Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl: A thriller for the ages

Gone Girl (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual content and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.3.14

Thrillers rarely get the respect they deserve.

Oh, sure; it’s a popular genre that sells plenty of tickets, but such public approbation is viewed with suspicion and scorn, when it comes time to hand out awards. The implication is that thrillers represent empty, pop-culture calories unworthy of serious recognition. Academy Awards go to historical dramas and intimate character pieces.

Back in the day, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) enjoyed a storybook
courtship in their beloved New York City surroundings, notably the bookstores both loved
to frequent. Sadly, many relationships cannot survive a crisis ... and this one is about to
be hit by several.
Oscar hasn’t given its Best Picture prize to a thriller since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.

That may be about to change.

Director David Fincher’s masterful handling of Gone Girl is much, much more than an impeccable translation of its wildly popular source novel (so rest easy, readers; I’m sure you’ll be pleased). This also is a tour de force of cinematic craft: one of those rare films that ingeniously utilizes every aspect of movie-making magic.

Fincher masterminds each detail with the meticulous scrutiny of a master conductor who pays careful attention to every last instrument, even those that play but a single note during an entire symphony. This is bravura filmmaking at its finest.

Fincher wisely has surrounded himself with a talented cadre of actors, all flawlessly cast, and an equally accomplished production crew. Then, too, he has the advantage of working with novelist Gillian Flynn, a first-time screenwriter who has adapted her own book with the same cunning that turned it into a page-turning best-seller.

Even capable novelists don’t always make good screenwriters; they’re entire different sciences. Flynn, clearly, is adept at both.

And that’s what it comes down to: All the aforementioned talent would be wasted, were the core narrative not up to snuff. Flynn’s storyline is mesmerizing, and not just for its deliciously twisty — even macabre — thrillers elements. She also unerringly skewers contemporary society’s bread-and-circuses infatuation with the mindless media “talking heads” who scurry like rats from one overblown crisis to the next, passing judgment without attempting even the most basic research legwork.

Because, at the end of the day, too many of us prefer such vacuous glitter and glitz, and get a vicarious thrill out of feeling superior to the maligned victim of the moment.

This particular victim-in-waiting is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), whom we meet on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary: a milestone that doesn’t bring the pleasure one would expect from a guy who, he always insists, enjoyed a deliriously happy courtship and subsequent marriage with Amy (Rosamund Pike). Instead, as Nick strolls into the downtown bar that he co-owns with twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), he seems ... troubled. Not quite himself.

A neighbor calls; Nick and Amy’s cat seems to have gotten out of their house. Nick returns home, restores their feline friend to indoor safety, and then spots an unsettling mess of upended furniture and broken glass in the living room. And Amy is nowhere to be found.

Point of view is important in this story, so pay close attention to precisely who sees what, and when.

Nick immediately summons the police, drawing Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit). We detect the whiff of prejudicial class consciousness that quickly will turn Nick’s world into a living nightmare. Even in his initial confusion, on this puzzling morning, Nick radiates a bit of the entitled arrogance that often comes from a New York sophisticate transplanted to the small Midwestern town of Carthage (actually Cape Girardeau, Mo.).

Gilpin hates him on sight, and doesn’t try to hide it; Boney adopts a more even-handed attitude, but even her eyes carry hints of skepticism ... and perhaps a little contempt.

This early scene demonstrates the impeccable acting and subtle character shading that Fincher exploits throughout the entire film: Every interaction, every conversation, is just as fascinating for what doesn't get said, as for what people actually discuss.

Fincher and Flynn intercut these unfolding details with flashbacks drawn from the chronological entries in Amy’s diary: personal observations and candid confessions that chart the disheartening course of their apparently picture-perfect marriage ... which has crumbled much the way the recent economic downturn destroyed the American dream for so many small towns such as Carthage.

The union certainly begins well, from their initial meet-cute encounter to the obvious delight each draws from the silly little “couples games” that we all play.

Ah, yes: games and gamesmanship. This story is littered with them. Nick and Margo while away slow times at the bar by playing Mastermind and The Game of Life (perhaps too deliberately pointed, that last one). Amy loves to observe their wedding anniversaries by orchestrating treasure hunts for Nick. How far should we take this metaphor?

Surrounding details are somewhat more interesting. Amy actually is quite famous, but for reasons having nothing to do with her personally. Her parents — David Clennon and Lisa Banes, as Rand and Marybeth — strip-mined her childhood in a series of Amazing Amy kid-lit books about a perfect little girl who excelled at whatever the actual Amy attempted. Real-world Amy, like any other adolescent, flitted from one interest to another; Amazing Amy always became the smartest kid in class, the best player on the team.

