Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gone Girl (2014) – Review

Review: Gone Girl is a wickedly engaging mystery coupled with on point satire and black comedy.

The film is about Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who may seem perfect on the outside but has drifted apart due to financial and emotional difficulties. One morning, the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing. Their house shows signs of a struggle and there is blood splatter in the kitchen – and, Amy is missing. At first, Nick helps the police in their search for Amy; but as time passes, suspicions start to turn on him, despite his proclaimed innocence.

It would be difficult to really talk about what makes Gone Girl great without getting into plot specifics and spoilers. Thus, beware of spoilers from this point on. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (who, as many of you no doubt know, also wrote the novel on which the film is based) have crafted a film that both engages its audience, telling a very compelling story with great characters and big ideas, and takes on the ugliness of today’s news coverage.

In many ways the film can be taken as a satire, as it is portrays the news media as being soulless, story-chasing (if not story-fabricating) bloodsuckers. The news personalities the film presents us with are Ellen Abbott, who sensationalizes any and every element of her coverage, working her viewers into a hate-filled frenzy over Nick Dunne, and Sharon Schieber, who seems to ruthlessly want to take down Dunne for ratings (although, he wins her over during their interview). Abbott all but convicts Nick, while Schieber helps to exonerate him for the public. The amount of power the media seems to have over public opinion is frightening, as they clearly have the ability to sway opinion. The media so maliciously going after Dunne, while championing his wife, without any real proof that Dunne is in fact involved in his wife’s disappearance or murder (which the news media seems to be inferring), and having such influence over the general public opinion, flat out making things up to drive viewership and headlines (or sensationalizing any information they may have to an extreme degree) is what Fincher seems to be satirizing. The media also constantly hounds Nick with their attention and flashing camera lights, feverishly leaching onto anything they can get from him. His street is filled with news vans and press. His daily life is but a play for the public to devour and judge.

Yet, I do not really read it so much as a satire as merely portraying modern news media as it truly is, as it actually functions. Abbott and Schieber are not exaggerations of media personalities, rather they fit right into what we can expect from today’s news coverage of any major national story. This is a sad truth. Our modern news really is this despicable; and even more tragic, modern views not only expect this kind of coverage – they want it. Thus, this aspect of Gone Girl feels much more a shaming of modern news culture, both those who deliver the news and, more so, those who watch it. Gone Girl is more a satire of America and its founding moral ideas – given the way we grotesquely eviscerate those in the public eye (merely because they are in the public eye) and not only allow but encourage our news organizations to just lie to us perpetually, because we would rather hear what we want to hear than the truth. Watching the film it is easy to recognize how the story is seemingly spinning out of control in the media’s hands, because we are also shown Dunne’s perspective and we more or less are on his side (being that he is presented to us as the protagonist), but I wonder how many then realize that our own news media is even more ridiculous, that our own treatment of those in the public eye is often deplorable.

Speaking of Nick Dunne being presented to us as the protagonist, this is what makes the film so engaging. The first section is structured as a mystery/thriller (though, light on the thriller aspects). Nick is really our only source of emotional information, his relationship with his twin sister Margo is done really well, and he is charming. Thus, we like him even though we are not one hundred percent sure he did not kill his wife. Fincher does an excellent job keeping this balance – Nick is likable and always the protagonist, but there is just enough mystery to him that makes us suspect that maybe he did do it. This balance is key to the film working, at least in the first section. It also drives the story of him becoming the prime suspect in the police’s investigation and public enemy number one in the media. Amy on the other hand is presented as being incredibly charming and committed to the relationship. She loves Nick and he loves her. Yet, from the beginning, Nick has a different opinion of Amy (something that comes out of his interactions with his sister). Nick seems to hate Amy, in fact, which only presents her more as a victim and Nick more as a suspect.

This idea too is key, and Fincher lays it out perfectly in the film’s narrative. The idea that Amy seems like the perfect wife from what we are shown, but Nick hates her and feels like she is awful and controlling/belittling – there is a disconnect. We see none of this, but again we like Nick and we relate to his relationship with his sister, so we believe him (or at least we are not completely sure Amy is as good as we are lead to believe). Fincher puts doubt in our mind. Maybe Amy is not what she seems. This sets up the second part of the film.

