Love or hate his work (though most would plant themselves firmly on the side of "love"), David Fincher is a man whose films are talked about. The man who is not a director, but a filmmaker, whose projects are not movies, but films. And his latest effort, [Gone Girl](movie:833123), is a Fincher film in the truest sense: Ultra-dark pulp bordering on trash with a wickedly dark sense of humor that takes a razor-sharp satirical view of modern media while still essentially being the story of a couple that systematically destroys one another. And, of course, there is a plot twist, which is, as it always is in a Fincher film, less a plot twist and more a PLOT TWIST™.
And Gone Girl is receiving maybe the widest range of responses I've ever seen from a Fincher film. If you check Twitter, most of the reviews are hyperbolically glowing:
But there were also reports that some (some, not all, mind you) journalists coming out of the viewing at NYFF didn't love it. At all. And while I enjoyed it, I'm definitely not in the majority of people singing its praises to the skies.
The main problem I had with the film was summed up perfectly by this tweet:
Every critic praising Fincher's "genius" for the twists and turns of the plot is forgetting that they had nothing to do with Fincher at all, but were taken directly from the provocative, bestselling 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the adapted screenplay. While Fincher's genius came to the forefront at multiple points during the film, audiences shouldn't make the mistake of giving him credit for the story itself.
And maybe that's the thing. Subtract the crazy plot twists and taut story, subtract the brilliant acting of the cast, and you're left with a movie that feels very much like one of Fincher's more middling efforts, ultimately. Flynn's novel was gripping because it utilized the flawed narrator technique in a way that was subtle and kept you guessing. The story of Nick and Amy Dunne's relationship falling apart was told in the way that all humans tell stories of romantic entanglements gone wrong: By painting themselves as the victim, the one we're supposed to empathize with. Nick tells his side of the story and Amy tells her side of the story, and it's slowly revealed that both are fairly awful people who have done awful things to one another in different ways. There is no winner, no good guy, and it was that dueling, flawed narrative structure that made Flynn's novel so compelling.
By contrast, Fincher's film adaptation is less subtle in its revelations and more "Wow, all this awful stuff is happening to Nick. Poor guy." The truth of Amy is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the novel, while in the film, the plot twist that has everyone who hasn't read the book raving seemed more than a little telegraphed from the start.
Still, Fincher's true strength may very well be how adept he is at casting. He has an uncanny knack for choosing from an eclectic range of actors and actresses, who are sometimes quite unexpected, and teasing out star-making (and occasionally, star-saving) performances from the actors and actresses he works with. Gone Girl is no exception.
Rosamund Pike is mesmerizing as Amy, striking a balance between over-the-top psychosis and chilling detachment while still injecting her performance with a black, self-aware humor that elicits chuckles even in the depths of her vindictiveness. As Amy, she's cool. Too cool, and it's a testament to Pike's talent that you're never quite sure, even when her journal is painting her in the best light possible, whether or not you actually like Amy. Pike has been seemingly on the verge of being a mega-star for the last few years, and if this electric performance doesn't do it, nothing will.
Ben Affleck, meanwhile, is revelatory as Nick, being perfectly cast in the role. The detraction that has constantly plagued him throughout his career - that there's just something about him that rubs people the wrong way - works completely in his favor as Nick Dunne. He never quite acts the way you'd expect of a man whose wife is missing, even a man who felt strangled and trapped by that wife. He's a little too reserved, a little too smug, a little too nonchalant. And when he does display emotion, it seems oddly out of place in his voice and on his face. It's a far harder thing to play a character that is just a little bit off in how he deals with things than it is to play a character of extremes, and Affleck does it well. It's a fine bit of acting in the creation of a character that you sympathize with, but to whom you never quite warm completely.
Supporting cast members pull their weight, too. Tyler Perry's performance as Nick's shark-souled lawyer will have audiences forgetting he's Medea. It's almost impossible not to love Neil Patrick Harris at any point, but his turn as Amy's obsessive ex-boyfriend has a subtlety and restraint that everyone else in the film lacks. And Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick's sister Margeaux, caring for, but conflicted by her brother, bringing an emotional depth to the role that was by far the most real, relatable performance on the screen.
And Fincher deserves credit for his master-level class on how to satirize and skewer the media, offering a tongue-in-cheek but scathing criticism of the circus-like media frenzy that springs up like a cottage industry around every sensational crime. The media plays Nick, and Nick plays it right back, as does Amy, with each creating fictionalized versions for the world of themselves, their marriage, their stories. And the media eats it right up, losing its collective mind over every single word uttered, every facial twitch, every gesture. It is the institutional equivalent of the Dunne's gullible, inane neighbor Noelle Hawthorne, Amy's "local idiot" who believes everything she hears.
But despite these strengths (and they were not insubstantial), Gone Girl didn't quite hit my center, missing that nerve deep-down inside in a way that grips the mind and makes you unable to offer any reaction upon leaving the theater other than stunned silence. A David Fincher film through and through, it somehow felt like Fincher lite. It's a wildly entertaining film, but now that I've seen it, I feel no compulsion for repeat viewings the way I did with Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc. Is it worth a watch? Oh, absolutely, and advanced ticket sales already show audiences agree. But on the sliding scale of Fincher's oeuvre, I'd place Gone Girl somewhere in the middle. Neither his weakest effort, nor his strongest.
But when it's David Fincher at the helm, even his weakest efforts are worth something.