I know at the time many considered Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s massively successful novel a beach read or an airport novel. Perhaps it is. I don’t know. I never read it. When I walked into the theater to see the film adaptation, I came to the movie clean. I do know that, in the hands of the genius misanthrope David Fincher, his supposed foray into commercial thriller territory is much more than the book jacket would lead you to believe. I remember it being referenced by other critics as a Fatal Attraction for our times. While I won’t argue too forcefully against that perspective (it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it), I do find it a little reductive. What Fincher really seems to care about is the corrosive capacity of a marriage gone wrong.
Certainly, Gone Girl‘s acting, direction, screenplay (written by Flynn) and plot twists all rate between exquisite and jaw dropping. Ben Affleck’s natural charm—which seems to ever so barely cover up a certain shallowness—is put to perfect use here. The Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike as Affleck’s gone girl is a revelation. Carrie Coon plays Affleck’s sister, proving that her herculean work holding up The Leftovers on HBO was no fluke. Kim Dickens as the sly and droll local detective is pitch perfect. Neil Patrick Harris could not be more pathetically creepy as Pike’s old boyfriend. Even Tyler Perry as Affleck’s craven defense attorney showcases some chops. (Read the last sentence again. Tyler Fucking Perry is good in this movie.)
Stunning revelations seem to expose themselves every five minutes in the back half of this wickedly wondrous film. It is nothing if not queasy entertainment. And all of this would have been enough for the average movie goer. The thing is, David Fincher has never seemed to give a shit about the average movie goer. After all, he’s the guy who killed off Ripley in Alien 3. Fincher was once asked what he thought of people in general. He replied, “I think people are perverts. That’s been the foundation of my career.” Then he smiled slyly—full of certitude. This is not only the lens he sees us through, but the one he wants us to see ourselves through in his films.
Gone Girl is Fincher’s reflection of us at an eleven. It’s even thought of as Fincher’s “fun” movie—the one where he supposedly embraced the tropes of the femme fatale film noir genre and made a movie for the masses. I don’t know if we are all perverts, but certainly enough of us were attracted to Gone Girl at the time of its 2014 release to see the film’s box office gross $167.8 million. And if you love the film like I do, you are probably at least a little bit pervy.
Fincher’s natural gifts as a storyteller are too commonly set aside by critics and filmgoers when discussing his work as a director. Just look at the unsettling and brilliant way he sets up and delivers Gone Girl to the audience—even the opening “meet cute” that connects Pike and Affleck is uneasy. Afflecks’ moves are a bit too staged and Pike’s posture and composure a bit too refined. Yet, fascinatingly, these aspects of their characters do not make them any less real. I’m sure we have all run into people in our lives who are constantly maneuvering, and you get that sense about these two. They are sizing each other up for the kill. The trouble for Affleck’s character is that he has way too much confidence. He doesn’t realize he’s in over his head with Pike, but in due course, he will most certainly learn.
In the beginning of their courtship and marriage, we get a picture of prosperity and perfection. The Manhattan apartment, the austere decor, a bit of kink in their sex life, and their fashionable twin careers as writers—it all seems too good to be true.
And so it is.
Soon, the economy cracks and the two become unemployed. Pike’s parents need to borrow from her trust fund. To slow their financial collapse (and to be near Affleck’s ailing mother) the young couple move to the suburbs of Missouri where Affleck opens a bar with his fraternal twin (Carrie Coon). This isn’t what Pike signed up for, and you can practically see her constrict. For her, Missouri may as well be Calcutta.
Watching the two of them interact, both seething with derision and disappointment toward each other, I found myself thinking of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
When routine bites hard and ambitions are low
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
When Pike goes missing and Affleck reports her disappearance, he seems a bit too casual. I’ve seen men more upset about losing the remote than Affleck does about losing his wife. He smiles in the wrong places, and doesn’t seem to know much about his spouse (or to be bothered by that fact when it is pointed out to him). He makes a fine suspect.
From there, things go from bad to worse to weird. Clues in the form of riddles appear in envelopes—they are literally marked “clue”—and all of them cast doubt upon the handsome but blank husband.
So far, so Lifetime, right? Wrong. As the film unwinds and wraps itself back around you, you find that neither Pike nor Affleck are who or what you think they are. It is hard to shock the modern filmgoer, but Gone Girl does just that. It’s not the twists and turns or pulpy plot devices that got to me, though. It was the slow, sinister disintegration of the marriage that shivered my timbers. The collapse of warmth between the betrothed is depicted in ways both subtle and blunt. The edge added to the ends of their sentences, the coarsening shared glances, and the utter lack of romance in their copulating all sting and burn.
Gone Girl is corrosively infectious entertainment. I know many people probably swallowed this film as pure thriller, and it certainly works like gangbusters on those terms. But genre is just a contraption Fincher uses to convey what really interests him. What I think Gone Girl shows is that when resentment and familiarity intertwine, like a cancer invading your blood, the worst thing is not what most people think of when it comes to marriage. Sometimes it’s not the splitting apart that ruins us. Sometimes it’s just the opposite.