Amy being revealed as the mastermind behind her own disappearance in a plot to seek revenge on Nick for cheating on her with one of his students is one of the greatest reveals in cinema history (although, I do realize that this reveal is greatly lessened for those who read the book). It is darkly smile inducing, because, while we did suspect that something was not right in her disappearance (we still thought maybe it was Nick or maybe she was just taken by someone else that the mystery would eventually reveal), Fincher did enough to distract us away from the possibility that it was Amy. The details of how she staged her disappearance are all wonderfully delivered with a vengeful glee. Amy is suddenly revealed as a fantastic villain. And yet, Fincher has also made her much more relatable and even puts her in danger (drawing the audience in, garnering sympathy for her current plight). There is an interesting feeling/question that begins to happen for the viewer: do we want Amy to succeed or not? She is a villain, but Nick is not blame free either (but her punishment is quite extreme). Fincher gives us a great antagonist in Amy, one that might even become the protagonist for some. She is also one of the best female villains of recent memory.

Amy’s plan to destroy Nick’s life in a cold-blooded and decisive way brings up another interesting question about Gone Girl. Is it misogynistic? The film can be read as the ultimate male nightmare. Nick marries a beautiful, charming woman who then turns out to be a crazy, evil bitch set on ruining his life. She seemed so cool, what happened? In our culture, it feels very easy to dismiss women who do not act as men expect them to as crazy or hormonal or something else derogatory. Women are seldom allowed to just plainly be villains. There is always some contributing factor that feels degrading: they were scorned in a past relationship, they were not as pretty growing up, or other such nonsense usually attached to female antagonists in film. Here, Amy is just plainly a sociopath, who takes revenge on those she believes have wronged her (and her revenge is very severe). Maybe it was the emotional toll of growing up second to her parents’ Amazing Amy character, or maybe there was some other traumatic experience that contributed, or simply maybe she is just this way. Fincher and Flynn do not hate women, that is clear from Margo Dunne and Detective Rhonda Boney being maybe the film’s most complete and self-assured characters (Boney, for example, is really the only member of law enforcement that seems to be good at their job, while Nick would be a complete disaster without his sister). Dismissing Amy just another creation aimed at degrading women is unfair, and does a disservice to the potential for female characters going forward. She is, simply put, a great villain, densely constructed and wonderfully fleshed out. And, she wins in the end.

The honesty of relationships is another aspect that is explored by the film. It asks the question of whether we will ever really know our partners, what they are thinking, how they feel, and what they will do (or in turn what we will do to them as a result). The film presents maybe the worst possible relationship dynamic with Nick and Amy. Everything about their relationship is a lie. They both pretend to be someone different than themselves to appeal more to each other (something we all do to some extent – though, there seems to be a lot more cultural and societal pressure on women to make themselves more likable in the eyes of men – something the film punctuates with Amy’s “cool girl” journal entry and in Desi’s controlling gaze upon Amy, wanting her to be just as he imagines she should be, like she is a doll). While Nick and Amy’s situation seems extreme, it also hits home, maybe a little too close to home. It leaves us to question everything about our partners and ourselves. Is it real? Are we kidding ourselves? Do we really know them at all? We want to believe that it is real and that we know them, but really we do not know for sure. If we were really ourselves all the time, would our partners still like us, let alone love us? We would like to say yes to this as well, but again we all try a bit more when we are first in love. As time passes, we tend to slide back into ourselves, becoming more comfortable and feeling like we do not need to try as much; but now that we have become more ourselves (trying less to be our best selves or even a fictional version of ourselves), do we still attract each other? It is true that we do not often know what we really need. We think we know what we want, which we confuse with what we need or what is best for us. To get what we want, we play the game. Gone Girl examines the game, and finds that mostly it is all just a big lie. That may sound cynical, but then why does the film seem to connect so much with us on a personal level and find us questioning our own relationships (even just a little) on some level. The film is quite ambitious in its depth.

Gone Girl is also very entertaining. Fincher crafts his narrative to briskly move forward, never feeling slow or long despite its 149-minute runtime. The film is often very funny as well, deploying well delivered black comedy (given the film’s violence and depressingly cynical view of marriage – well, at least that is a take away from watching Nick and Amy’s marriage, built on lies and deception). The tone is surprising, and I am not sure many could have pulled it off (yes, yet another nod to the quality of Fincher’s direction). The film is very dark, yet funny (with many giggle-worthy moments). Fincher handles everything with such a gleeful stroke that despite the soul-crushingly awfulness of Nick and Amy’s relationship by the end, we still cannot help but laugh.

