn who adapted the screenplay from her own novel, and showed absolutely no mercy in slaying her little darlings that work better on the written page than on the screen, with the exception of a woodshed that, while filled to the brim with goodies, does not hold the power implied by the script.

As shown in flashbacks, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) meet, fall in love, and become the couple you want to punch in the face in New York City. She’s Amazing Amy in more ways than one, the basis for a fictional character her parents created in a series of children’s books, that have been a mixed blessing all her life – providing wealth and opportunity on one hand, while reminding her of her shortcomings when compared to the perfect little girl of the storybooks on the other. Nick is simpler – a salt of the earth meaning not so smart, men’s magazine writer from Missouri. When the recession hits, both lose their jobs, Amy’s parents raid her trust fund, and Nick’s mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, necessitating a relocation to the heartland.

By the time Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary arrives, the shelf life of the perfect marriage has expired. On the morning of, Nick seeks solace with bourbon and board games in the bar his wife purchased and that he runs with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon). When Ben returns home, Amy is gone and there are certain ambiguous signs of a struggle. The police respond, and the game is on. The immediate question on the viewer’s lips is “Did he do it?” But like it says at the top, that is only the beginning of Gone Girl.

Affleck gives the best performance of his career. Never has his persona, which, fairly or not, invites so many to take an instant, inexplicable dislike to him (please recall that he even managed to piss off Canadians with Argo) been used to better effect. The actor and the character track perfectly throughout this movie. He is Nick Dunne in the most natural and unaffected way. He’s up, he’s down, he’s despicable, he’s human – Affleck never loses the ability to connect his role with the film, the moment, and the audience.

Yet, make no mistake, Gone Girl is Rosamund Pike’s movie. Who could have seen this coming? She was fine in the thankless role of long suffering girlfriend in the awful Hector and the Search for Happiness, but her performance as Amy Dunne is acting on a different level. Through this, she ascends to the top echelon of leading ladies. Pike takes us inside one of the most complicated and fascinating movie females we have seen in a generation, and has us hanging on her every word and leaves us mesmerized by every step along her unpredictable journey. Victim, victor, sexy, snobby, insecure, cocksure, user, abused – Pike is transcendent. In short, this is what they give Oscars for.

The supporting cast is also ridiculously good. Kim Dickens as the investigating detective avoids every potential pratfall that awaits in the role of female police officer. Even her sighs reek of authenticity. Tyler Perry has never had this much fun out of ladies clothing. He attacks his casting as celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt with relish, justifying the “Elvis comes to Missouri” shout out he gives himself when he arrives to assist Nick. Neil Patrick Harris is confidently creepy in a key role that plays largely in the background, while Carrie Coon is excellent out front and center as Nick’s twin sister, displaying both sides of such a relationship: absolute loyalty and the fear of exclusion. As a bonus, Sela Ward shows up flashing an absolutely lethal set of legs as TV interviewer Sharon Schieber.

However, television coverage as portrayed in the film is one of the minor missteps to be found in the production. Missi Pyle as Ellen Abbot, a thinly veiled stand-in for Nancy Grace as an annoying cable talk show host who damns Nick in the court of public opinion, threatens to turn the proceedings into parody. The films gives this specific figure in the media too much attention, while reducing almost all other reporters to foot traffic in the front yard. One other quibble is the sound mix in early scenes between Nick and Amy which has the background music too loud, thus forcing the audience to struggle to follow the banter flowing between Affleck and Pike. Small beans, all things considered.

In Fincher’s best work to date – and the short list here is Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac – style has been as least as important as story. The relative flatness of the endings of those movies in comparison to the high-octane tone of the set-up raised minor concerns about whether this director – who has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, but has yet to win – could close the deal. Gone Girl neatly and completely disposes of any such misgivings. Everything Fincher does here is in support of creating a dynamic, tension-filled narrative that makes for a completely spellbinding film.

Four and a half stars.

 

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