We track in on the back of the elegant blonde head of ‘Amazing’ Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in cool light as her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), contemplates who his wife really is in an icy voice-over. This is the opening to David Fincher’s new film, Gone Girl.
For the more discerning filmgoer, the image also bears a striking resemblance to a similar moment in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock classic, Vertigo, when Detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) tails Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), a mild mannered housewife who is supposedly possessed, and there is a revelatory moment at the Legion of Honor art museum. Scottie observes Madeline staring off at a portrait of the woman that is allegedly possessing her. How does Hitchcock show us the perspective of Scottie questioning the true identity of the woman he is observing? Yep, you guessed it; we track in on the back of Madeline’s platinum blonde head:
It’s no accident that this memorable scene from Vertigo induces the same sense of entrancing mystery as the opening shot from Gone Girl. Hitchcock is deeply embedded in Fincher’s DNA as a filmmaker. This is evident from the strong command of film grammar and his meticulous eye for detail, exuded in his body of work: from the mind bending psychological thriller Fight Club to the forensic police procedural, Zodiac. In an interview with musicolog, Fincher sited Hitchcock as his preeminent influence: “I’ve probably seen Rear Window sixty times. I know his movies inside and out.” However, the significant connection between Gone Girl and Hitchcock is not the visual quotes, rather, it is in the skeleton of the film: the story.
This connection is significant because once Gone Girl has put butts in the seats by way of its marketing campaign, its strong critical reception, its strong box office performance, and its traction from the popular novel of the same title by Gillian Flynn, what keeps those butts glued to their seats for 149 captivating minutes is the structure of the story. And let’s be fair, the film does have a lot to offer: it is at once a sharp social satire on the exploitative nature of our 24 hour national media circus, a ‘who-done-it’, a drama about the challenges of married life, a meticulous police procedural, and an absurdest macabre comedy; but beyond all that, it is a good old fashioned throwback thriller. The fact that it is a well-drawn throwback thriller is what allows us to appreciate all the other wonderful things the film has to offer because it keeps us emotionally engaged throughout.
When we consider the classic thrillers that have stood the test of time and kept audiences on the edge of their seats for decades, films like: The Manchurian Candidate, Bonny and Clyde, Deliverance, and The French Connection, the strongest discernible common denominator between all of them is the fact that they have stories that evolve, develop, and keep the audience guessing and on the edge of their seats until the ending credits roll. In contrast, unfortunately the dominant trend in contemporary 21st century mainstream thrillers has been to replace quality storytelling with what I call situational episodes or ‘sit-eps’.
The film then proceeds to work through that checklist one event at a time, giving the audience (and often the distributors and financiers) the exact payoff that they expect. Recent examples of sit-eps include: The Equalizer, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The November Man.
To illustrate this concept and demonstrate how Gone Girl represents a return to form for the thriller genre, let us examine the narrative structure of the aforementioned Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo and the 2008 thriller Taken, a film that embodies the contemporary 21st century sit-ep. We can then do an identical structural breakdown of Gone Girl and see how it fits into the comparison:
Here is a legend of the terms I use in this section:
SET-UP = The basic information (or exposition) about the characters, setting, the relationships and situation that occurs prior to the hook.
THE HOOK = Also commonly referred to as the ‘inciting incident.’ This is an event that occurs in the first act of a film that sets the wheels in motion and catalyzes the rest of the story.
INITIAL EXPECTATION = The set of expectations that is planted in the mind of the audience by the filmmaker after the hook.
REVERSAL = An event that shifts the audiences expectations by radically changing the dramatic trajectory of the story.
Okay, let the deconstruction begin!
SET UP: Detective Scottie Ferguson is forced into early retirement due to a traumatizing rooftop skirmish where a cop fell to his death while Scottie helplessly hung out (literally) on the edge of the roof, leaving him with a paralyzing case of…well, you know.
THE HOOK: Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old college chum hires Scottie to follow his wife, Madeline, whom he believes is possessed due to a number of bizarre ritualistic behaviors. Scottie reluctantly accepts the gig.
INITIAL EXPECTATION: We are left with the same mix of skepticism and morbid curiosity as Scottie. We don’t know exactly what to expect but we get the sense that Scottie may be in for more than he bargained for.
REVERSAL 1: As Scottie follows Madeline, the evidence becomes more and more compelling that she is in fact possessed by the spirit of her great grand-mother Carlotta Valdes; a spooky 19th century figure who was driven to a tragic suicide. The reversal occurs when the supposedly content and well-adjusted housewife throws herself into the San Francisco bay, convincing Scottie and the audience that Madeline is possessed or at least that she believes she is possessed.
REVERSAL 2: The next day, Scottie and Madeline spend the day together and quickly fall in love. When Madeline recants a suicidal nightmare she has while in her fugue state, Scottie recognizes the location of the nightmare as Mission San Juan Bautista. They go there and Madeline seems to become possessed again; she runs up the stairs of the church, Scottie’s vertigo kicks in as he pursues her, which gives her enough time to reach the top and throw herself to her death. Now that the person Scottie was hired to follow is dead, we wonder what the rest of the movie will be about.
