‘Gone Girl’ examines perceptions we make with stories we tell — a film review
October 4, 2014
“Where perception is, there also are pain and pleasure, and where these are, there, of necessity, is desire.” –Aristotle
There are two things you need to know about Gone Girl before going in to enjoy this movie. The first: it’s about a young woman who goes missing in a small town, and the husband is suspect. The second, nothing is really what it might seem to be. Now, that last point can mean many things, and because spoiling the plot of this film seems so sacrilegious, most of this review will focus on the latter without saying much about the story except its intentions to reveal a certain existential, grim truth about couples: how no one can ever truly know the other — a trap that the pair could either fall into or transcend.
The myth that intimacy between lovers gives them the power to read the other’s mind is demystified pretty early in Gone Girl. In flashback, the two lovers at the center of the film, Nick and Amy (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), exchange presents: the same bed sheets. Amy makes a sarcastic comment about how endearing they must appear. Indeed this is a film not about the cute couple whose members think alike, but the appearances of the individuals in the relationships, the players who reach and shape behavior so they might appear acceptable to the other. Furthering that, the film questions the repercussions of such behavior on the interior of these people. Well, according to director David Fincher and novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, it can rot them should they become slaves to them.
Fincher is perfect for adapting this huge hit of a book by Flynn, who closely collaborated with the director to realize her 18-million-plus bestseller for the big screen. The film is a showcase for the cinematic details Fincher — one of Hollywood’s few auteurs — so painstakingly often highlights. Dilated pupils stand out without resorting to ultra close-up shots. Beyond the usual dark cinematography featuring a pallet of grays, blues, silvers and browns, there is also the darkness in the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who have become regulars of the Fincher aesthetic. The flashbacks featuring Nick and Amy engaging in their games of seduction are given an undercurrent of dread with swelling synthesizers that recalls the work of Angelo Badalamenti for David Lynch.
It all successfully serves to sustain an atmosphere of nothing-is-what-it-seems throughout the film, and Fincher can mess with perception so grandly. Those who know this probably noticed the final note of The Social Network or the overall feeling of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac or even the heavy-handed revelation at the end of Fight Club. But no film in Fincher’s oeuvre has ever so blatantly considered manipulation of perception, both conscious and unconscious, so consistently, from one scene to another than Gone Girl.
After five years of marriage, Nick cannot seem to maintain the convincing face of a lover, which must make him guilty of the disappearance of his pretty young wife. Plot twists are revealed with a heightened sense of self-awareness that come across as almost satirically comical. But these instances are just plot elements that invite the viewer to examine how human beings relate to one another. All Gone Girl wants to do is mess with perception, from one scene to the next. Even the film’s title harbors a double meaning.
Early in the film, before Amy is declared missing, Nick sits at a bar and shares a drink with the barmaid (Carrie Coon). There’s an intimacy between them that makes the audience wonder. Why is he confiding in her about troubles in his marriage? Why is she giving him crude sex advice? It is not until a couple of scenes later that the film reveals that this barmaid is Nick’s sister, Margot. A bit later in the film, more information is revealed about her: she is his twin. The game of fact versus perception is played on the audience while revealing a relationship that begs inference of closeness. It signals to the audience that not everyone is ever truly who they might seem to be and some bonds may be too close to fully comprehend.
The significance of the truth of the relationship between Nick and Margot versus its initial presentations is key on a subtle level. For something more direct, one could also quote the film’s opening monologue by Nick, but it’s so good it’s not worth spoiling. Just understand that Gone Girl will be dense with scenes that call attention to people who try to alter how others might see them, and the audience is often invited in on the joke. For instance, as the investigation into Amy’s disappearance begins, Margot tells Nick the next day not to shower so he might look like he was up all night. Still, even the bond between a twin brother and sister cannot be fully knowable. Before his first press conference she watches him basically bullshit on the phone. Responding to her WTF expression, he says, “I was trying to put on a good face.”
There are flashbacks that present Nick and Amy as both playing roles in seducing the other while also trying to figure out what lies below. We learn they met at a party. Their conversation is full of easy-going banter but also lots of questions. At one point, Nick asks her flat-out, “Amy, who are you?” She gives him a trio of choices, two of which are false and one… well, not so false. When he pays her a compliment, she wonders about the sincerity of his statement coming from a face with a “sinister” cleft chin, so he covers it up with two fingers and repeats himself adding “no bullshit,” a character tick that will appear twice more in the film as he pursues her. These are not genuine people, no matter who they claim to be. They are indeed putting on masks. They are trying roles that might please the other and bring them closer. It’s the dating game, and it’s happened for eons.
Ultimately, no matter what anyone says or how they behave, no one outside that person can ever truly, honestly nor fully understand the other. These are not characters in a traditional sense of movies asking you to sympathize with them. They invite you in and dare you to relate with them in an incriminating way. There is also a meta layer of awareness that calls attention to the actors playing people trying play roles. Affleck famously suffered some flak last year when, during his Oscar acceptance speech, he called marriage “work” while giving credit to his wife, the actress Jennifer Garner. In Gone Girl, Amy writes in her diary, “Everyone told us and told us, marriage is hard work,” underlining the last two words.
These characters are ultimately roles, and while we know the names of the actors who play these roles, reality is always deeper and more complex. It becomes hard to fault the film for any stereotyping of which it could be called guilty of. The media persecuted Affleck for his statement so much so that Garner had to come to his defense. It’s egotistical to think anyone knows what really happens in the Affleck/Garner household. No matter how we struggle to understand behavior, much less statements, what really happens remains obscure. Gone Girl plays with this dynamic between actions, motivations and reason in a playful way, both keeping mystery interesting while also amusingly going for some laughs of dramatic irony. It’s what keeps the nearly 2-and-a-half-hour-long movie interesting.
Fincher also has a wonderful cast to work with beyond the leads, which includes Neil Patrick Harris as Desi, a man with a romantic history with Amy, and Missi Pyle as a histrionic, judgmental Nancy Grace clone. Fincher and his regular casting director Laray Mayfield have also recruited a wonderful pair of actors for Amy’s parents. David Clennon and Lisa Banes embrace their roles of not just the parents of Amy the human being but the creators of her alter ego “Amazing Amy,” a character in a popular series of children’s books inspired by Amy. She’s both real and an idealized figment for these parents, who come across as contriving in a superficially sincere way. Banes is even made up heavily to look as though she is wearing a mask.
The film is rich with all this stuff. The popular news media, which is well known to pick and choose what missing persons story to follow, is also shown little mercy. The pop culture media machine eats up information like the superficial voracious recycling machine it is, and Gone Girl presents it on the superficial level it deserves. In Gone Girl, facts of course matter little. Facts only get in the way of assumptions, expectations and bias. Who needs honest inquisitiveness that might allow for a peak below the surface at what lies beneath, which only complicates perception? Looking below the surface is often complicated and messy. It tears down clear-cut heroes and villains. It means cracking open the skull of a surface you might love, to poke in the messy brains below the pretty surface. No one really wants to see and understand that … do they?
Gone Girl runs 149 minutes and is rated R (there’s bloody, gory violence, nudity and adult language). It opens pretty much everywhere today. Find screening times and places here. 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening Thursday night for the purpose of this review.