Review: Gone Girl

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This review contains vague plot spoilers.

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is a modern horror story about a marriage that goes dangerously, fascinatingly awry. A fast and satisfying read, the book’s smart dialogue and clever structure keep it from landing in trashy thriller territory even though the subject matter largely revolves around sex and scandal.

Flynn also wrote the screenplay for the film Gone Girl, doing an admirable job of keeping the guilty pleasure essence of the book intact while rearranging and splicing when necessary. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but she does it skillfully.

David Fincher is the well-chosen director of the film. Topics like obsession, manipulation and society’s continuous decay are right up Fincher’s alley, and his slick style and precise attention to detail are perfectly channeled into a story where every word and action carries weight and meaning. 

Told from various points of view in a way that constantly toys with the audience's perceptions and sympathies, Gone Girl is the story of Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck), a charmed and beautiful New York City couple whose passion, wit and inside jokes make them seem like ideal lovers and the perfect match.

The perfection doesn't last. When the recession hits they both lose their magazine jobs, and though Amy has a trust fund, her parents' poor financial decisions soon leave it nearly depleted. The coolest couple around is suddenly practically penniless, and when Nick's mother falls ill back in Missouri, he decides to relocate their burgeoning misery to a more affordable and comfortable (to him, not to Amy) place.

Under such newly grim-to-them circumstances (they're still doing okay, really), Amy and Nick's mutual passion soon turns to mutual contempt. The film opens on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary -- they've been in Missouri for a couple of years, Nick has borrowed the last of Amy's money to open a bar with his sister Margo, Amy is jobless and isolated. By this point their marriage is extremely shaky, so much so that when Amy suddenly goes missing, most people eye Nick as the primary suspect. Nothing is what it first seems, however, and soon Nick finds himself trying to track down his wife out of anger rather than worry.

Flynn teases out clues about who these people are and what they've been up to since their heady early days (which are revisited in flashbacks and Amy's diary entries). How did their love, which once felt so easy, turn so bitter? What have Amy and Nick done to each other? That may or may not be sorted out, but in the meantime the media and a world full of spectators are happy to watch the drama unfold and even help it along if necessary (the story includes a TV host who is a scathing replica of Nancy Grace).  

Some fiction invites personal reflection about the viewer's own relationships and flaws, but Nick and Amy's story provides a wild fantasy version of revenge and manipulation rather than something we're supposed to actually relate to. These are selfish people with limited communication skills (not unheard-of problems), but they take things way past the reasonable limit. Gone Girl is not a cautionary tale or an argument for feminism; this is escapism by means of salacious drama, and though not exactly instructive, it's a lot of fun. 

This is in part due to a stellar supporting cast. Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) is perfect as Margo, Nick's sarcastic and fiery twin, and Kim Dickens (Treme) is equally excellent as Detective Rhonda Boney, an inquisitive, no-bullshit investigator nonetheless overwhelmed by the puzzle of a case she's tasked with solving. Tyler Perry excels in his role as high-profile attorney Tanner Bolt, who is known for keeping husbands accused of murder out of prison. His confidence is appealing rather than smarmy, and in the moments you feel sorry for Nick, you're glad he has a smart ally like Bolt on his side.

That's the thing about Gone Girl -- your loyalties are likely to bounce from one character to the other and then back again as the truth is slowly and steadily revealed (emotional spoiler alert). Amy is no victim but Nick is no saint, and though both characters elicit judgment with their selfish and shocking actions, they are a compelling pair whose strengths and frailties are inextricably and even touchingly intertwined. These jerks deserve each other. 

Gone Girl is catastrophically romantic (to borrow a phrase from the book) and enjoyably tense. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross complements and intensifies the suspense and uneasiness roiling below the surface, and both Affleck and Pike fully embody their complex roles to forge a searing chemistry.

Well-constructed, mean, and often funny, Gone Girl explores what happens when a husband and wife go to war against one another. It's a pretty brutal sight, but you must admire the skill and accuracy with which they attack.