America generally doesn’t reward female artists for misanthropy. That makes the success of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl,” now adapted by the author into a script directed by David Fincher, all the more surprising.
But as popular as the novel is, it’s also proven quite divisive. While Flynn describes herself as a feminist and the book’s most memorable passage mocks the pressure on women to be “cool girls”, she depicts women lying about rape and domestic violence. Given recent news items about Ray Rice and other NFL players abusing their loved ones, this aspect of the film is bound to be even more controversial than it was in the book.
Although her prose style is fairly crude, Flynn’s worldview is closer to Patricia Highsmith or even Jim Thompson than Gloria Steinem. All the same, if one can appreciate classic femme fatales — or modern updates like Sharon Stone’s character in “Basic Instinct” — and see them as images of feminine power and rebellion, the same can be done for their counterparts in Flynn’s work.
Fincher’s sensibility, however, doesn’t cohere well with Flynn’s, even if she had a substantial amount of input into the film adaptation of “Gone Girl.”
“Gone Girl” begins on July 5th, the day Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing, possibly murdered, and he’s the prime suspect. Their relationship is sketched in from her perspective through diary entries, which flesh out their meeting in New York five years earlier and their initially happy marriage. Both writers, they lost their jobs and moved to New Carthage, Missouri, to take care of his sick mother. Although Amy is gone, she left behind a number of clues for Nick related to a game they always played about anniversary gifts. This time, though, they seem to offer hints about her disappearance. Aided by his sister, with whom he manages a bar, Nick makes some ill-advised public appearances at events aimed at motivating volunteers to find his wife.
Critic Adam Nayman aptly described Flynn’s novel as “brilliant trash.” The Fincher film that combo best describes is his disposable remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” His work has roots in pulp, to be sure — his reputation dates back to his serial killer opus “Seven.” But his style has a chill and a polish lacking from Flynn’s. In “Gone Girl,” Fincher favors dim lighting and static camera positions. (For much of the film, Nick gets up before the sun rises.)
The director doesn’t have much of a feel for ordinary Midwestern middle-class life and tends to turn homes into furniture warehouses. When he gets to switch to a rich character’s man cave, the relief is palpable. The goriest scene is genuinely startling, but it feels like slumming in slasher movie territory.
You’d have to blind to miss the way cable news fetishizes the disappearance of thin, pretty blonde girls and women — and mostly ignores those of everyone else. With an acidic edge, “Gone Girl” takes this on but offers up media satire so blunt that it overshoots the target. A woman approaches Nick, offers him a meal, and asks if she can take her photo with him. His answer ticks her off, and his “inappropriate” smile in the photo is dissected ad nauseam on cable news. “Gone Girl” captures the smugness and smarminess of such programs’ hosts, like Nancy Grace, and their conviction that they know who’s guilty even before a trial has begun — in this case, before Amy’s body has been found. It’s getting at something real, but it’s so heavy-handed about it that it doesn’t seem much smarter than its targets.
Part of the problem is that we don’t get to see enough of Nick’s hotshot lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) showing off his supposed brilliance at dealing with the media, although he appears on one brief TV segment and in a scene in which he coaches Nick before a TV interview.
“Gone Girl” tells the story of two sociopaths, one of whom has good reason to be angry at male misbehavior, locked in marriage with each other, a fate they richly deserve. The film imagines its characters slightly further along in their lives than the book’s disappointing ending, but it’s not much more satisfying. Still, some of its strongest moments come in its final 20 minutes, especially a shocking burst of violence that makes one question the reliability of one character’s perspective. Maybe Flynn’s feminism runs deep after all: you’re not likely to see an American film paint such an ugly picture of the institution of marriage again any time soon.
GONE GIRL | Directed by David Fincher | 20th Century Fox | Opens Oct. 3 citywide