Thus, Amy has grown up in the shadow of her fictitious self, an unusual fate from which Nick cheerfully rescued her, much to her relief.

The problem, however, is that Amy — as the personification of Amazing Amy — has been media bait her entire life. Her troubling disappearance therefore becomes headline news, flooding Carthage with reporters, microphones and vans sporting remote-feed satellites. And as one day missing stretches into two, then three, Nick’s every move is scrutinized beyond anybody’s ability to endure.

Because the media vultures know what Boney also knows: When a wife goes missing, chances are the spouse is involved.

A press conference is called; Rand and Marybeth plea eloquently for any information about their daughter, while Nick stumbles clumsily through a much shorter comment. Then, at somebody’s suggestion, he stands awkwardly next to a massive photo of his wife, eventually succumbing to a nervous smile that flashes only briefly.

And we know, watching from the audience, that that will be the frame-grab splashed across tabloid headlines: a “candid” shot of the transplanted big-city husband, smiling broadly because his wife is out of his life.

What follows next is inevitable, because people are so willing to devour their own.

Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick: so much so that it seems Flynn must have had him in mind, when writing her novel. Even at rest, Affleck radiates privileged, puffed-up preppy-hood; there’s just something about him that rubs most folks the wrong way. Despite all indications that Nick must be innocent, we tend to share Gilpin’s snap judgment: Indications be damned, this guy is wrong.

And, truth be told, we really can’t be sure ... because Affleck does give off that dodgy vibe. Why was he with his sister in their bar, so early on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary?

It’s tempting to wonder if Affleck is drawing some of this performance from his own life, hearkening back to the humiliating public treatment he endured a decade or so ago, while hooked up with Jennifer Lopez. If so, thespic revenge must be sweet.

Pike, one of the very few actresses to break the curse that afflicts former Bond babes, has come a long way since 2002’s Die Another Day. She definitely surprised folks with the subtle complexity of her not-so-dumb-after-all supporting role in 2009’s An Education, then demonstrated similar range in Made in Dagenham while confirming her comedy chops in The World’s End.

Her work here is transcendent: a true, star-making role. Amy sparkles during courtship, displaying an effervescent sophistication — while suitably armed with Flynn’s piquant one-liners — that makes her irresistible. Then, as time passes, the radiance fades, as if enshrouded by a layer of growing despair.

Pike’s performance is sublime in ways that cannot be discussed, lest key plot points be telegraphed. But do watch her eyes: She has the best slow take in the business.

As this twisty saga progresses, we can’t help thinking it seems so familiar, so 21st century: such a hideous blend of economic collapse and reflexive suspicion. Truth is, many of us are just one catastrophe — often financial — away from losing the ability to continue collaborating on a successful friendship or marriage. It’s simply too easy to withdraw, to lash out.

Which begs the obvious question: How much of ourselves do we truly reveal, even to intimates ... and could they stand a candid glimpse of the mind behind a cheerful grin?

Dickens is the epitome of perceptive intelligence and methodical police work; we just know that Boney will work her way around to the truth, no matter what the cost. Coon, a newcomer making her big-screen debut, is every inch the caring and devoted sibling. Tyler Perry is persuasively cool as a high-profile defense attorney who adores lost causes, and Missi Pyle is suitably horrific as an exploitative tabloid shrike determined to make Nick the most hated man in America.

Neil Patrick Harris, playing against type, is oddly — and quite effectively — sinister as a wealthy guy from Amy’s past.

Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Emily Ratajkowski and Boyd Holbrook are equally fine in smaller parts that, alas, I’m not at liberty to identify. (Spoilers, y’know.)

Fincher peels the protective layers away from all these characters with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, creating a progressively more disturbing atmosphere given even more nervous tension by the richly unsettling score from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. (They also collaborated on Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, winning a well-deserved Oscar for the latter.)

Like many of our best filmmakers, Fincher has long relied on the same collaborators. Thus, this unfolding depiction of mutual devotion gone slightly stale, if not rancid, gets much of its power from the similarly excellent work by editor Kirk Baxter, cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth and production designer Donald Graham Burt. In their hands, a setting such as Nick and Amy’s home — at first blush, an average upper-middle-class house — begins to feel impersonal, then mysterious, then sinister.

Everything comes together flawlessly, all the way up to a chilling fade-out guaranteed to deliver shudders. Fincher’s best films always have felt at least slightly Hitchcockian; he really nails it this time, perfectly displaying the elusive ability to wind us up, increasing the tension to what seems an unbearable level ... until it gets even worse.

This film invites — nay, demands — repeat viewing, the better to savor its sublimely executed subtleties.

Definitely a thriller for the ages.

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