Gone Girl Goes Grim

Though director David Fincher may over-Fincher-ize somewhat, he delivers a sleek, faithful adaptation of the bestselling thriller.

20th Century Fox

“The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” The voice is Ben Affleck’s, and the image on the screen is the back of a woman’s head resting on a pillow—his wife’s head. She is blonde, and even before she turns to face the camera, we know she will be beautiful. (She is, after all, played by Rosamund Pike.) It all might make for a touching opening to the film Gone Girl, if only Affleck’s conjugal musings did not take this unpromising turn: “I imagine cracking open her head, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.” Umm, maybe better just to ask?

Affleck plays Nick Dunne, the husband; Pike plays Amy Elliott-Dunne, the wife; and the fate of her pretty head—along with the rest of her—is the central mystery of David Fincher’s faithful, intriguing adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s gazillion-selling novel.

Like the book, the film tells its story, for a while at least, in the form of two interwoven strands of he-said/she-said: the narrative DNA of an unraveling marriage. We watch as Nick, on the morning of the couple’s fifth anniversary, goes to the bar he co-manages with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), for a far-too-early whiskey. When he returns to his home—a lifeless McMansion in depressed North Carthage, Missouri—his wife is missing, and there are signs of a struggle. He calls the police, and two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) arrive to conduct an investigation that leads, inevitably, to Nick himself. Does he seem insufficiently concerned about Amy’s disappearance? How can he be so clueless regarding her daily life? Why doesn’t he even know her blood type? And what’s with that shit-eating grin he seems incapable of suppressing?

Nick’s story of loss (perhaps?) or murder (perhaps?) alternates with Amy’s version of events, though the events in question are not the same. Rather she describes, in diary-entry flashbacks, their backstory: the years-long tick-tock of how she and Nick wound up unhappily-ever-after in the North Carthage McMansion. Their relationship begins, after all, with vastly more promise and glamor, a sizzling romance in magazine-world Manhattan. Nick writes for a men’s mag; Amy creates personality quizzes. They meet at a hipster party, where he promises that he’s “the guy to save you from all this awesomeness.” “It’s hard to believe you,” she tells him, adding tartly, “I think it’s the chin.”

Their early days are a whirlwind of spectacular sex and clever in-jokes. But then the recession hits, and both their magazine jobs are downsized out of existence. Amy’s substantial inheritance—the product of the “Amazing Amy” books written by her psychologist parents, who transmuted her childhood into a lucrative franchise—becomes dramatically less substantial when said parents, deep in debt, ask for her trust fund back. Things only get worse when Nick’s mom gets cancer and they move out to Missouri, where he grew up, to help. Soon enough, they find themselves stuck there: semi-jobless, almost friendless, watching their resentments multiply like a plague.

Had things gotten bad enough for Nick to kill Amy? Had they possibly gotten even worse? In deference to readers unfamiliar with Flynn’s novel, I will reveal none of its many twists or turns. For the rest, I will offer reassurance that they are all reproduced onscreen with only modest tweaks and tinkers. The script, by Flynn herself, retains many of the novel’s wickedest lines (Margo’s recommendation on what Nick ought to give Amy for that fifth—i.e., “wood”—anniversary is there in all its obscene splendor) and on occasion, a gag is even sharpened, as with the envelope marked “Clue One.”

As Nick, Affleck gives a better performance than he has in years. He’s always tended toward a certain onscreen reticence, and here that ambiguity serves him well: Is he smarmy or awkwardly overcompensating? A cold-blooded killer or a hapless hubby? The role of Amy represents a still bigger break for Pike, who made her feature-film debut at the lowest ebb of Bond-dom in Die Another Day, and has since often been forced to rise above such fare as Wrath of the Titans and Jack Reacher. (She also made the most of her limited opportunities in last year’s excellent The World’s End.) The role of Amy is trickier even than that of Nick, with the possible moral poles she might inhabit still more distant: Is she the perfect wife? Or calculatedly pretend-perfect? Without giving anything away, I will say that Pike brings off the difficult role with admirable poise, and I expect the quality of the scripts landing on her agent’s desk to improve commensurately.

The supporting cast is comparably excellent. Tyler Perry has a charming, charismatic turn as Tanner Bolt, all-star attorney for beleaguered husbands. Dickens (especially) and Fugit are first-rate as Detectives Boney and Gilpin. And Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) is so good as Nick’s sister Margo ("Go," for short) that I can scarcely imagine her in another role. The quality continues all the way down to the minor characters—notable are Sela Ward as a cable TV host and Missi Pyle as a not-at-all subtle stand-in for Nancy Grace—with one glaring, and especially disappointing, exception. I stand behind no one in my fondness for Neil Patrick Harris. But the character he plays, a former boyfriend of Amy’s named Desi Collings, was problematic in the book and here verges on camp.

Fincher’s direction is exactly as one might expect, and this is for the most part a very good thing. The meticulous control of narrative detail that he brought to past thrillers (Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his masterpiece, Zodiac) is very much on display, as is his knack for gradually increasing pressure until the movie is almost painfully distended with suspense. In the sharp, crackling dialogue, there are echoes, too, of The Social Network. And the look of the film (shot by Fincher’s usual collaborator, Jeff Cronenweth) is clean and sleek, brimming with technique without calling attention to itself.

If there’s a complaint to be made—and it’s a relatively modest one—it’s that for all the technical skill of the movie’s Fincher-ization, something has been lost. This was, to a certain degree, inevitable: The chief pleasure of the book is Flynn’s funny, nasty, first-person prose, and while the film retains as much as is feasible, a good deal is nonetheless omitted or diminished. (The infamous “Cool Girl” riff is among the latter bits.) But even beyond the necessary contractions and translations, Fincher has upped the grimness of the story at a cost to its wit and singularity.

Indeed, this has become a bit of a pattern for the director: In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher focused on the sadism and sexuality at the expense of the procedural detective work; in House of Cards, he transformed British political satire into American political melodrama. With Gone Girl, too, there are moments when a lighter touch would have been more effective, in particular in the movie’s second half. Nothing was likely to rescue the Desi storyline, for instance; but ramping up the extreme violence certainly didn’t help. And the conclusion of the film would have played better if it had emphasized the implicit black comedy rather than the (by this point, somewhat over-the-top) creepiness.

But Fincher is as Fincher does. And what Fincher does better than almost anyone is create moody, meticulously crafted thrillers that straddle the divide between genre and art. Quibbles aside, that’s exactly what he’s done again with Gone Girl.