One of my all-time favorite episodes of The Simpsons (and one of the all-time classics, I’m sure) is “Homer Badman,” where Homer is accused of sexual harassment by his children’s babysitter. Not only is the episode hilarious (it happens to contain one of my all time favorite gags from the series), but it was also a scathing examination of how the news media can portray individuals suddenly thrust into infamy. For a country that has touted “innocent until proven guilty” as a standard for our judicial system, those caught on the wrong side of a scandal are quickly labeled evil fiends before all of the details of said scandal can be accurately assessed. It’s unequivocally unfair. However, more often than not, those in the center usually do turn out to be evil fiends, but that in and of itself is fascinating. How a regular person, man or woman, can seem so, well, regular, but once the media digs up every little bit of grime they can find, it becomes clear how that initial view of them was just a façade, a face put on for the cameras that weren’t there, and it’s only when the cameras are there that their true distortion becomes clear. It’s enough to make you doubt if the people you know and love are really who they say they are…or if you’re who you believe yourself to be.
In that way, Gone Girl is more than just a mystery or an examination of a toxic marriage. It’s a look at not only how public eye can shape one’s identity, but also how one’s identity is shaped by how they view themselves in the public’s eyes. We all do it. Depending on our audience, we are different people for different people. It’s rare that someone is ever their full self at any given time. Even in a marriage, a union where you’re expected to be your full self, the husbands and wives are still probably keeping skeletons tucked away. It’s only in our private time when we can truly be ourselves, and if you think about it, that is a frightening concept.
The film is first and foremost a mystery, though: it’s the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and what happens when his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) mysteriously vanishes on their fifth wedding anniversary. Through flashbacks, we see the genesis of their relationship, from their meet-cute to the proposal to the downward financial and personal spirals that relocated them from New York to Missouri, Nick’s hometown. These are interspersed with the present day story wherein the evidence seems to stack up higher and higher against Nick, suggesting that he killed Amy. But did he? He’s our hero, isn’t he? He may be an unreliable narrator, but he’s still our hero. Right? Right?
To say more would spoil the fun. The twists that arise halfway through the film are enough to turn the first half on its head and make you question everything. I read Gillian Flynn’s novel earlier this year, so I knew these twists were coming, but it’s a testament to both Flynn, adapting her novel for the screen, and David Fincher that they have kept these twists in tact in such a way that they were just as shocking and disturbing as they were on the page, if not more. The pair has crafted a taut thriller, one of the best in recent memory.
However, it’s hard not to acknowledge that, when all is said and done, the story is a bit ridiculous. To explain exactly why it’s ridiculous would, again, give stuff away, so I’ll settle for saying it’s silly in the sense that does not seem like the film Fincher would normally helm. Really, this is Fincher’s version of a romantic comedy. It’s dark and fucked up as Fincher is known to get, but the core of the story is essentially a squabbling husband and wife who try to get their marriage back on track. Kind of. Not really. But still. There are laughs, mostly thanks to Flynn’s knack for clever dialogue that doesn’t always go overboard, but a lot of those laughs are the nervous kind, the kind where you are so completely and utterly shaken that your mind’s natural defense mechanism is to laugh and inject some hope into your system that there is some hope in the world. They are vacant laughs. The laughs are masks (see what I did there, ha ha, I’m so clever *rolls eyes*).
In any case, Fincher is certainly at the top of his game. While his movies may always be dim and the mood often miserable, I’ve always been a fan of his work. They way he frames a shot, the way his editors work—I’m always a fan of somewhat subliminal shots where you only catch a glimpse of what the director wants you to see, but just as you comprehend what it is, it’s gone, which makes it all the more surprising if and when it pays off—Nolan does this, and Fincher does it splendidly here. As for Flynn, I was a big fan of her prose, and she translates it well to celluloid. Some of her insights into her characters’ minds are lost here, and the narration is inconsistent and only there for exposition’s sake, but she’s able to stay true to her source material. More over, her take on how missing person stories are broadcast is perfect. The parallels to Nancy Grace-like fury, the frenzy of the press and just the general sensationalism that sweeps the nation when something like this comes about are impossible to ignore.
And of course, there’s the acting. While I wish Flynn’s script delved more into Nick’s screwy psyche as much as it did in her book, Affleck plays the hell out of him—seriously, this is probably my favorite performance of his (that may or may not be saying a lot, but Affleck should not be punished for past film mistakes, especially at this point in his career). Neil Patrick Harris is delightfully creepy (though I wish there was more of him and he was even creepier) as Amy’s ex, Tyler Perry is appropriately smug and sympathetic towards the situation as a publicity-hungry lawyer, Carrie Coon has a star making turn as Nick’s cynical and supportive twin sister, and Kim Dickens plays the real hero of the story as the detective assigned to the case who is just trying to stay calm as she tries to make sense of everything. But it’s Rosamund Pike who takes the cake. Again, for the last time, to say more would ruin the fun, and even just saying that might be somewhat of a spoiler (sorry), but if you feel somewhat irked by Amy’s fun-loving demeanor…Just know there’s more to her than that. Amy is a complex character, and Pike portrays every complexity. There’s no doubt in my mind she has an Oscar nod in her future.
I’m a big fan of films about relationships. They can be small (Blue Valentine) or high concept (Her and Eternal Sunshine), but as long as they examine the good, the bad and all those eccentricities in between, I’m usually sold. Gone Girl is just that, only under the guise of an unsettling thriller. I left the theater pleasantly disturbed. Nothing a good Simpsons episode can’t solve.
Rating: Four stars