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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014): Written by Gillian Flynn, directed by David Fincher.  Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Niel Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens.  Running Time: 149 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn. 

Rating: 3.5/4 



            I think I may as well throw up the spoiler warning right here and now, because Gone Girl is one of those movies that cannot be discussed on any level of detail without having to delve into at least some of the major, major story turns that make it such a viscerally effective thriller.  I will try to refrain from specifics as much as possible, but as I write this, I cannot make any guarantees.  For anyone reading this that has not yet had the brutal pleasure of seeing this film, suffice it to say that Gone Girl is a technical masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling framed with remarkable performances from its cast, and is without a doubt one of the year’s better films so far.  If you have not yet seen it, you need to make doing so a priority before it leaves theaters.  For anyone else who knows the gritty details and is ready to dive in with me, let us now turn to the review.   

            Ben Affleck stars as Nick, a frustrated, middle-class writer living out another mirage of the American Dream in a typical postcard-perfect suburban town in Missouri.  We know right away he’s frustrated, and angry, and depressed, as he waltzes in to the bar he runs with his non-identical twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), and asks for a drink at way-too-early-in-the-a.m.  Things then get a whole lot worse (and soon, a lot more dangerous) when he returns to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing, and the house looking as if someone carried out a not-so-convincing kidnapping scheme.  He immediately contacts the police, along with a detective named Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), and an investigation begins immediately. 

            The case does not stay small or local for very long.  It turns out that Amy was used by her oddly passively-manipulative parents as the poster child for a series of wildly popular children’s books during her growing up years called Amazing Amy.  As a result, Amy was already a minor child celebrity, and her disappearance (which very quickly starts to look like a murder case) becomes a national media phenomenon, reported on and followed by millions.  Nick and his sister are besieged by reporters camping outside the house, news pundits take turns trying to find increasingly mundane and insipid details about Nick obsess over, and all the while, an indefatigable Rhonda tries to put together the increasingly odd pieces of the puzzle.  

            From the start, Nick proclaims his innocence, but a series of increasingly strange and, in some cases, mind-jarringly bizarre developments make him more and more suspect in the eyes of both the public and the law.  While we see the present investigation and trial through his eyes, the past is revealed to us only through scattered bits of narrative journal entries done by Rosamund Pike in voiceover.  And it is in those moments, combined with the slow-burning editing, shadow-filled cinematography, and the eerie, heartbeat-like tones and rhythms of the score (more excellent work by Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross) that truly force the audience to question; is this case really as it seems?  Is anything? 

            Most movies bill themselves on a single, very basic premise- that what the main characters say on-screen (and what the editing, camerawork, and use of music suggest) is essentially the Truth, i.e., when a character proclaims their innocence, they are innocent (unless they have pedophilic facial hair and say it over a dissonant, harsh chord in the score, in which case we know they’re lying).  As a result, we can’t help but have certain expectations when seeing any and all that movies that, for the most part at least, what we see (and hear) is what we get. 

            And it is therein that the brilliance of Gone Girl lies.  Like many other great cinematic twisters, this film goes out of its way (at times breaking the bonds of rationality and logic to do so) to take each expectation we are provided with the start, flip it on its head, spin it around, and then toss it back in our face.  Then, it does it again, and for good measure it does it a few more times before finally calling it quits.  It is a commitment of a film to sit through, but the payoff is well worth it simply for the number of times the movie pulls another narrative rabbit out of the hat you probably should have seen coming but, in all likelihood, didn’t. 

            The first great fakeout (and it is here that all must fully heed my Spoiler Alert above), comes somewhere around the middle.  Up ‘til now, the story had presented itself as a not-too-complicated mystery about whether or not Nick actually did the deed.  The culmination of this segment is a properly spine-tingling shot of Nick, after having a sudden realization, finding his sister’s shed full of luxury items he has been accused of ordering, but had never actually ordered himself.  I don’t think I can adequately convey how much the scene chilled me (the frantic nature of the segment music had a lot to do with that).  And the movie immediately starts the one-upping of itself immediately afterwards, by revealing to us that not only was Amy not kidnapped, or murdered, but that she had merely faked her death.  Not only that, she had been planning to do so for ages, and set everything up with the express purpose of having Nick be accused and sentenced to death for her murder. 

            It is the first of a great many upendings, nearly all of which center around the increasingly awful depths to which Amy has sunk in the past, and can and is willing to sink in order to achieve…..actually, it’s rather opaque what it is, exactly, that she wants.  Does she just want adventure?  Does she want to forge her own brand of celebrity, one not controlled by her emotionally wooden parents?  Does she just want petty revenge for the fact that her marriage to Nick never ended up being as spectacularly perfect as it was in the beginning?  Was she always this deceitful, or has she been warped years of trying to live up to societal expectations of what a “real woman” is like?  Like with any great movie, we are offered no answers.  We merely see the end product- a bitter and merciless person that manipulates and brutalizes others out of sheer instinct.  Amy is one of the most fascinating and compulsively watchable villains to appear on-screen in years, and Rosamund Pike is likely an early contender for award nominations come January. 

