Gone Girl is a master-class in filmmaking.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
It’s the pause that got me. The scene is serene; a single held shot, from the perspective of Nick (Ben Affleck), of Amy (Rosamund Pike) as he strokes her hair in a loving fashion before she lifts her head to stare back at him, whilst Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score calmly yet slightly uneasily backs this scene of apparent domestic bliss. Then Nick narrates that line and the mood flips, the dynamic changes. It could be a perfectly innocent line – who doesn’t want to know what their significant other is thinking? – but it’s the pause that hits most, because it raises so many questions. Why the violent imagery? Has planned on doing this? Can we trust the serenity of the visuals considering what we just learnt about the man who we are seeing them from?
Gone Girl does this a lot: presenting you with scenes but then altering their appearance and expectations through a well-timed piece of information, before distorting it again with the heavy implication that the person whose eyes we are seeing events through may be hiding something too. It is a twisty, jittery film that changes its character dynamics every few scenes and plays on viewer expectations to knock them for six when the time is right. But where other films would simply use this kind of structure for a pulpy thriller with little thematic depth, Gone Girl uses those twists to explore the ramifications of the revealed information, and to address the media, gender politics, sociopathy, psychopathy, parenting, the way we vilify anybody who seems close to being guilty of anything, marriage and relationships.
It is also f*cking brilliant.
After that opening scene, the film picks up on the day of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. He’s a failed writer who spends his days primarily running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), whilst she… Actually, it’s never made quite clear what she does during her days, which is the point. Nick returns home from The Bar (one character notes how the name is “very meta”) to find her missing and a house that makes it look like she was attacked in some way. Nick immediately contacts the police and starts to co-operate fully with the investigation except that his behaviour, he forgets or just plain doesn’t know many facts about his wife and her life, his attempts at being pleasant to those who help him come off as creepy and he doesn’t seem to be grieving for his wife’s disappearance as much as some consider right, marks him out as the number one suspect. Meanwhile, the film flashes back to glimpses of their relationship prior to the disappearance, told through extracts from Amy’s diary, only they seem to be slightly off and overly romanticised too.
To say anything else, almost quite literally anything else, would be to wander into spoiler territory and you deserve to see Gone Girl without arseholes like me spoiling large facets of it. That’s not to say that twisty turny plot points are the primary reason why Gone Girl works, but its willingness to play the viewer and upend their expectations every time they think they’ve gotten a handle on things is a reason. This is a twist film in the best and truest sense of the word, doling out multiple twists over the entire length of the film, rather than just at the end or in the middle, although there is one absolute humdinger in the middle of the film that changes everything.
But that twisty nature is not just for show, it’s in service of the films many themes, primarily relationships; specifically marriage and the he-said-she-said nature of hearing about arguments. Like a master storyteller, Gillian Flynn’s script (adapted from her own novel) dolls out these twists at the exact right moment required to confirm suspicions and blind-side the viewer with info they couldn’t have foreseen. It shifts the viewer’s sympathies constantly, even full-on flipping protagonists at one point to fill in the blanks, but it is always in service of the characters and its overall themes. The twists are built into the character motivations so that, whilst one may not sympathise with what they do, one always understands why they do what they do.
And what they do is built into the theme of relationships and, especially, marriage. No matter what happens, it all comes back down to the relationship and marriage of Nick and Amy and how they both perceive it. Nick, as it turns out, is not a good husband, not in the slightest, but he also seems more realistic about the history of their relationship. Amy seems more loving and devoted to Nick than he says she is (in private, to his twin sister, yes this is an important little detail) but her diary entries seem a little too well-written, a little too romantic, a little too cliché. Then the twists come up and one has to start questioning just how much either side is telling the truth or, more accurately, how much of their preconceived notions and what they believe to be true are actually true. I wish I could say more than that, I really do, but I am committed to spoiling as little as is humanly possible so now I have to keep schtum.
Throughout it all is David Fincher’s impeccable direction. Not only does he keep proceedings fast, fluid and stylish (chronology and perspective hopping between Amy and Nick is frequently achieved via fades to black, which is a technique I really like), he keeps things distant. Fincher is often accused of being cold and mechanical, a filmmaker who never likes to let the audience emotionally into his works that are frequently about terrible people, which is a sentiment I disagree with to an extent, but is true here and it is the film’s masterstroke. Despite the depths that a lot of its cast plumb, the film doesn’t judge or, at least, it doesn’t judge openly loudly. Fincher instead presents proceedings and leaves you to shift your sympathies and allegiances from there. He maintains a clean and steady environment to make sure that you can’t invest too much emotionally, and he always keeps the viewer at an arm’s length because… urgh, spoilers! But seriously, his distancing directorial style, along with his generally stylish direction anyway, is the perfect fit for this material. In quite literally anybody else’s hands, this would devolve into a trashy mess. In his, it remains an intelligent and consistent thriller with a lot to say and a slightly trashy edge. It works.
Also working… actually, no, not “working”. “Working” gives off the impression that she’s merely competent and good lord she is so much better than that! In any case, the absolute standout in the film’s cast, and this is a cast where every single performer is fantastic no matter the role they’re given (in particular, Neil Patrick Harris takes a purposefully underwritten role and embodies it so totally as to make the finale hit that much harder), is Rosamund Pike as Amy. Now, I can’t explain why due to my self-enforced “no spoilers” handicap, but I can tell you that Amy is far more layered and has far more to do than she sounds like she does on paper and Pike is absolutely phenomenal with what she gets; a tour-de-force who absolutely gets the character she’s playing and is capable of making every single one of her actions justified and consistent. If she doesn’t get award nods and a breakthrough into stardom for her work in this then I quite frankly give up.
Aaaaand, that’s your lot. Reviewing Gone Girl in any deep and meaningful capacity without spoiling is a damn difficult, near-impossible feat. I’ve managed to touch on most of what I wanted to talk about, but there are still a tonne of things going on in Gone Girl that I would like to even vaguely allude to but can’t because I don’t want to risk spoiling anything from it. Hopefully I’ve done a good job at convincing you to see it despite that handicap because Gone Girl is absolutely seeing, if nothing else so that you get why other people will not stop bleating about it for the rest of the year either. If you’re still unconvinced, though, I leave you with this one fact…
I have seen 87 films released in the last 286 days and Gone Girl quite possibly tops them all. Go immediately.