Monday, October 20, 2014

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

Happy together

David Fincher's Gone Girl is the kind of film that (once the theater lights go up) makes you want to take your wife into your arms and say: "I love you, I want to take care of you, I will never leave you. I promise." 

Something's inevitably lost in the translation from print to screen,  in this case Flynn's cut-gem comic prose, the witty way she arranges the chapter titles ("Nick Dunne The Day Of;" "Amy Elliott January 8, 2005;" "Nick Dunne The Night Of;" "Amy Elliott Dunne April 21, 2009"), interleaved so that you quickly grasp the structure: Nick's story (his wife Amy's disappearance, what happens after) told in present time, Amy's (her introduction and marriage to Nick, what happens after) told in flashback. Fincher does approximate the leisurely rhythms of Flynn's story, captures how the plot blooms like an origami swan being slowly unfolded, revealing how it all comes together--a lovely piece of prestidigitation, in print and on the big screen.

Of course most of the film involves that process of unfolding, which if we're to deal with in any substantial manner we need to talk about explicitly, plot twists, surprise ending and all. So for those who haven't seen the film yet--here there be tygers.

The first half I'd call the more resonant: Amy and Nick's marriage disintegrating under the double blows of the internet revolution (where print media and its writers and critics (particularly in film) either moved online or are laid off en masse) and the '08 recession. Flynn had lived through those times, and the despair captured in her pages feels real--may be one of the better portraits of the period in recent pop fiction. 

Fincher's film doesn't do as vivid a job, but much of that anxiety can be found on the face of Ben Affleck's Nick. As in Hollywoodland, Affleck draws on his insecurities as an actor too smart and self-conscious to be comfortable with his bland handsomeness (don't you get the sense that what he really wants to do is comedy?) to create a sharp, funny portrait of a man too smart and self conscious to be comfortable with his too-perfect marriage. Every public fumble, every faked smile he flashes at the camera confirms his innocence--only someone with no idea what's really going on can be this obviously guilty.

By contrast Amy's diary entries are the very definition of fairy tale, from the meet-cute (standing near a bakery, sugar swirling round like a Hollywood-style snowfall, Nick wipes the powder from Amy's lips preparatory to kissing her) to the marriage proposal (in a scene not found in the novel Nick points out to reporters at a book launching party the central flaw in Amy's life, and promptly corrects it). 

Gone Girl is really Nick's story--the matrimonial dolt who ultimately realizes that the resolution of his direst problems and realization of his dearest dreams do not necessarily result in perfect happiness--but the motor driving the story is Amy, who when all is said and done doesn't make much sense. Would a schemer so meticulous in planning every detail be so careless as to stuff her moneybelt under a motel mattress--allow it to drop at the most inconvenient moment? Would she risk arrest and a murder charge to avoid a man she didn't love (wouldn't she rather marry him, keep him under her capable thumb--maybe enjoy Nick on the side as a lover?)? Both novel and film--the film more than the novel--are a satire on the media, but isn't her dramatic return to her husband too much to swallow, even for TV news hosts? Sure the twists exist within the realm of possibility (roughly), but every turn of events has the narrative's front fender corners grinding excruciatingly against concrete.

Fincher's choice of Rosamund Pike as Amy goes a long way to addressing the problem--as Amy, Pike embodies the character's contradictions with an enchanting enigmatic grace (Fincher in an interview admits that what intrigued him about her was his failure--despite a self-declared ability to decipher others' expressions--to read her face). The character still doesn't make sense, but that quality of Pike--that you can look at her as often and hard as you like (Fincher begins and ends the film with a closeup) and still not feel you know her at all--makes the lack relatively inconsequential somehow

Fincher takes his cue from Amy and creates an elegant, vaguely menacing visual style--not just the open McMansion doorway Nick confronts before walking in but also the grubby motel where Amy hides (when someone comes knocking you know the outcome won't be good), and the superluxurious lake home where Amy's former lover Desi (Neal Patrick Harris, in a hilariousl creepy-pathetic supporting role) keeps her as guest/prisoner, complete with unblinking security monitors (nice Fincher touch--fact is, the various onscreen habitations effectively fill in the cracks in their owners' respective personalities). The novel might be Nick's story but the film tells that story as if Amy sat in the director's chair, marshaling every element (must mention Jeff Cronenweth's velvety cinematography) with confident ease.

Is it Fincher's best work? Don't think so--despite the stylishness, the clever plotting, the wonderful cast (Tyler Perry as a cunning Johnnie Cochrane lawyer, Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister Margo, Lola Kirke as a cunning Ozarks girl, Missi Pyle as a grating Nancy Grace parody); despite the devastatingly filmed and scored finale (also need to mention Trenton Reznor and Atticus Ross' unsettlingly discordant music) that both cynically parodies and bitterly affirms boy-stays-with-girl romantic endings, the film doesn't have the sprawling true-life messiness and mystery of Zodiac, (arguably Fincher's masterpiece) recognizably grounded in '70s San Francisco; it doesn't have the methodical step-by-step, piece-by-piece investigative process memorably depicted in Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake (while Rooney Mara doesn't hold a candle to Noomi Rapace's fire-breathing original she's still more persuasive than Pike's Amy). Gone Girl after all is said and done is the hollow shell of an art film; that said, it's one hell of an entertainingly seductive shell. 

First published in Businessworld, 10.9.14

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