Reviewed: Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014; Spoiler-free)

My movie is about the good husband, the good wife, the good neighbor, the good Christian, the good American, the good patriot.
— David Fincher, on Gone Girl

By this point in his career, no one, I should hope, will argue that David Fincher doesn't know what he's doing. The man whose perverse sensibilities about the unsavory facets of humanity and the world it has built, brutal perfectionism, and knack for tracking down superb collaborators catapulted him into the A-list of auteurs working squarely within the Hollywood system has, indeed, made a movie about (at least tangentially) all of the above topics. That movie is also, indisputably, his movie; I don't think it's at all presumptuous for me to argue that Gone Girl would have bombed as a film had any other director—and any other director's cohort of editors, composers, cinematographers, and casting agents—been tasked with bringing this bestseller du jour to the big screen. Unfortunately, as much as this may be Fincher's movie, it's also very much Gillian Flynn's story, and therein lies its biggest weaknesses.

Gone Girl the book aspires to many things—modern marriage litmus test, media circus satire, middle America cultural critique—and in adapting her story for film, Flynn boils her ingredient list down to its bare essentials. Consequently, all the pulpy plot twists remain intact, colored by the broad strokes of dark satire/black comedy from the book, but gone are many of specifics that give the story the power to either strap its interlocutor on a no-stop speed-reading train or eject them by the side of the highway, Being John Malkovich-style. Flynn tries to say so much about so many things that, gifted storyteller though she may be, her product has pretensions to a literary greatness is falls short of actually realizing.

Whether David Fincher realizes the potential of the source material is a question open to debate, and one that I suspect will continue long into the doldrums of awards season. For my part, I think he, together with cast and crew, did the best that could possibly be done with the story. And to be completely fair, some people will eat that story right up and leave the theater this weekend (or next, or in five weeks; word of mouth on this one is going to send its box office skyrocketing) reconsidering how they live their lives in and outside of marriage. Good for those people: a life unexamined is a life unfulfilled, and if the film gets them thinking, especially in terms of how they can improve their relationships and break beyond their bubbles of comfort to get to know their spouse/partner/neighbor better, awesome! Unfortunately, I can't be counted among those folks. If Flynn had dug a little deeper, let her satire bite just a bit more, drop her concerns for setting up the procedural aspect of the story's first third in favor of the more effective darkly comedic elements that make the second two thirds zing, Gone Girl  would have been up there with the best films of the year.

All of that said, I can easily say that Gone Girl boasts some of the best casting and music of the year, bar none. From the obvious to the inspired, every actor and actress picked out for the film, no matter how big or small the role, delivers and sells a rather unsellable story. Ben Affleck as Nick the Awful Husband seems to be playing himself, until you realize that he's only playing the public's impression of who Ben Affleck is—have that aha! moment and you'll totally buy his act. Rosamund Pike, soon to be a superstar this side of the Atlantic, brings with her British-import pedigree the marbly chilliness required of her character, a trust-fund Manhattanite sold into a metaphorical slavery of sorts by marriage to her Missouri-bound husband. Carrie Coon makes for an excellent twin sister/sidekick and source of occasional comedic relief and catharsis; Kim Dickens plays the Midwesterner detective with a nose for trouble far better than you could ever imagine any actress could play such a role. Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, the only other big names to round out a cast whose minor players' total attunedness to Fincher and Flynn's media-crazy Missouri contributes unimpeachably to the realism of time and place, appropriately show up just long enough to tap certain irony-sensing nerves.

A cast this willing to play ball had better have a great coach; in Fincher they have a stellar one. The film oscillates between modes—Hollywood classicism and hyperstylized formalism—to great effects. Establishing shots of the neighborhood and crime scene(s) cleave to a pretty standard palette, but the mood lighting comes on in full force both for the film's most penetrating moments and its most unexpectedly intimate ones. The sugar storm that sets the tone for Nick and Amy's relationship is an early example of the harmonious cooperation of sound, color, and light that has served Fincher so well in the past (think of the opening bar scene in The Social Network or just about any scene from Zodiac in general). For a moment of less significance like a shot of neighborhood kids biking up a hill at sunset in the midst of a massive town-wide search party to deliver as strong a punch exemplifies that Fincher knows how and when to bend the image of reality to heighten the overall mood of his work.

I would be remiss, however, and I am really saving the best for last here, if I neglected to sing high praises to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their score. Some have derided the duo's work on Fincher's last three films as being too slight, too repetitive, or not soundtrack-y enough. Hater. To. The. Left. Reznor and Ross have an absolute mastery over the use and abuse of sound, letting their songs play and build off each other in unexpected yet exhilarating ways (there are echoes of “Sugar Storm” above in a pivotal song from the midpoint of the film; if you catch the twisted leitmotif, your skin will jump off of your flesh). Their latest work delivers handsomely as it matches the mood of the film—and, better yet, substantially helps to create that mood—to a T. Reznor and Ross previously used their talents to imbue The Social Network with a drive and sense of unsettling alienation totally suited to its protagonists and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a frostiness befitting its climate and psychologically damaged heroine. Here, the two start with the theme of spa music slightly soured (Fincher has said as much in interviews—credit, I suppose, to him for giving them the idea for this jumping-off point) and dissect the New Age otherworldliness of that genre until they have arrived at the mangled, still-throbbing but already-rotting heart beating within; suitable indeed for the film's obsession with uncovering masks and revealing the truth behind images. For what other reason do we go to spas, or to therapy, or to the movies, or to the comfort of a quickly-readable bestseller than to cover with psychological sugar some unsavory flavor, the bitter tastes of regret, anxiety, anger, fear?

Unironic enthusiasm for film is my reason, and while Gone Girl fell short of selling me on its conviction that the case is really otherwise, the fleeting bursts of sugary brilliance it does have to offer were worth the price I paid to watch a film try to tell me, not as successfully as it thought it was doing, that the images we hold to be true in our lives—good husband, good wife, good neighbor, good Christian, good patriot—mask ugly and unseemly truths.