“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?Margot 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.”

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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. movies-gone-girl-rosamund-pike-amy-dunneThey 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 IFlaughs 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?

Hans Morgenstern

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.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

To the Wonder posterI went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love.  Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.

Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.


It’s scenes like these— which are repeated, no less— instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.

Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over  he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However,  as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.


A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.

Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.

Hans Morgenstern

To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)