With the dark and unforgiving Gone Girl, David Fincher has achieved the sublime hybrid of high art and trash that he failed to grasp with his pointless remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This balancing act of art and commerce, as well as of competing narratives and tones, seems to be a motivating force for Fincher, and it was present right from his start directing music videos for Madonna. It's one of the few unifying elements in an oeuvre that often feels disconnected and scattershot beyond Fincher's obsession with the modern mutations of masculinity.
His tenth feature film, Gone Girl is also obsessed with definitions and expectations of masculinity. And like other Fincher films, such as The Game and Fight Club, it examines a disturbing disconnect between private lives and public images. But at its black heart, this cinematic page-turner (adapted by novelist Gillian Flynn from her own page-turner) is about marriage as the ultimate performance, the ultimate power struggle, and the ultimate game of one-upmanship.
Ben Affleck stars, quite credibly and capably, as Nick Dunn, a cocky men's magazine writer in the mid-1990s who is unhappily married to an icy blonde perfectionist named Amy (Rosamund Pike). As the film opens, Nick returns home on the morning of his anniversary to a strangely composed crime scene, with Amy nowhere to be found. The local police kick off a wide-ranging manhunt that galvanizes the community, but the investigation increasingly focuses on Nick, whose smug and withdrawn behavior in the aftermath of Amy's disappearance makes him a cable news network villain.
Nick is an unlikeable shit, and his behavior is strange and borderline reprehensible, including a tryst with his college-age mistress during the ongoing investigation. But is Nick really the prototypical slimeball sociopath that he appears to be, or are the police and the media just mentally casting him in the role? Conflicting ideas of truth and image abound — early on, we even learn that Amy's parents "improved" her childhood by creating a popular cartoon character named "Amazing Amy," a perfect girl who excelled wherever the real-life Amy failed.
In truth, Affleck is a revelation here, giving by far the best performance of his career, and is seemingly more comfortable in the skin of this accomplished liar and possible sociopath than in all the bland action heroes and trembling rom-com sad sacks he's ever played. Pike has an even trickier part, especially after some unmentionable twists force us to question what we thought we knew about Amy. The story jumps between the media circus gathering around Nick and the back story of his relationship with Amy, fleshed out with passages from Amy's diary.
Affleck and Pike are both very good, and the supporting cast is also uniformly strong, especially the criminally underused Kim Dickens as the dogged lead detective on the case. Even in cases where Fincher appears to flirt with stunt-casting, such as getting Tyler Perry to play a high-profile defense lawyer named Tanner Bolt, or casting Neil Patrick Harris as a wealthy creep from Amy's past, the actors melt into the ensemble.
The film was shot by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who previously worked with Fincher on Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the washed-out color palette of Gone Girl mirrors the unfeeling ugliness of the characters' behavior. This is a world where nobility needs to be carefully packaged, where even a candlelight vigil turns into a witch hunt with remarkable ease.
Scanning the Fincher filmography, I get the feeling that he uses the financial freedom offered by his more mainstream movies to work out ideas and logistics for later passion projects. The claustrophobia of Se7en might not be possible without Fincher first birthing the god-awful Alien3, just as the riskier Fight Club needed to be workshopped through The Game, and the seamless use of special effects to enhance visuals in Zodiac and The Social Network required much lamer dry runs in Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, respectively.
Along those same lines, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dealt with many of the same themes as Gone Girl, including a potentially deal-breaking use of rape to advance the plot, and even employed a less nuanced version of this film's sickly slate color scheme. But where Dragon Tattoo is simplistic and sensational, Gone Girl makes a cat's cradle of your expectations, resulting in a complex, disturbing, and irresistibly trashy film experience.