David Fincher on autopilot:  A review of Gone Girl (2014) David Fincher on autopilot:  A review of Gone Girl (2014)
This is my review of David Fincher’s latest thriller Gone Girl. I kept my review completely spoiler-free, never going beyond the basic plot synopsis,... David Fincher on autopilot:  A review of Gone Girl (2014)

This is my review of David Fincher’s latest thriller Gone Girl. I kept my review completely spoiler-free, never going beyond the basic plot synopsis, but I am describing the overall qualities and atmosphere of the movie in detail. As I have not read the novel the film is based upon, I can not judge how far it is straining from the source material.

Gone Girl (2014)
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn (screenplay and novel)
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris and others.

Gone Girl marks the third time director David Fincher is adapting a novel. Miraculously, Fincher accomplished the (very) rare feat of improving on the source material two times. But while Fight Club (1999) had already been a very good novel that he turned into a great movie, his version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) felt like he polished a piece of pretentious high-end trash into visual perfection, glossing over the imperfections of the overrated novel/original movies it is based upon.

For me Dragon Tattoo looks a bit like a finger exercise for Fincher, as if he was trying to prove himself by turning something almost unwatchable into a halfway decent movie. Unfortunately, Gone Girl will probably be soon known as the first instance when he should have not only improved on the source material, but also on his own movie.

The plot:

On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) has to discover that his wife Amy has disappeared, a toppled coffee table and tiny splatters of blood indicating a possible abduction. Soon the police and the media are all over the case, as Amy is a wealthy, highly educated and beautiful woman, who came to fame as kid when her father used her as template for “Amazing Amy”, a series of children books that portrayed her childhood in a highly idealized manner.

Nick, who has no experience in dealing with the media, is soon cast in a negative light in the perception of the public, as he mindlessly grins into cameras and does not show appropriately enough signs of grief for a man in his situation. And under the relentless scrutiny of both the investigating detectives and the media, cracks show up on what has been considered a dream marriage. Obviously Nick, an unsuccessful writer coming from a middle class family in Missouri who works as a teacher and owns a bar with his sister that had been financed by Amy, has always been feeling inadequate beside his near-perfect wife, daughter of insanely successful bestseller-writing parents, Harvard graduate and flawless in every other aspect of life.

The figurative noose around Nick’s neck is tightening as it turns out that he is entertaining an affair with a young student and Amy’s diary (visualized for the audience as a series of flashbacks accompanied by Amy’s narration) is discovered, which describes him as ill-tempered and unpredictable man, not unlike his neglected father who lives in a retirement home. Furthermore, the investigating Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) comes across inconsistent details in the crime scene, that indicate the abduction was faked.

Did Nick kill his wife and stage it as an abduction?

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First, the good parts. The underlying plot is not too bad- there are a few turns and twists, it toys with the stylistic device of the “unreliable narrator”, there are hints of Rashomon with parts of its story being told different perspectives and first and foremost it is a clever metaphor for the pitfalls of the construct that is the marriage between man and woman.

The film also relishes in poking fun at the always present pressure of holding up the facade of immaculate perfection toward the outside world, reinforced by the permanent surveillance through social media and, in the case of famous people, the tabloids.

Rosamund Pike turns in a fearless performance as the titular character of the movie, filling a character that could have easily been completely unbelievable with life.

The real surprise is Ben Affleck though, as Pike always delivers while the “Batfleck’s” acting efforts have been rather uneven in their overall quality. Fincher has often been unfairly reduced to a talented formalist by critics, but his ability to cast the right actors and actresses and to get out great performances of them is something that should not be overlooked. Affleck has always been at his best when he was cast in a role that is close to his real persona  and the character of Nick Dunne, a semi-talented guy who cheats his way through life with his good looks, a crooked smile and a good portion of luck, seems very close to home in his case. The touches of subtlety and the vulnerability Affleck shows in his portrayal come as an unexpected and positive surprise though.

