David Fincher seems at something of an impasse. Three long years have elapsed since he made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and a number of potential follow-ups have fizzled in the interim. Sony wouldn’t commit to a sequel, and the director came to loggerheads with Disney over a planned blockbuster adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He entered talks to direct Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs biopic, but that fell through too. The only concrete credit to Fincher’s name since 2011 is Netflix’s House of Cards. And then along comes Gone Girl.
Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl pitches a familiar premise: a woman disappears under suspicious circumstances, and a trickle of evidence begins to mount implicating her husband. The woman is Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), daughter of two celebrated children’s authors who reluctantly trades her New York City apartment for a flyover-state McMansion at the behest of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), the kind of guy who plays Call of Duty and watches Adam Sandler movies. After five years their marriage has cooled, and on the morning of their anniversary, Amy vanishes.
Where Gone Girl goes psychologically with that conceit is of more interest to Fincher and Flynn than the physical whodunnit; the central mystery is unraveled by the movie’s midpoint. Owing to his wife’s popularity, Nick comes under intense scrutiny in the press. In turns portrayed as the beleaguered husband and the smirking sociopath, Nick’s every move is examined under a microscope and debated ad nauseum by rabble-rousing TV pundits. Throw in a jilted ex-lover (an icy Neil Patrick Harris) and an unscrupulous lawyer (Tyler Perry) and the crucible becomes even more volatile.
The casting is excellent and everyone impresses — including Rosamund Pike, who appears via flashbacks and narrates from Amy’s ominous diary. Affleck charms with his ambiguous everyman-isms, though those Batman muscles look a touch ridiculous in the ‘burbs. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry both play admirably against type, and as always, David Fincher directs the shit out of every second of it.
Scenarios that might feel cheap or tawdry in the hands of a lesser filmmaker are elevated by Fincher’s dark vision and another oppressively atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Muted colors, simple framing, neat cuts: there’s a certain stylistic minimalism to the approach that the director seldom betrays. Fincher lets Flynn do most of the talking, and that’s the greatest weakness of Gone Girl. As compelling as the craft may be and as assured the direction, Gone Girl feels more like a beautiful exercise than an essential cinematic experience.
It’s an opportunity for Fincher to jingle his spurs after a prolonged hiatus and an opportunity for the cast to collaborate with one of the best filmmakers working today, but not a whole lot more. Especially as the successor to Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl can’t quite shake the “airport novel” stigma. Both films are perfectly entertaining adaptations, but it’s hard not to wish Fincher would aim a little higher. Gone Girl finds the director no further along artistically than he was three years ago: still at the top of his storytelling prowess, but in search of a tale to match his talent.
Gone Girl digs at the emotional damage men and women inflict on one another beneath the facade of a fairly typical potboiler. In all likelihood, your ability to enjoy the film will depend on the extent to which you appreciate filmmaking on a mechanical level, and your enthusiasm for another murder mystery from the guy who directed Zodiac and Seven. Fincher’s expressed interest in Jobs and Verne prove he’s still committed to telling a variety of stories, and if Gone Girl is a stopgap to projects of that caliber and ambition, it’s all the more worthy for it.