REVERSAL 3: After being released from a sanatorium, Scottie finds a woman with a striking resemblance to Madeline named Judy Barton. After asking her out on a date, the major reversal comes in the form of a voice-over flashback as Judy drafts a letter to Scottie. She reveals that her resemblance to Madeline is more than a coincidence, that she is the woman that we believed to be Madeline. Judy is an actor hired by Gavin in a plot to kill his wife. At the bell tower, Gavin banked on Scottie’s vertigo inhibiting him and was hiding at the top restraining his real wife, who Judy was doubling and tossed her from the bell tower. Judy tears up the letter after drafting it since the feelings she developed for Scottie were real so the audience is aware of the truth but Scottie isn’t. The dramatic tension that this reversal creates propels the film into an eerie, captivating and shocking final act.
Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a grizzled ex-CIA operative who desperately seeks the adoration and affection of his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with her mother and stepfather out of state. He goes so far as to ask a pop star to provide personal singing lessons for Kim, who is an aspiring singer after rescuing her from a would-be assailant at a concert. Kim wishes to travel to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy). Bryan is reluctant to give his approval at first, but his protective instincts are surpassed by his need for approval from his daughter and he gives his permission.
THE HOOK: When Kim and Amanda arrive at their hotel in Paris, they are kidnapped after being spotted by a scout for a kidnapping ring at the airport who they shared a cab with.
INITIAL EXPECTATION: Bryan sets our expectations pretty clearly in Liam Neeson’s original threatening ‘on the phone’ scene with the kidnappers who he connects with through Kim’s international phone: ”If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”
And essentially there are no reversals. What we expect is what we get: Liam Neeson goes to Europe and uses his "special set of skills" to look for, find, and kill the people that have his daughter...boy did the kidnappers choose the wrong kid! Maybe next time they should go for a banker's daughter:
We meet a married couple (Nick and Amy Dunne) in a Missouri suburb on the day of their 5th wedding anniversary. We sense that there is trouble in paradise when Nick goes to have a drink at a local tavern that he owns and blows steam with his sister, Margo, the bar keep (Carrie Coon).
THE HOOK: When Nick returns home from the tavern, Amy is missing and his house looks like a crime scene.
INITIAL EXPECTATION: Though Nick seems a little aloof, he goes to the police right away and is very forthright and cooperative with law enforcement. We expect that he will do everything in his power to retrieve his wife.
REVERSAL 1: We find out that Nick has been having a serious affair with one of his students for over a year. Although it appears to the audience that Nick has a good alibi (being at the bar when the crime occurred), he does have cause to kill his wife or make her disappear, which arouses our suspicion and reverses our perception of Nick. In addition to the revelation of the affair, this reversal is re-enforced by a series of flashbacks told from the point of view of Amy’s journal that delineates a frightening account of how their fairy tale marriage turned into a nightmare. The reversal is even further reinforced by a series of clues unearthed by law enforcement that make Nick look guilty, especially considering his icy demeanor with the media frenzy surrounding the case.
REVERSAL 2: It is revealed that Amy is basically a psychopath that staged her own murder and planted all of the clues that incriminate Nick in retaliation for his emotional neglect, which includes the journal that contains fabricated entries.
REVERSAL 3: After hiring a talented lawyer to defend him and rehabilitate his public image, Nick gives a nationally televised Oprah-esque confessional interview. This becomes a major reversal for two reasons:
1) The interview is wildly successful in redeeming his public image. He comes across as flawed but authentic and most importantly, not a murderer.
2) Amy, who is in hiding at a wealthy ex-boyfriend’s secluded lake house sees the interview, which rekindles her feelings for Nick.
This reversal sets the stage for Amy to concoct another scheme to murder her ex-boyfriend in self-defense for a rape that she fakes and return home to the embittered Nick, who due to his public image, is forced to play house. This makes for a delightful and unexpected turn that cements the films satirical construction.
As we can see, the narrative component that makes Gone Girl play so well and share a stronger kinship with the throwback thriller than the contemporary sit-ep, is the reversal. Dramatic reversals in the story are by no means the end all be all for a successful thriller, but they do seem to be a key ingredient in the secret sauce. After all, when we recall some of our favorite moments from thrillers, they often coincide with a dramatic reversal that enlightens, surprises, or exhilarates us. Whether it’s the infamous shower scene from Psycho, the incest revelation in Chinatown, or Kevin Spacey’s Kaiser Soze reveal in The Usual Suspects,
Indeed, Gone Girl deserves credit for proving that an intelligent, well-constructed throwback thriller can still thrive both critically and at the box office, having grossed over $150 million in its first three weeks in theatrical release. Gillian Flynn deserves a ton of credit for adapting her novel into a screenplay that plays exquisitely on the silver screen. But let’s also acknowledge the man who lives in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock and who, like the great master, is above all else a consummate storyteller: David Fincher. Perhaps in some small way, the success of Gone Girl will help inspire filmmakers and executives alike to defy the sit-ep paradigm a little more often and reach for a throwback thriller that speaks to a modern audience.