Tyler Perry (not in drag) unexpectedly shines as a Kardashian-type celebrity-lawyer and Kim Dickens is very amusing as the gender-swapped version of the thriller staple character of the world-weary cop, who naturally comes with a gullible newbie partner (Patrick Fugit!).

Apart from the novel-adaptation aspect, Gone Girl represents another “third time” for Fincher, as it is collaboration No 3 with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are responsible for the outstanding electro-score of the movie. Even as a once hardcore- fan of NIN I wish that Reznor would abandon his activities as a band-leader and fully concentrate on his score-composer career, that seems to spawn better artistic results than his latest albums revealed to be.

Sadly, the sum of all good parts is at least equaled, if not outweighed, by the bad elements on display. As mentioned above, the story is based on a great idea with interesting themes and ideas, so it boils down to the execution to narrow down where the flaws of the movie are to be detected.

I see the fault both at Fincher’s direction as well as the quality of the source material and the script based upon it. I always admired Fincher’s ability to subordinate his role as director to the material, despite the reputation he gained with his distinctive and energetic style. He first showed his willingness for directorial restraint with Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010), where he relied on the strength of the source material and put the actors and the script into the limelight.

This kind of humble approach is not only noble but also very prudent, as it gives the director the opportunity to test his artistic boundaries and to gather energy for more personal projects, while it bewares him of burning out by making movies that are basically artistic masturbation by wallowing in the always same “recurring themes” and which could potentially dilute his great early works in hindsight (see Brian DePalma, Dario Argento…).

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Yet, in the case of Gone Girl, the understated direction proves to be a mistake. The competent cinematography and Fincher’s preferred colour palette are the only hints that give away who the director in charge is. The problem is that this restrained attitude does not fit the material. Gone Girl is part thriller, part acerbic satire. Fincher’s direction mainly suggests “thriller” in such a workmanlike fashion to boot, that it never really matches the levels of absurdity the plot reaches from time to time.

Does the mundane direction create an interesting contrast with the OTT events on screen? No, it does not, nor does it serve to ground the story in reality, because the plot still feels as if it would happen inside a bubble. The events shown on screen never quite gel with the way they are shown.

There is no real arc of suspense reflected in the rhythm of the movie, it just connects the plot points on a flat line, even the non-chronological narrative style cannot disguise the bland linearity. This becomes obvious at the end, when a crucial dramatic moment is degraded to a device that is meant to propel the plot forward, thereby creating an own sense of absurdity that was surely not intended. It’s a a case of all story and (almost) no style, just a little gloss. It could go down in film history as the first time we get Fincher on autopilot.

It was probably Fincher’s miscalculation to rely on the power of the source material , which isn’t quite there, to be honest, because the film is never as clever as it thinks it is. Making a satire is hard. One has to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, supposed satires that shove their messages down the throat of the audience members without giving them the chance to make their own thoughts are bordering on propaganda and are a waste of time. On the other hand, there are artists that just randomly scatter their themes over the course of their work,without providing any perspective or opinion, hoping the themes are sufficiently charged with various individual preconceptions, so that the emotional buttons of audience get pushed and everybody will connect the dots themselves to her/his taste, which reeks of laziness.

Gone Girl has lots of the former and the latter, but unfortunately rarely hits the middle area, the sweet spot, the figurative bullseye of satire, where stylization seamlessly transitions into astute observation, where the artist can allow the audience to have a peek into his view on things without making them feel like they are preached to. Instead we get cliches, cliches, cliches and only a few harsh truths that are enlightening.

Another weakness is the uneven characterization. Three-dimensional characters meet two-dimensional characters meet one-dimensional characters – and they clash. Worst offender must be the character of “Desi Collings”, a super-rich Ex and persistent stalker of Amy, who is portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris. Yes, the Neil Patrick Harris. Also simply known as NPH, this actor is already carrying a huge invisible baggage around, as he will always be inevitably associated with at least one of three out of his trifecta of legen- wait for it -dary roles, namely the infant doc “Doogie Howser”, the space battle strategist from Starship Troopers and his turn as “Barney” in How I Met Your Mother.

