‘Gone Girl’ Review: Clear Eyes, Cold Heart

By  · Published on September 25th, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox

Gone Girl is not about love. It’s not about marriage or even about a missing person. It has all of those elements, but they are background noise to an exploration of how we judge, en masse, things we know nothing about. Thoroughly and profoundly cynical, David Fincher’s movie comes in the middle of a thriving gossip culture that’s been amplified by technology. Royal babies, Benghazi, Michael Brown. Millions of instantly formed opinions are screamed far beyond the back porch. We seem to be under the delusion that we’re somehow missing out when the rest of the pack tweets, posts and shares their uninformed impressions. We need someone new every day (celebrity or temporary celebrity) to be mad at.

Normally, something like this would be subtext in a film, but with almost every important sequence and character decision launched or colored by what large amounts of strangers will believe, spitting on the court of public opinion stands just as tall as the whodunnit element. It’s given voice in the film by a noisy neighbor who’s desperate for attention (Casey Wilson), a front lawn camping press corps, bloviating media figures stirring the pot, a chorus of anonymous people whose takes randomly fill the air, and a general spectre that clouds every decision.

These figures all feed at the trough when Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on the morning of her 5th wedding anniversary. She’s smart, engaging, accomplished, and she was once the young inspiration for a beloved children’s book character. Already a minor cultural figure, her parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) immediately whip up a public support network for finding her, and the mystery evolves from private affair to national tragedy within hours. At the center of the storm is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), the inattentive husband who may or may not have dumped his wife in the river.

After Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this movie cements that Fincher has found the style he wants to stick with (at least for the time being). It’s porcelain, gorgeous of course, meticulously constructed and almost wholly uninterested in feelings. If you thought The Game was emotionless, Gone Girl has a lot to teach you about being numb.

That makes a partnership with Gillian Flynn perfect for this modern incarnation of the filmmaker. Flynn wrote a script (from her novel) that expertly reveals information – not just clues or new motives, but also subtle character notes and actions that redefine who we thought we had pinned down. Flynn and Fincher are both skilled spelunkers, and they repel down together into a world of shit while managing to stay polished. It’s all stunningly complex and rounded, even though the entire thing appears to be populated by sociopaths.

Digging deep into psyches without hitting human nerves makes excellent performances (anchored by Affleck, Pike and Carrie Coon who plays Nick’s twin sister) even more impressive. Everyone does stellar work here, providing nuance as they weed through the multiple states of mind of an impossible nightmare, but they have to do it within a condensed emotional framework. It’s not to say that there are zero emotions; there just aren’t many, and everyone manages to scream eloquently while muted. The greatest pillar of life is Pike, who beams in flashbacks as we meet Amy and Nick as a couple deeply in love and then sinks as the relationship turns sour.

Despite those performances, Fincher’s continued postcard partnership with DP Jeff Cronenweth and a prestige-glossed beach read, the calm during the storm is ultimately a big problem. The movie is smartly tragic, but hollow. Even with an ending that offers closure, Gone Girl doesn’t so much end as it evanesces, floating away without leaving so much as a dent. On a technical level, Fincher and company are virtually peerless, but that’s not enough. As much as it pains me to say this about one of Fincher’s movies, Gone Girl is (deep breath) relatively forgettable. The shiniest, smartest pop, but never transcending to bone-sticking drama.

There’s a point where Nick seems to act as a stand-in for Fincher on that front. He’s addressing a mixed crowd at a vigil for his lost wife when he remarks that, just because he doesn’t look as sad as everyone wants him to look, that doesn’t mean he killed his wife or that he’s not devastated. That might as well be the tagline for the movie. Everything is happening so far below the surface that it’s invisible. As an experiment in storytelling, it’s fascinating, but it saps too much power from the overall experience. It feels like you’re eating at a Michelin three starred restaurant where the service is impeccable, the ambiance is immaculate but the chef forgot to season the food.

Yet as an examination of the insidious nature of public discourse, it’s remarkable. It may be the most important commentary on voyeurism since Rear Window, and it’s presented in a scale appropriately large enough to skewer our modern visual weaponry. The same view point is given three different voices. There’s Tyler Perry – who, despite complaints about Fincher should thank him for facilitating the best performance of his career – as a lawyer who 1) specializes in uphill PR battles 2) has no discernible strategy beyond telling the right story to the public and 3) isn’t even close to being the sleaziest character. He actually comes out looking wise and ethical while representing something heinous. (Cue John Hammond on “the blood-sucking lawyer!”)

Then there’s the dueling banjos of Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), a slithering TV show host who might as well have been named Schmancy Schmace, and Sharon Shieber (Sela Ward), a Barbara Walters type who adds gravitas to tabloid journalism. The former is the figure that shapes the world, emerging regularly in clips that shove fingers down our throats, leading the charge vilifying Nick. He smiles wanly for a nanosecond in front of a blow-up of Amy’s photo, and the image becomes digital chum. Abbott’s view points become gospel, echoed regularly by random idiots within Nick’s earshot.

The latter offers Spielberg eyes and empathy, but she’s still putting Versace on vomit that we shouldn’t be hearing about. The misery economy.

There’s one last group of on-lookers that I haven’t mentioned yet: us. Fincher casts us in the first act as voyeuristic pundits going on low information, twisting the natural curiosity of murder mystery fandom against itself. It’s natural. Get eagle-eyed and assume a primary suspect all you want with Poirot, but do it with Gone Girl (and you will), and Fincher will ultimately shame you for doing so.

The Upside: A strong twisty mystery; stunning photography from Cronenweth; nuanced performances to craft rounded characters; an excellent commentary on modern voyeurism and opinionating

The Downside: An overall empty experience due to muted emotional responses/sociopaths

On the Side: Affleck apparently changed a lens a tiny amount one day, betting that Fincher wouldn’t notice. He did. (Also, I hope someone does a trailer mash-up called Gone Baby Gone Girl.)

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