'Gone Girl': Film Review

Expertly crafted entertainment, but falls short of Fincher's finest

David Fincher delivers a faithful adaptation of Gillian Flynn's mystery about a marriage turned sour

This is one instance in which a writer won't be able to complain about what the movies have done to her book. With a screenplay by the novelist herself, David Fincher's film of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's twisty, nasty and sensational best-seller, is a sharply made, perfectly cast and unfailingly absorbing melodrama. But, like the director's adaptation of another publishing phenomenon, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, three years ago, it leaves you with a quietly lingering feeling of: “Is that all there is?”

With a huge built-in audience of readers, this immaculately crafted film will give both book loyalists and general viewers a jolting good time, spelling strong box office beginning Oct. 3 after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 26.

See more: 11 Big Book-to-Big Screen Adaptations

In a rare instance of a novelist being permitted to adapt her own book for the screen, Flynn has done a fine job of boiling her cleverly structured story down to the essentials, doing the necessary trimming but retaining everything her fans will want to see. Despite published reports that major plot changes were being made, particularly in the third act, this simply isn't true; it's an extremely faithful adaptation of what is ultimately a withering critique of the dynamics of marriage.

Flynn’s fans, then, should be satisfied, as this is about as precise an onscreen representation of the work they love as they could wish for. For hardcore Fincher fanatics, however, it may be a slightly different story. His great talent is, as ever, plain to see; he gets the most out of every scene, situation and character. But in nearly all the films he made through The Social Network, you could feel him pushing himself either to the cinematic and psychological brink (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) or into unfamiliar dramatic terrain (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, TV’s House of Cards). Dragon Tattoo and now Gone Girl show him working in a somewhat pulpier, more popular vein that, frankly, needs him more than he needs it.

The story of a wife's disappearance, the resulting media frenzy and growing suspicion over the husband's culpability, Gone Girl unfolds in alternating chapters from each partner's point of view; Amy Elliott Dunne's diary for a good while serves to fill in the backstory of the relationship, while Nick Dunne's commentary begins on the day the lady vanishes and continues as the mystery deepens.

Watch more: 'Gone Girl's' Eerie New Trailer Targets Ben Affleck as Suspect No. 1

A good-looking pair of New York writers, Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck) were uprooted and transplanted, quite infelicitously, to small-town Missouri, thanks to a financial setback and Nick's father's illness. Glamorous and sexy back East, they quickly became grating and loveless as they knocked around a personality-free house in one of the world's most boring places.

At least this is what we learn after Amy has gone missing. Nick returns home the morning of their fifth anniversary to find his wife gone, a table overturned in the living room and other signs of a struggle; the police soon find traces of blood. Hearts go out to Nick when, joined by Amy's parents, he asks for the public's help in finding his missing wife. Nick also has the support of his straight-talking sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and the detective on the case, Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), who's backed up by cop-of-few-words Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit). The New York flashbacks, doused in the warm light of romantic allure, cast a magical feeling compared to the bland, bleached-out tans, whites and grays of the Missouri settings, in which the images of the actors are often so softly lit that sometimes you can scarcely make out their eyes.

But according to her diary, Amy increasingly feared for her life as Nick’s coldness and resentment turned to outright hostility. Gradually, unsavory aspects of Nick's behavior come to light, turning the public against him — a sensationalistic TV host (Missy Pyle) eggs viewers on to think the worst of him on a daily basis — and when circumstances push the police into believing he may have killed his wife, Nick hires big-ticket attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

See more: 11 Big Book-to-Big-Screen Adaptations

The first big narrative jolt comes just past the one-hour point, and Gone Girl virgins should be protected from learning any more about how things proceed from there. Figuring strongly, however, are a colorful white trash couple (Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrook) and a troubling figure from Amy's past, ex-would-be-boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris).

Affleck, who has never been more ideally cast, delivers a beautiful balancing act of a performance, fostering both sympathy and the suspicion that his true self lies somewhere between shallow jerk and heartless murderer. Pike, who has been notable in several roles over the past dozen years (Pride & Prejudice, Jack Reacher) but has rarely played full-blown leads, is powerful and commanding. Making Amy even steelier and more brazen than one might have imagined, she evinces no vulnerability but, rather, a strong sense of self-worth, as Amy seems to dare others to size themselves up against her. Physically and emotionally, Pike looks to have immersed herself in this profoundly calculating character, and the results are impressive.

Read more: David Fincher Cast Ben Affleck in 'Gone Girl' After Googling His Smile

Great pleasures are to be found among the wonderfully chosen supporting players. In the most surprising bit of casting, Perry gets another chance (after the frightful Alex Cross) in a film made outside his own self-created universe and elevates it with every scene he's in. Kirke is delightfully low-down as an Ozarks dweller who helps send the story spinning in an unexpected direction, while Coon effectively blends concern, outrage and unbending sisterly love as Nick's sibling. Perhaps best of all is Dickens, who underplays her basically procedural role while lining it with droll humor. By contrast, Harris performs his sicko part one-dimensionally in warped Anthony Perkins mode, so Desi emerges only as a cliched mama's boy type with no shadings.

Along with the parallel structural device and alternating narrative voices, what distinguishes the novel Gone Girl from any number of other modern mystery thrillers is its corrosive view of marriage, a theme amply underlined by Pike's spiky performance.

At the same time, the characters here, as in the book, are controlled as much by plot mechanics as by the natural propulsion of their hearts and minds; the story seems manufactured rather than a genuine expression of the human condition. From Fincher's point of view, the ultimate bleakness of life as portrayed here is similar to the perspectives of his other dark and murderous films, but this one does not stare mercilessly into the existential void in the manner of his best, most disturbing work.

See more: Best and Worst Young-Adult Books Adapted for TV and Film

Craft and technical contributions are at the expected high level across the boards, while the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross consists more of weird electronic rumblings, spasms and burst than of anything conventionally musical.

Production companies: New Regency, Pacific Standard, Regency Enterprises
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Lola Kirke, Scoot McNairy, Casey Wilson, Emily Ratajkowski, Sela Ward, Missy Pyle
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Gillian Flynn, based on her novel
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen
Executive producers: Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea
Director of photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Kirk Baxter
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Rated R, 148 minutes