Can he transcend his cult status with his acting? No he cannot, it’s just “Barney” in a slightly creepier version. That was probably the thought behind casting him, but it does not work out as intended, as he comes over like an alien element among the other characters. Because we don’t really care for him due to his cartoonish nature, he is constantly devaluing all the scenes he is in and all his interactions with other characters, which makes it hard to take the plot developments involving him seriously. Would it have been demanded too much if the writer (Gillian adapting her own novel) added an extra dimension to his character?

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As mentioned above, one of the film’s main target are the (social) media. Too bad the depiction of the representatives of that branch is that tediously cliched. There are two opportunistic talk-show ladies (Missie Pyle and Sela Ward) whose actions and words are meant to reflect the changing attitude of the volatile and susceptible public toward Nick, but the stabs against them lack a certain precision and they could also be side characters from a rom-com with their generic tabloid- dialog.

The other demography that gets its comeuppance is the trashy neighbourhood clique of the Dunnes, a bunch of track-suit wearing suburban soccer moms with their families. Their portrayal is not only stereotypical to no end, it’s also a bit like shooting fish in a barrel and we had depictions of that group of people in dozens of films, TV-series and in Reality-TV, that’s why I don’t understand what reason there is that they get such an unproportional amount of exposure. To be fair, I suppose that some of the depictions are intentionally stereotyped, but if the author tried to toy with clichés, they did it in such a clumsy way that it is impossible to say what she wanted to tell us.

Some of the central themes of Gone Girl are over-explained, even if there is no necessity for that, like the ongoing theme about how men and women alike try to mold their partners according to their own idealized image of the perfect mate, which gets hammered home a few times during the film. Other, more interesting aspects, remain underdeveloped. The fact that Amy’s dad based an ongoing series of children’s books on her exploits, while always improving on her fictional achievements compared to her real ones, is a fascinating idea, but only serves as a throwaway device to explain Amy’s self-imposed pressure to be perfect. In the end, the movie seems to be over- and underwritten at the same time, never really digging deeper.

Some attempts at “witty dialogue” are so cringe-worthy that even Joss Whedon would have erased those lines in shame. It should be noted that most of that cutesy-dialogue is uttered in flashbacks, owed to the subjective perception of Amy, but inexplicably there are moments filled with that kind of “witty” verbosity throughout the rest of the movie as well.

Now let’s take a look at the biggest weakness of the film: It’s mind-crushing length. Gone Girl needs a generous 149 minutes to tell its story. As I wrote in the intro, I have not read the novel, but I strongly suspect the length is a sign that the script sticks too closely to the source material. From experience, the structure for storytelling that works for a book does not automatically work for a movie. In some parts, the film literally smells like paper.

I don’t mind long movies as long as the running time is justified, which does not apply to Gone Girl. The first 90 minutes are still taut and can hold the interest of the viewer, but after that feature-length mark the individual scenes are beginning to linger on for too long, always outstaying their welcome.

The viewer’s patience is tested when dialogue-heavy scenes don’t seem to end long after they got their point across and suspense scenes are not exciting anymore as they give everybody too much time to figure out what will happen next and kill the surprise moment. Furthermore this stretches the already very thin material and make its flaws all the more apparent. A tighter editing could have lent a more amusing quality to the platitudes and endowed the story with more poignancy and punch, so to speak. With all those weaknesses, the responsibility to carry the movie is completely resting on the shoulders of the leads and while they excel at their job, they cannot manage to save it.

What remains is a clunky, unwieldy and indigestible behemoth of a film. It’s as if David Fincher directed an overlong, unusually dark episode of Desperate Housewives.

But who ever demanded to see that?

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DetectiveDee

Detective Dee reviews movies and sometimes TV-series. He likes to indulge in the Asian cinema, exploitation flicks and the horror genre but is no stranger to Blockbuster culture either. He writes whatever he wants, but always aims to entertain.