The film ultimately works, however, due to its great characters. Fincher, Flynn and the film’s cast create rich and engaging characters from top to bottom. The big ideas, the black comedy, and the plot all work so well because we care about the characters and enjoy watching them interact with each other. We want to see Nick exonerated. We want to see Amy get her comeuppance; or, we want to see her win (depending on our emotional attachments to Nick and Amy). We love the banter and bond between Margo and Nick (without Margo, I am not sure Nick comes off nearly as charming or likable). We enjoy the dynamic between Detective Boney and Officer Gilpin. And, Nick’s lawyer Tanner Bolt is just so much fun.

All in all, Gone Girl is precisely crafted in every way. It is a film that tackles the foundation of modern relationships and the state of modern news media (or media in general), while giving us one of the better female villains of the last decade (I actually cannot think of another great one, but I am sure there are a few – most of the ones I can think of are from much older films like Nurse Ratched, Annie Wilkes and Mrs. Danvers). It is quite funny and entertaining too. It is a great film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Fincher is one of our greatest filmmakers working today (I think he is in the top five directors working right now). The films he made in the 1990s made him a recognizable auteur, but his craft is even better and more refined now. His more recent films The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and now Gone Girl are all so diverse and yet Fincher makes them all his own, and each is superb. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fincher again works with the same team as his last two films on Gone Girl. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver yet another fantastic score that both supports and heightens the emotional interaction the film has with the audience. Their work also gets at the subliminal feel that the film has, the creepiness and darkness that lurks over the comedy. It is great work. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is also stunning. There is a scene in which Nick kisses Amy in an alley in New York filled with powered sugar floating in the air. It is incredibly beautiful. Donald Graham Burt’s production design is also top notch, informing many of the relationship dynamics simply by how and where the characters live. Desi’s lake house is particularly telling (in terms of how he wants to control Amy). Aesthetically, as is true of all of Fincher’s work thanks to his great collaborators, the film is among the very best of 2014.

The performances in Gone Girl are also excellent. Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Lola Kirke, Sela Ward, and especially Scoot McNairy are fantastic in small supporting roles. Kim Dickens is very good as Detective Boney (leading me to say: casting roles with actors from HBO dramas is always a good decision). She is so good that I want to see her play a detective on a series now. Tyler Perry seems like an odd choice to play Tanner Bolt at first, but then he wins you over with his brilliant line delivery and charisma. He is in fact a perfect fit for the role. Neil Patrick Harris is very creepy as Desi Collings (an ex-lover of Amy’s). He just oozes an off-putting feeling, which fits the role very well. Carrie Coon is having a breakout year. She is maybe the best part of HBO’s The Leftovers, and now she turns out a scene-stealing performance in Gone Girl as Margo Dunne. As I said in the review, she is an essential component to making Nick a likable character, as she plays his sounding board and support group. Yet, she is not one-dimensional. She also sticks up for herself and tells Nick when he is being a jerk. Her emotional connection to Nick is very important to the audience getting to know Nick. Rosamund Pike is brilliant as Amy Dunne. She displays incredible range as the character, playing Amy at each stage. Pike has been acting for over a decade, but her performance in Gone Girl feels special and career making. She uses her face wonderfully in the film, managing to maker herself both the villain and a victim. She even seems to get the audience on her side at times. Ben Affleck too is very good, playing Nick Dunne. His role is not very glamorous in terms of big dramatic moments, but for his character to work he needs to nail many subtle ones (which he does). Affleck can be a very good actor given the right role and film; here, he reminds us of his talent. He is able to create a man in Nick who is charming, a bit of an oaf, and sort of mysterious/disconnected pretty much all at the same time. While Pike has the more exciting performance, the film would not be the same without Affleck’s great work as well.

Summary & score: Gone Girl is a phenomenally crafted, acted and written film that features great black comedy, engaging drama, tantalizing mystery, and shocking violence all while still feeling narratively and tonally intact. This is certainly one of the best films of 2014. 9/10

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