Gone Girl really is the ideal movie for David Fincher at this point in time. A stylist who transitioned from music videos to lurid, gloomy B-thrillers, he perfected his crime film aspirations with the deliriously good clinical descent into the mundane in Zodiac, an attempt at “serious-mindedness” that implicitly challenges all other so-called “serious-minded” films for their audience-baiting emotion. More than anything, it was a deeply cold film, a complete re-reading of every grandiose stylistic convention he’d use to make B-thrillers “fun” by taking the same kind of B-thriller and making it deliberately anti-fun to the core. Then, not one year later, he went “warm” with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an attempt at Oscar glory, followed by an actual success at Oscarbait with The Social Network (despite, you know, not winning the consummate Oscars, but those matter little anyway).
At this point, mainstream respect firmly in tow and an essential carte blanche to take on any project he wanted, he made the only logical decision: reclaim some of his lost genre “cred” while still capturing the hearts of milquetoast suburban parents everywhere, stealing the best of both worlds in the process. Thus came The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. 2014’s Gone Girl is more of the same, an attempt to marry the black-hearted twists of a mystery thriller with the respectable professionalism of an “important, serious film”. And like that 2011 film, it shows that the two genres exist at war with each other, rather than in unison.
Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy ( Rosamund Pike) Dunne have a seemingly functional, if less than ideal, suburban life in Missouri on the eve of their five year anniversary. Then Amy turns up missing and ever-anxious Nick, torn apart for his self-loathing laziness and, ultimately, how little he seems interested in her disappearance, ends up the prime suspect. Things go on from there but I’m told viewers at home don’t like spoilers, so I’ll just say things are not as they seem and that Fincher’s story is one of unreliable narration and polymorphous perspective swapping.
So first things first: Gone Girl is a very professional film. To be honest, it’s criminally professional, wholly indebted to its own professionalism in every shot and every cut and every line-reading down to its very bones. But here’s the thing: who in their right mind wanted David Fincher to be “professional”? Professional isn’t even the word. Respectable seems more apt, and if there’s anything a film with a scene where two people are having sex and one slits the other’s throat mid-coitus shouldn’t be, it’s respectable. What is competent becomes near-stifling, and that’s a thin line to boring. It sands off the edges. Now, this works well when Fincher self-consciously rejects his lurid tendencies with clinically, self-consciously antiseptic films like Zodiac, his best film, but Gone Girl does not remotely aim for a sort of intentionally cryptic inhumanity. It wants to be a fun time, but it’s wholly afraid to go down the rabbit hole. Just as Fincher devotes every single inch of his very conscious, studied framing and editing to making the film a slick, effective, dramatic thriller, each shot and cut keeps the film so rigidly committed to its own base functionality it can’t really ever take a stab at something within spitting distance of energy or depraved fun. He is wholly uninterested in letting loose and wrecking the joint a little, and that’s exactly what trivial pap like this demands. Gone Girl is so indebted to the crisp efficiency of its narrative mechanics that any texture or resonance which might embed itself deep within or just outside this narrative cannot present it. The film is swallowed by a shroud of seriousness, by Fincher’s too-carefully-calibrated, technically-adept but essentially perfunctory, ultimately mechanical orchestration.
Admittedly, the first half of the film trucks down the path of social drama quite nicely, if never tremendously. Nick is a middlebrow sort, a milquetoast husband that manages to be less invested in each new thing coming his way than he was for the last. He’s living the day-to-day doldrums like his life depended on it, and when leers are pointed his way the film approximates a thoughtful understanding of the modern male and it’s privileged, entitled ignobility. However, without spoiling anything, it all washes away in a second-half that wholly undoes anything the film builds up. The film eventually tries to maintain a certain detached neutrality between parties to avoid genderism (but still manages to be vaguely misogynist, kept from being seriously misogynist only because that would require a certain commitment to a perspective or passion, even if a less-than-moral one, and the film can’t be bothered to be passionate about much of anything). It seems deeply uninterested in the verve or kitsch that could come from taking a side, and in particular the joy that could come from really making consummate nice-guy Affleck out to be a real dirt-bag of serious suspicion. It lacks the chills and thrills then, striving for a sort-of restrained intellectualism without any actual intellectual clout worth studying. Which would be fine if it didn’t do so while also sacrificing the icy grip of disintegrating humans that made Zodiac such a stunningly desperate procedural. Watching Gone Girl is like watching the first half of Zodiac morph into the Grand Guignol of Seven, while still curiously trying to let us think Zodiac still has a place left as it sputters toward it’s conclusion. It’s a “serious” film without the depth, and a low-brow one without the chaotic kick.
There are some nice touches though. Best of all, Fincher at least understands the golden-rule of narration: realize it’s a bad idea, and use it this way. The film foregrounds a number of relationship rise-and-fall flashbacks told from Anne’s perspective, and Pike narrates them all like that annoying friend that just won’t leave. Her voice positively drips over every frame, infecting everything with a snidely superciliousness, a caustic cheekiness. Her narration’s obvious artifice doesn’t seem a spoiler, for it’s obviously intentional, and completely apparent from the beginning. In her smarmy, “I’m a writer, look at me” prose that just begs self-indulgent egotism with every drop, there is positively no way to see the flashbacks as anything but the work of bad fiction, insisting upon its own clever-ness at every turn. Fincher’s too-crisp direction pointedly conveys this too; he films the past like a false affectation, a bad harlequin novel having a one-night-stand with every over-worked word. Even then though, the film wanders in between a rock and a hard place with no way out: either the obvious fakery of the flashbacks follows through and we know well in advance exactly where the plot will go, or the scenes are lying to us about lying to us and the whole idea of using flashbacks and narration becomes stunningly purposeless. I won’t say which direction Fincher goes, but it’s a no-win situation to begin with, even if a fascinating one.
Over the past few years we’ve seen a slew of films attempting to uneasily bridge the lurid thriller and the Oscar hopeful and coming up deeply confused about the results. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may still be the most famous (Prisoners was last year’s morose entry). Each of these films, in their own way, hired “somber tone” when they wanted “depth and nuance”. At the same time, they can’t really dance with the devil because all the edges must be squared off to keep their “legitimacy” in tact. Gone Girl is merely the most recent of these, but it is perhaps the epitome of the form. Like those films, it wants to have its deliciously perturbed cake and eat its somber Important Film drama too. Faced between the high-brow and low-brow, legitimate options both, Gone Girl chooses the worst: straight up the middle. Gone Girl is controlled, composed supremely classical entertainment, but like other faux-exploitation films from the past decade – Black Swan, Dragon Tattoo – it cannot shake off the fact that, smoke and mirrors aside, it’s little more than prestige-baiting comfort food cinema, bearing the superficial mountings of but none of the soul, style, or sensibility of genuine filth.