            Unless, that is, the carrions of controversy scare off the Academy wildebeests, as they are often wont to do.  I consider Amy to be the villain (or at least the primary antagonist in a den of antagonists) of this work, but as I write this, debate is raging over whether or not her character (or even the film as a whole) could be labeled misogynistic by portraying a woman so evil, that it could justify or reinforce sexist or anti-feminist views of many men (and perhaps even of women as well).  One of the major justifications Amy provides for her actions (at least, her actions towards Nick) is how, once they were married, he seemed to very quickly lose interest in her as a person, quickly expecting her to carry all the weight around the house and becoming a deadbeat once he lost his job.  She speaks with barely contained fury over being “used” for sex, and tossed aside once Nick was finished with her.  Her rant against the expected roles set aside by men for women, and the ways she and other housewives are shoehorned into them, while unable to excuse many of her actions (remember, she is actively trying to get an innocent man sent to death row), makes her far more than just a ball of pure evil, and it certainly makes her more complex than I think some critics have taken her to be. 

            That, however, doesn’t touch on perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of her character; namely, that she frames several men for rape, causing one to be marked for society by life, and another to be….well, that’s one of the twists I feel I should not spoil.  Given the continuing problems college campuses, professional sports, and other areas of public awareness have of effectively dealing with rape, and considering how so, so often the defense of rapists is to cast doubt on the motivations of the women making accusations, I can understand entirely why this would set people off.  The last thing any decent-minded person wants is to provide more fodder, however unintentionally, for the ignorant misogynists of the world.  With that said, my interpretation of said moments was that they were intended to merely highlight how drastic Amy was willing to become in order to achieve whatever twisted end she wanted, and not to be connected to any broader discussion of how actual rape cases are treated.  But, given the movie’s ambiguity about so much, misinterpretation is fairly easy, and here too I can’t blame some for seeing the film in a harsher light as a result.  . 

            It must be remembered, though, that Amy’s level of monstrosity is merely a question of degrees.  She happens to reach lower than anyone else on-screen, but it would be a gross mistake to let that absolve the others.  Margo may be the only character on-screen who comes across as anything approaching a decent human being; Nick himself, while quite clearly not a murderer or rapist, is an adulterer, a loafer, coarse and prone to aggression; Amy’s parents seem emotionally dead whenever they’re on-screen; the detective strives for the truth but is clearly eager for the evidence to turn a certain way; the lawyer Nick eventually retains lauds his ability to rescue the innocent from the jaws of the often all-too-blind legal system, but makes no bones about bragging about his 100k retainer fee for doing so.   

            Although, now that I really think about it, perhaps the obviousness of making Amy out to be the villain is yet another red herring tossed our way, because in so many respects, the true force of darkness on display is us.  The people watching and obsessing over every single twist and turn in the case, fueling purely speculative and mean-spirited journalism, chanting hate speech to Nick one day and cheering his Perfect And Awesome Happy End the next, and gathering outside his bar every evening to take selfies (which were probably promptly uploaded to Facebook with the hashtag Killerpub), much like the audience gazing at Leonardo DiCaprio at the very end of The Wolf of Wall Street, are us.  How many murder trials and how many disappearances have we collectively obsessed over, simply to abandon thinking about them ever again once a) no clear answers were ever provided, or b) the incident ended “properly?”  I can remember more than I ever care to count.  We create the conditions that drive (or at least prod) people like Nick and Amy into believing, or perhaps simply wanting, to become falsified, artificial, superficial versions of themselves just for the sake of our approval.  Then, whenever shit really does hit the fan, we rant, and cheer, and rage, and take photos, and wonder tut-tuttingly how people could become so messed up. 

            This review has become far more extensive (and far more spoiler-filled) than originally planned, but I feel no regrets, because this movie is every bit as much of a think piece as some of this year’s other great works like Under The Skin and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  David Fincher is a technical genius at taking the most average and seemingly unnecessary shots and making them work together so tightly, and so seamlessly, that you can’t imagine the movie being stitched together any other way.  I don’t love it as much as I loved The Social Network, and it is by no means flawless- Amy only avoids a trial of her own through a spectacular jump in logic that causes a whole team of FBI agents to overlook some very massive holes in her story- but that is no matter, because the point of the movie isn’t to answer itself clearly or make straight statements.  It is there to make us jump, to make us laugh and cringe at the same time, and maybe – if we let it- cause us to look a little longer and little harder at ourselves the next time we pass a mirror. 


-Noah Franc 

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