David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a grim comedy about the impossibility of perfection

This film, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her bestselling thriller, is a whodunnit without a body.

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Gone Girl (18)
dir: David Fincher

The names of the board games glimpsed in the first scene of Gone Girl – Emergency!, Mastermind and Let’s Make a Deal – could double as titles for each of the three acts of the film, though the 8.5 million readers who turned Gillian Flynn’s novel into a publishing phenomenon will know already that Mouse Trap, Twister and Risk would have made the point just as well.

The movie, which Flynn adapted herself, is a whodunnit without a body, and a grim comedy about the impossibility of perfection. Perhaps its crowning joke is that it was directed by David Fincher, whose perfectionism extends to shooting 99 takes of a single scene, as he is said to have done with the opening of The Social Network. Putting him in charge of Gone Girl was as ironic as having that master controller Stanley Kubrick mount a defence of free will in A Clockwork Orange.

From the outside, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), appear to have an ideal marriage. But when Nick arrives home on their fifth anniversary to discover her missing, each aspect of that relationship comes under scrutiny. A snippy detective (Kim Dickens) sneers at the playful treasure hunt with which Amy marked the wedding anniversary, while her colleague casts aspersions on Nick for not remembering his wife’s blood type. Only the cat looks guiltier than he does. Sitting bolt upright in the hall, its tail swishes lazily across the semicircle of floor behind it as though wiping away incriminating prints.

As Amy’s disappearance leads to candlelit vigils and searches of the Missouri countryside, Nick tries to wrest control of his story away from the police and the media. What the viewer alone has access to is Amy’s diary. Read by her over flashbacks, it suggests gradually that the rumours about Nick might have some veracity after all.

It’s only right that a movie with such a divided, duplicitous narrative should be full of contradictory stories competing to make themselves heard. Nick is a teacher of creative writing who, it transpires, invented in childhood an imaginary life for his estranged father; Amy’s mother is a novelist whose bestselling children’s character Amazing Amy is based on her daughter but with one piercing difference: whatever failings Amy exhibited as a child would be corrected on the page. Stories, for both of them, have become in adulthood a means of remaking life to their own advantage.

But a film should have more in its favour than a knack for a nifty narrative. Gone Girl manifestly does not. It is peppered with knowing references to its identity as a
story about storytelling – such as characters who stage scenes like movie directors, or police officers who say things like: “How meta!” And though it is handsomely shot by Jeff Cronenweth, the colours don’t run to anything less equivocal than oatmeal and beige, eggshell white and eggshell brown: the palette is as limited as the film’s interior emotional life.

Rosamund Pike gives as focused a performance as anyone could be expected to while playing a character whose entire personality is moot. Ben Affleck looks convincingly wounded as a man maligned by the whole of America, but then it’s not so long ago that he was. It’s hardly a terrific stretch. It’s not method.

There’s every likelihood that this will be Fincher’s biggest box-office success but it is minor by his standards. In his most original films, Zodiac and The Social Network, his interpretive powers were inflamed. In Gone Girl, as in his English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he can only add mood and gloss to material that is weighed down by plot: he is, in essence, falling back on his skills as an adman.

It is no disgrace for a film director to make commercials, as Fincher has done throughout his career. The problem comes when the artist blurs with the travelling salesman. A sensibility that applies itself equally to the need for 99 takes and to ensuring that beer bottles and ice-cream tubs are correctly angled to make their labels fully visible, as they are here, can’t help but seem suspect or insincere. Amy may be missing but it would be accurate in this instance to say that Fincher is, too. He’s a real gone guy.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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