Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has made his Vertigo—a multi-layered, beautifully (and carefully) directed with a gorgeous blonde at the center, with layers of twisty plot turns and double crosses, complete with manipulation, identity issues and obsession.

Gone Girl is probably the most artfully done drama of the year so far and could be the best film of the year were it not for a last twist that doesn’t quite earn its keep—or perhaps I was simply horrified at the thematic implications.

The plot seems simple: A young married woman disappears on the day of her fifth anniversary. Was she killed by her husband? Was she kidnapped? Or did she just fall off the face of the earth? To say more would be to rob you of the experience. But this film is so full of plot that it seems like a full season of a mystery television program. It’s two, or possibly three, films in one.

It looks and sounds like other recent Fincher films. Filmed with a dark and slightly yellow palette, as was The Social Network, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has fashioned a softly lovely film containing a story as cynical as it beautiful to look at.

Fincher’s direction is so assured and strong, it could easily be a point of study for today’s film students. This is a tale that could easily have careened out of control in the hands of a less, shall we say, controlled (and controlling) director. The problems that people are going to have with it may be placed at the feet of the director, but it’s really the screenplay and its implications that will be the points of much discussion. Fincher’s work is exquisite, even when what is happening in front of you is abhorrent.

The acting will rightly be the subject of much attention as well. Ben Affleck, an actor difficult to cast properly, has found what may be his best role, at least since Hollywoodland. Affleck comes across on screen as a tall slab of American male, slightly dense at times, and superficially charming, with the emphasis on the adjective. That might be unfair to him to assign those characteristics to him as a person, but that is how he registers on screen. Happily, those characteristics work for his character here.

Someone one has to ask, “Who could have done that role better?” For instance, one-time rom-com queen Sandra Bullock so completely nailed her character in The Blind Side that you had to wonder if even more talented actresses could have played that part as well. We have the same case here. Other young actors could have stepped into the role, but perhaps none bring a persona to the screen that integrates so well with the character he’s portraying. Yes, Matt Damon (to grab an obvious example) is a better actor, but he would have brought suggested depths to the part that would have worked against the part. Different colors and subtly burning fires are not what Affleck’s character calls for. His normal persona is just the right fit.

The star-making, career-making performance of the film, however, is Rosamund Pike’s as the missing wife. More than Kim Novak in Vertigo, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Pike (Pride and Prejudice, An Education) has to assume several different roles throughout the film, often being an inscrutable, enigmatic person falsely playing a clearly defined one. I’m sure it was an actress’ dream role. Pike, known well in her native England, and slightly known by those familiar with PBS, British cinema, or both, will no doubt become a star of the first rank for the role itself as well as for her execution of it. Unlike Affleck, there are several actresses who could have essayed this role with great success. But we have an assured, talented actress with no American persona to speak of; she’s the perfect blank slate for her role here.

Two secondary female performances are so good you almost ignore them, as they hold up their part of the film so strongly that you’re lost in how they enrich the film (Carrie Coon, playing Affleck’s character’s sister) or help move things along (Kim Dickens, playing a detective). Dickens’ character has thoughts and an ever-changing take on the case she’s working, and she does a beautiful dance with the views of the spectator, sometimes moving with us, sometimes, moving in counterpoint. Both Coon’s and Dickens’ roles are solid and fully realized. Perhaps Coon is the slightly stronger performance, but the difference is minimal.

Three strong supporting male performances are fascinating for different reasons. Patrick Fugit, who most of us remember as a slightly pudgy teen in Almost Famous, is here as a thin, grown-up playing an officer working with Dickens’ character. It’s not a big role, but it’s a part that reminds us that he’s here and is a solid actor. Tyler Perry, not known for this kind of film or for any deep acting talent, is completely believable as a high-powered lawyer. It’s a solid performance that he apparently didn’t want to do once he found out more about the part. (Another story for another time….)

If this critic had any number of readers, I might be hesitant to write about the Neil Patrick Harris character in Gone Girl, especially in the light of the brouhaha (much of it ridiculous) surrounding New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley writing about TV producer/writer Shonda Rimes. One’s true meaning (especially any statement with a smidgen of irony) can be lost when one goes to print, as anyone who misreads an email (or has had an email misinterpreted) is well away of. But here goes.

Harris is a talented actor, both comically and dramatically. He is a gay icon to some, something of a gay activist to others. He has proven that he can easily play a heterosexual with no problem, as all his years on “How I Met Your Mother” prove. Hear me know; hear me later. His acting talent is not an issue here. His role in Gone Girl is a difficult role and slightly underwritten, and I don’t think any actor could have made this plot-device-type of character completely believable. But NPH puts his considerable acting talents to work on it and makes it as good as nearly anyone can.

The question, and it’s just a question, one worthy of some kind of discussion on a planet less reactive and knee-jerky than ours, is how his persona works into the role. It’s an irony that he can bring his persona as a “gay performer” to his Tony-winning role on Broadway in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and it resonates with the role. Yet it’s considered politically/artistically incorrect to ask if it is not a little (just a little, now) incongruous to ask us to believe in the heterosexuality of this character when the actor playing him has worked so diligently, especially in the last few years, to let us all know that he is gay in all its current expressions artistically and personally. As a viewer, and something of a knowledgeable one, I respect his talent. As an American alive in 2014, I can say that the persona NPH has created so publicly is somewhat at odds with this character. It’s a simple casting/persona issue—nothing else.

This is an especially pertinent issue in a film that leans on personas for some of its characters. The teaming of Affleck and his persona has already been discussed. Pike’s lack of persona must be part of the reason she was cast. In terms of this film, it’s a legitimate issue to bring up. Someday this will be able to be discussed in a less heated environment. Happily, only a few people will read this, and most of them will understand that I have no other agenda than film criticism and analysis.

There are some rough, violent scenes, and some un-erotic (though sexual) carnal activity. This is not for kids. In fact, it’s something of a stretch for adults, and I’m not sure I am willing to be stretched that far, or if the film even succeeds in wooing me to its themes.

Where the film stretches to the point of incredulity is at the end (slight spoilers to follow), when one of the main characters does something as shocking (but less dramatic) as what anyone has done so far. The implications for marriage attached to this decision are so pessimistic, so dark, so repugnant, that many viewers may not even hear what’s being said (or strongly suggested). They may, in fact, have been distracted by either that last twist or the fact that the twist isn’t well supported, and that the film actually falters at this one crucial juncture. It’s the film’s biggest weakness, but one that ultimately doesn’t undo what’s come before.

This is not a film I can recommend to everyone I know. It’s too rough and violent for many. But the filmmaking is solid and confident, the acting is excellent throughout (without a single weakness), a star is born, and those who love mysteries and twists and turns will find what they are looking for here. For many good reasons, for its strengths as well as its one big weakness, Gone Girl is a film that will be discussed and scrutinized for years.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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