It’s telling that David Fincher is lauded as an auteur when his work shouldn’t fit the bill. Andrew Sarris’ famous theory categorized the auteur as an artist who has total mastery — control — over every aspect of his or her work. Of the many voices trying to sing in harmony to make a movie work, the auteur’s should drown the others out. This should, naturally, disqualify moviemakers who don’t write their movies in addition to directing them. But Fincher, a director that, like Christopher Nolan, is a high-minded artist somehow making art movies within the studio system, is so uncompromising, so united in his worldview, that his status has taken on the prestigious label of the ‘auteur’ without needing to have written a single movie. Fincher films are those that emerge from under the bed or the back of a closet that are painting in the different shades of wickedness and corruption. His latest film, Gone Girl, isn’t another serial killer thriller but a small town whodunit executed with all the fixtures of an excellent, cold-blooded procedural. And excellent it is. But what Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the novel from which the film was adapted, are most concerned with aren’t the nitty-gritty details of a crime but with the falsities marriage.
Oh, yes, Gone Girl is most of all about the dynamics between men and women, capitalizing on how our identities swerve, stop, and sometimes crash into one another when we take on a life partner. To make the filmmakers’ point, we’re shown extremes of culturally-deemed perfection. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), is, no pun intended, a superhero of a partner: charming, charismatic, and handsome. After all, he ought to be. He writes for a men’s magazine on the subject on how to be the perfect guy. He’s an expert, and early film flashbacks show him with enough swagger to win any girl in any room. But for a perfect guy, we need a perfect girl. Meet Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a gorgeous New York native that is full of class but retains a sense of humor. These two people, for many people in the audience I suspect, begin as archetypes for the people we’d like to see ourselves with. But on the fifth anniversary of the perfect couple’s perfect marriage, Amy goes missing. We come to know her through her diary being read to us. The media, led by a surrogate Nancy Grace (Sela Ward), doesn’t just suspect Nick is the killer, but quickly demonizes him as murderer, sociopath, and possible agent of incest.
Gone Girl works wonders because it’s so many things. It twists and turns itself into the shapes the spiraling story demands, never staying as any one thing too long. Meaning: avoid spoilers. I’ve seen Gone Girl twice and plan to again (and again), but there’s immense pleasure in discovering Flynn’s cunning and curvy narrative with fresh, unsuspecting eyes. If there’s one through line of the film, it’s danger. We have stakes, even if we’re never sure who to root for. Nick, for all his surface-level allure, is either clueless or a killer. There are plenty of people who hate Nick Dunne, acting as in-film proxies for what a lot of the audience is sure to be feeling. As Fincher has noted in interviews, there is a Team Amy vs. Team Nick aspect to the film, and different characters, like Patrick Fugit’s Nick-hating police officer, personify that.
Fincher and Flynn, who prove to be one of the best director-screenwriter teams in years, turn the tables on the audience’s psychology. In a whodunit, we’re used to the rug being pulled out from under you. We’re less used to having it pulled out from you every 20 minutes. The barrage of twists isn’t just a delight that provoked audible gasps — and even laughter — in both of my screenings but a device for the film’s true meta-narrative. When you watch Gone Girl, you are in a constant state of getting punched in the face, and by the time the daze wears off, BAM! The result is one of the most entertaining movies of the year and Fincher’s most easily enjoyed, but it calls attention to a few things. For one thing, it satirizes our hunger for the same sensationalism featured in the film’s amusing satire of the media circus. But, more importantly, in Gone Girl, everyone is a suspect, including the viewers. We, not just (at least) one of the characters, are guilty, and the filmmakers constantly remind us that this is the case. We created Nick and Amy Dunne — our perfect, idealized couple — in the same way we create who we want the world to view us as every day. Each of us is a Dr. Frankenstein making monsters of ego and narcissism. Gone Girl’s depth doesn’t come from complexity but in the purity of how it packages its ideas into the narrative itself.
Fincher always casts top-shelf talent, but his choices for Gone Girl initially left pundits scratching their heads. Tyler Perry? Neil Patrick Harris? Even the lesser-known Kim Dickens landed a major part. It’s with a total lack of surprise they all excel in their roles, many of the cast giving the best performances of their career. Ben Affleck was born to play this part. Fincher admitted he cast him not just for his skills as a performer but for his experience in media scrutiny and, most amusing of all, the insincerity of his smile. He’s nuanced and terrific, matched only by the astounding acrobatics of Pike’s performance in a career-defining role. Frequent collaborators such as editor Kirk Baxter (without his usual co-editor Angus Wall), cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross all return- Fincher’s dream team of dread. Each endears the film with their own meticulous sort of gloom, and the prevailing atmosphere varies between the artificial warmth of a small town and the possible fakery of true love. Gone Girl is Fincher’s most tonally complex film, and Trent and Atticus know when to drive the action, when to set mood, and when to act as a palate cleanser. It goes without saying that the technical elements are immaculate although they lack the perfection and scale of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Eventually, it’s a film executed with the similar absurdism seen in (early episodes of) Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, or the more recent Wall Street satire, American Psycho. We’re pushed to the lurid extremes of studio filmmaking, and one scene in particular — you’ll know it when you see it — is a visceral gut-punch so intense it still has me reeling. Unlike Dragon Tattoo, which was a refinement of the skills Fincher’s developed from film to film (keep an eye out for my Dragon Tattoo review and analysis sometime soon), Gone Girl strikes the brilliant balance of finding new territory while still feeling like classic Fincher. If his career has been a series of brushstrokes painting a portrait of the decaying soul of society, Gone Girl is one of the boldest, most refreshing, and the most fun.