The Films of 2014: Gone Girl

The face of Amy Dunne—blonde, sleek, hard, unreadable—is the enigma at the center of Gone Girl, the highly touted new film of the best-selling Gillian Flynn novel.  Is Amy’s Mona Lisa smile the pose of a discontented trophy wife?  Is it the mask of a sociopath?  The film takes pleasure in teasing us with these questions, slowly revealing Amy’s character in flashbacks and voice-over narration as police, the media, and her husband (Ben Affleck) attempt to solve the mystery of her sudden disappearance from her home in the Missouri suburbs. 

This is a thriller that sets traps for its audience, and for the first two-thirds of its running time they’re deployed with the taut precision that one has come to expect from director David Fincher.  Then the third act drops with a leaden clunk.  I haven’t read Flynn’s novel, but my suspicion is that the problems with Gone Girl are already present in the source material.  (Flynn herself has adapted the screenplay.)  It’s disappointing, because Fincher’s visual style is immaculate: there’s a jaw-dropping, spectacularly gory set piece late in the film that’s so well done that it nearly makes the whole film worth seeing.  I only wish that he was better at choosing properties—and screenwriters.  I was one of the lone detractors of Fincher’s The Social Network, on the grounds that it was sunk by Aaron Sorkin’s self-indulgent, faux-clever writing.  And I shudder to think back to 2008 and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Fincher’s cold, clinical style clashed disastrously with the quasi-mystical sentimentality of Eric Roth’s screenplay.  It always seems as if Fincher is teaming up with people who think they’re as smart as he is but aren’t.      

The film does afford its fair share of pleasures.  Rosamund Pike, who made such a surprisingly funny dumb blonde in An Education some years back, has been effectively made over into an icy femme fatale.  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for The Social Network, provide a hypnotically chilly electronic score.  It’s also possible to appreciate Gone Girl as a satire, or at least a very dark comedy, about marriage, media, and the shallowness of American values.  Even here, though, the film fails to cut very deep.  In the end, its insights have begun to look like clichés: men and women hurt/lie to each other, appearances are not what they seem, “the media” is a circus. Amy herself is summarily reduced from an enigma to a textbook Crazy Person.  The film, which attempts to engage questions of surface and depth, ironically proves that sometimes surfaces are as shallow as they appear.  
Gone Girl does a good job at making you want to solve its puzzle-like plot, but by the time the pieces have been put in place you may no longer care about them.  It’s a slick, fun, empty exercise.  Its plot contrivances may be no more absurd than those of many a classic film noir, but they feel somehow more annoying—perhaps because (on one level, at least) the film imagines itself to be hard-hitting and intelligent.  It’s neither.  But it does make for a fun evening at the movies.

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