Gone Girl opens on the back of a woman’s head. It’s blonde and glowing, and its owner slowly turns around to gaze at the camera. It’s a brief but entrancing moment that takes a turn when an unseen man shares that he’d love to crack open that beautiful skull to understand what’s inside.
The film’s success rides on that balance between the lovely and brutal. It’s a difficult task: it would be easy for the film’s suburban setting to be read as flat instead of mysterious, and its mystery as outlandish instead of gripping. But from that opening shot, it has you, and it doesn’t let you go.
Gone Girl follows the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne, wife of Nick Dunne, from their home in a sleepy Missouri suburb. Like its source material, the films tells this story from two points of view: Nick’s side of the story begins the morning his wife disappears; Amy’s the night they meet-cute at a party. As we watch the investigation into Amy’s disappearance unfold, we see Nick and Amy come together before violently falling apart.
That coming together, and the eventual fallout, is a story about how we shape the people around us into what we want them to be. Nick is a self-described “corn-fed, salt-of-the-earth Missouri boy,” a charming men’s magazine writer, and a husband who may or may not want to smash in his wife’s skull. Amy is the inspiration for a beloved children’s book character, an Ivy-League educated socialite, and a loving wife. She’s also missing, possibly dead.
More and more sides of Nick and Amy are presented, but you’re not expected to fully buy any of them. Nick might be a cruel husband taking out his frustration at his career failures on a patient wife. Or Amy might be a nag who resents having to give up a charmed lifestyle to care for her husband’s family.
My love for the film’s source material is no secret: Gillian Flynn’s novel is an excruciating look at the disaster area lying just under the surface of Nick and Amy’s relationship. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for the film, and it’s an impressive adaptation for a first time screenwriter. A surprising amount has been cut, but the streamlined skeleton moves at a well-paced clip. Flynn’s dark (but brutally funny) material is a perfect match for director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en). It’s clear he’s having a grand time parodying the true crime stories we gobble up every few months: Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, Amanda Knox.
After a Nancy Grace prototype picks up Amy’s story, the murder investigation morphs into an all-out battle for national sentiment. Amy is a picture perfect victim: a beautiful, educated blonde woman who moved to a recession-rocked town to support her husband and his dying mother. Nick, on the other hand, is a bit of a dick. He’s far too flippant (“This feels like Law and Order,” he says, before humming a snatch of the theme song during his first interview with detectives) and not nearly heartbroken enough in the days after Amy vanishes. There’s not much evidence tying Nick to Amy’s disappearance, but she’s got the public on her side, and Nick must seek out the “patron saint of wife-killers” Tanner Bolt (a delightful Tyler Perry) to get the media on his side.
Affleck remains not the most natural actor, but he seems to have drawn on his (extensive) experience with bad press during those scenes where Nick messes up on camera. During crucial moments in the investigation, Nick reflexively flashes a homecoming king grin instead of a stoic grimace–a smile that’s beamed across every TV screen in America as incontrovertible proof of his guilt.
Affleck is serviceable, but it’s Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy that really sells Gone Girl. While Pike has drawn some criticism for coming off as distant or cold, that air boosts Amy from woman to presence. She’s beautiful, but you can’t quite get a handle on her. Is she really amused by your joke? Has she really forgiven that slight?
In addition to Pike’s star turn as Amy, Kim Dicken’s performance as Detective Boney is a quiet highlight of the film. A character that mostly served to push Nick over the edge in the novel becomes a driving force on screen, holding an ever-present cup of coffee and focusing on every minute detail so she can check it off her list. Boney is an anchor in a film filled with masks.
In any adaptation, cuts must be made. Gone Girl certainly condenses the novel’s storytelling, but the loss is only really noticeable in the much-discussed twist (which I won’t dive into here). Amy’s lengthy monologues – including her now iconic “Cool Girl” speech – have been chopped up and tightened, delivered in one fell swoop. The reveal still packs a punch, but the shortening of time spent with Amy makes the film a little more about Nick than her.
Gone Girl is a champion of an adaptation: Fincher’s style and Flynn’s point of view are a perfect match. The ending is a controversial one that will either leave you breathless or totally unsatisfied, but, like Amy said: “That’s marriage.”