Oh, what a stunning opening shot—a prelude to damnation—director David Fincher serves up in his elegantly wicked suburban noir Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her best-selling novel. It’s the back of the head of a woman (Rosamund Pike) on a pillow, her golden tresses aglow. An unseen man (Ben Affleck) narrates; he suggests that the only way to know what’s in a person’s mind would be to shatter her skull. Then the woman turns her face to the camera. It’s creamy-skinned, sleepily beautiful; her eyes open wide and she stares into ours. The look is teasingly ambiguous. Juxtaposed with the narrator’s violent words, the image poses the question: Who could want to violate a façade so exquisite? You want to pore over it, study it for clues to what’s underneath.
You get that chance for many of Gone Girl’s 148 minutes. The movie is phenomenally gripping—although it does leave you queasy, uncertain what to take away on the subject of men, women, marriage, and the possibility of intimacy from the example of such prodigiously messed-up people. Though a woman wrote the script, the male gaze dominates, and this particular male—the director of Se7en and The Social Network—doesn’t have much faith in appearances, particularly women’s. Fincher’s is a world of masks, misrepresentations, subtle and vast distortions. Truth is rarely glimpsed. Media lie. Surfaces lie.
The maybe-lying protagonist is Nick Dunne, an ex–magazine writer who’s about to celebrate his fifth anniversary with his wife, Amy, but who sits that afternoon in the Missouri bar he runs with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), drinking bourbon, looking somber and antsy. He arrives at his suburban McMansion to find a glass coffee table smashed, signs of a struggle, and no Amy. So far so straightforward. But two detectives, Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), linger over the incongruities of the crime scene. It’s clear that Nick is being evasive about something. Did he kill Amy? We did hear him say he’d like to smash in someone’s head.
Gone Girl weaves the story of Nick’s descent into public infamy with excerpts from a diary kept by Amy in a curly, cultivated hand. She describes an impossibly sexy New York courtship and a marriage that begins like a romance novel. Still, Amy knows how unattainable the ideals of fiction can be. She grew up as the subject of her parents’ books for children, the model for a character called Amazing Amy. How could she measure up to her literary counterpart? While she gave up the cello at age 10, Amazing Amy went on to become a virtuoso: The failure haunts her. The rest of Amy’s tale turns out to be fairly conventional: It tracks her enchantment, gradual disillusionment, and, finally, fear that her husband will kill her. But something’s off about Amy in the movie’s flashbacks. She’s telling us the most personal details of her life, yet she looks like a sleek, aristocratic doll, a projection. There’s a suggestion of panic beneath her glassy demeanor, but it’s faint. She’s unnervingly near perfect.
Fincher and his cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, shoot their characters from just below eye level. The angles aren’t extreme—just slanted enough to catch the ceilings, to suggest how hemmed in these people are by circumstance and stupid choices and a house (the production design is by Donald Graham Burt, the spooky astral music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) that’s like purgatory in beige. Actors seem constricted anyway in Fincher’s films. They’re made to speak their smart-ass dialogue at a brisk clip, with no Method dawdling. In this case, the effect on Affleck’s acting is remarkable.
I never thought I’d write these words, but he carries the movie. He’s terrific. Fincher exploits—and helps him transcend—his most common failing, a certain handsome-lug lack of commitment. Affleck shows intelligence and sensitivity in interviews, and I sense that as he has gotten older (and become a slick director), he has worked harder to look serious, sincere, and engaged onscreen. But some part of him holds back, and that’s the part on which Fincher homes in. Affleck’s Nick doesn’t mourn convincingly or look remotely honest—even when he tells the truth. In one scene, his hotshot lawyer (a genial Tyler Perry) rehearses him for a TV appearance and pelts Nick with candy when he sounds like he’s lying. He gets pelted a lot. It’s an almost impossible task to get Affleck’s Nick to sound like he’s speaking from the heart, and you can see the frustration in Affleck’s eyes at his own inability to get fully into the role. He’s trying to connect his face with his head and falling short.
About Pike I must—at the behest of the movie’s publicists—say less, although her acting is also a study in acting. In those few moments when the mask slips, she’s tight, frightened, childishly vulnerable, desperately grasping for a sense of control that the universe has denied her. I loved looking at her. The other actors—sticking to Fincher’s metronome—give fast, shorthand performances. Coon is likably attuned to Affleck’s rhythms: Nick and Margo’s fairly honest rapport (a rarity) can be attributed to their having shared a womb. Dickens is delightfully acidic as the cop, and Neil Patrick Harris is pitiful to the point of eeriness as Amy’s old suitor. There’s also a satisfyingly scathing turn by Missi Pyle as Nancy Grace (going under the name “Ellen Abbott”), a ghoulish specialist in raising media lynch mobs.
I can’t leave Gone Girl without going back to its depiction of women, though here I risk the dreaded “spoiler.” (Stop reading if you wish.) The timing for a film that features instances of trumped-up sexual assaults could hardly be worse, and while it’s nowhere near as extreme as Fatal Attraction—which discredited feminist shibboleths by putting them in the mouth of a psychopath—the movie, like the novel, plays to the stereotype of weak men entrapped by pretend-helpless women. The Spider Woman is, of course, a noir archetype, and I’m not prepared to renounce my affection for Double Indemnity and its ilk. But I can’t say those movies don’t have real-world consequences, and coming in the middle of mounting outrage over the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, I’d hate to see the likes of Rush Limbaugh buoyed by the film’s bloodcurdling specimen of a predatory slut. For the rest of us, it’s preferable to view Gone Girl as a profoundly cynical portrait of all sides of all relationships: First you’re blind to the truth of other people, then you see and wish you could go back to being blind. See it with your sweetie!
*This article appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.