Nick Dunne's wife Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary. Under mounting pressure from the police and tabloid reporters, his account of their seemingly blissful union soon unravels.

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Fincher falters with best-seller adaptation.

In Gone Girl, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, the recession strips a marriage down to its foundation, only to reveal the terrifying void upon which the relationship was built. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) are both unreliable narrators of that relationship, though one proves more unreliable than the other. The book alternates between perspectives, revealing in slanted increments the events leading up to Amy’s sudden disappearance from the Dunne’s Missouri home, and what follows. Fincher replicates this structure, moving between characters and time periods, offering the viewer puzzle pieces that aren’t really meant to fit together, or form a completed whole. Their disjunction is the point, part of the film’s perverse extension of a commonly held idea: that no two people, no matter how committed or how adorable, can ever really know each other.

Nick and Amy are certainly adorable. “We’re so cute, I want to punch us in the face,” Amy tells her husband, after it is discovered they have bought for each other the same set of 2000 threadcount sheets, their sex life being too good for anything less. At different points, both Amy and Nick verify as true the events depicted in flashbacks to their violently cute courtship. But the cloying quality of these early scenes, the sense of reality held hostage by an unwelcome sensibility, discredits the only thing about this relationship we’re meant to believe. In her fascinating dissection of Flynn’s book, Mary Gaitskill finds in the couple’s “smarty-pants chirping” an “extreme artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening.” Flynn adapted her book for the screen, it would appear without a sense of how completely film would expose the condition Gaitskill diagnoses—that of people speaking like sitcom characters. Fincher nearly drowns out the couple’s first meeting, where they match canned witticisms, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s artfully garbled, atonal score. “I can’t hear what they’re saying,” I whispered to my friend. “I don’t think it matters,” he whispered back.

“I feel like I’m watching a bad novel,” the same friend said, a little later on. Millions of Flynn’s Gone Girl fans would, no doubt, loudly demur. David Fincher, the man who with The Social Network brought to unlikely, electric life the story of a web site, would seem well suited to such a tricky adaptation. He appears to have developed a taste for them—the trickier the better, as his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suggests. In Gone Girl his attraction to the project, co-produced by Reese Witherspoon, is most evident where the story suggests that its characters’ experience of madness only reflects the madness of the world in which they live. Much of the film is given over, as Nick becomes a suspect in Amy’s murder (no body is found), to the depiction of media bloodsport, public notoriety, and narrative as a kind of deadly weapon. Tyler Perry and Sela Ward appear as silk-spinning leaders of an information economy fueled by fear, innuendo, and camera-friendly victims.

But these are old and easy targets, and if he nails them pretty soundly (Perry in particular delivers a charismatic turn), Fincher doesn’t do enough to make them new. Perhaps because his attention is divided between Gone Girl’s prerogatives as media satire, police procedural, Polanski-esque thriller, post-modern portrait of a marriage, and campy, Verhoeven-esque psycho-bitch symphony in the key of Blonde. Not surprisingly, the tone and pacing are all over the place, and Gone Girl struggles to build a world with its own, immersive logic, sense of incident, and robust sources of energy.

"These are old and easy targets, and Fincher doesn’t do enough to make them new."

As in the earliest scenes, I keep bouncing out of the film, only to be pulled back in—often by Pike’s wily, magnetic performance—then bounced back out again. Parts of the film drag, not least the section following the summary resolution of Amy’s disappearance. After two hours (the film is 149 minutes), the film’s refusal to engage seriously, or in any interesting depth, with its themes moves from frustrating into plain deadening. More sleek than smart, Gone Girl gestures toward existential (“He took and took from me,” Amy claims, “until I no longer existed”) and practical problems of marriage, as well as Amy’s sense of herself as a character with infinite recourse (traced back to inspiring her author mother’s “Amazing Amy” books), but doesn’t pursue its best ideas to absorbing or meaningful ends.

The things that interested me most felt like byproducts of the story’s main action. “Everybody’s projecting their shit onto me,” Nick complains in the wake of his tabloid celebrity. Affleck swears a lot in Gone Girl, showing in private the profane flipside of Nick’s handsome, all-American persona. Numerous scenes of Nick grappling with a tempestuous public benefit from Affleck’s uneasy balance, often a liability for the actor, of stiffness and swagger. I was less happy to track to extent to which Gone Girl projects its shit onto Amy, who by the end of the film is revealed to be a stone cold murderer—of both a supporting character and the film’s only sustained metaphor. Pike is a fascinating actress, and she does her best with what feels like a misguided take on her character, who after making a lucid enough case for herself, rises as the leader of the film’s wack pack of crazy or just silly women. Gone Girl’s clearest perspective on marriage is also its most insultingly cliché.