It’s tough to know where to begin when writing about a story like this one. Today’s film is one of those stories that’s very difficult to talk about without getting into spoilers, because so much of the story is wrapped around a central concept that is itself a spoiler. That certainly won’t stop me from trying (even though the source novel is a bestseller read by millions), but it does mean that this review probably won’t go into my usual amount of depth. That said, let’s talk about Gone Girl.

The premise is simple at first. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes about his day until the news comes in that his wife (Amy Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. It appears that Amy was taken in some kind of home invasion, but details slowly start to unravel as time goes on. Inconsistencies start appearing, Nick seems ignorant about basic details of his wife’s social life, and we see flashbacks to show that the Dunnes’ marriage may (or may not) have been quite rocky.

What makes things even worse is that Amy is a kind of celebrity. See, her mother is Marybeth Elliott (Lisa Banes), a very successful author who wrote a series of children’s books based on Amy’s life. The title character is even called “Amazing Amy.” So naturally, there’s a legion of fans out there who are very upset about the kidnapping and want to come help find her. Other people come from out of the woodwork, too: old friends, strangers claiming to be old friends, lunatics trying to get attention, women offering Ben Affleck a shoulder to cry on, etc. With all of these people around, the whole thing spirals into a mainstream media frenzy. That’s when paparazzi and cable news pundits get involved, stirring up the court of public opinion and pestering the key players of the investigation until someone finally does something stupid.

So much of this story rests on its two lead actors, who really had their work cut out for them in this picture. Nick and Amy are both characters who have to be played with a special kind of cunning, like there’s no telling what secrets and impulses are being hidden behind a pretty smile. And both are played by actors who can hold their own just fine. Ben Affleck has long since outgrown his career slump and proven to the world that yes, he really is a superbly talented actor. Affleck has always (since Dogma, at least) had an underappreciated knack for playing an effortless charm with a dangerous edge. He can be the pretty boy, then spin on a dime to be someone nobody wants to fuck with. He does a fantastic job of showing that talent here, and I’ve no doubt that it will serve him well as Batman. But I digress.

Then we have Rosamund Pike. In the past, I’ve gone on record stating that Pike was a mediocrity. A nonentity. A placeholder for some other actress, someone who neither added nor detracted from anything she happened to be in. Not anymore. Amy is a character who goes from sexy to scary, dominant to paranoid, manipulative to sincere and back again. Pike pushes herself to the physical and emotional limit in the process of delivering this character, and the results are compelling to watch. I never thought I’d be eager to see another Rosamund Pike performance, but I’m suddenly quite anxious to see what she does next. And if she delivers work that’s this good without the guiding hand of a master like Fincher, I will officially be a convert.

(Side note: I was curious to see Reese Witherspoon listed among the producers of this movie. Turns out that she optioned the book and co-produced the film adaptation through her Pacific Standard shingle. I wonder how the movie might have been different if she had taken the female lead instead. You may laugh, but take a look at her more recent career moves. She might have surprised us all.)

More to the point, I don’t think there’s a single bad performance in this whole movie. Not one. And given this cast, that really surprises me. Sure, Neil Patrick Harris, Scoot McNairy, and Missi Pyle all do some fantastic work with what little screen time they have, but that’s to be expected from such proven talents. By contrast, I never would have guessed that I’d be sitting here to praise the work of Tyler Perry, Emily Ratajkowski, and Casey Wilson. Hell, I didn’t even know who Carrie Coon or Kim Dickens were until I saw this picture, and they both crushed it.

Of course, this comes back to the director. David Fincher is a huge, HUGE reason why this movie works so well, and it’s not just because of his uncanny skill at coaxing great performances out of a perfectly chosen cast. His keen eye for visuals and his ongoing collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who turn in another extraordinary score) are also factors. But perhaps more importantly, this is a mystery thriller being directed by the guy who made Se7en and Zodiac. It’s a movie about the power of the media and the court of public opinion (see: The Social Network), along with female empowerment and sexual abuse (see: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake).

To my knowledge, however, this film is unique among Fincher’s filmography in that it addresses love, marriage, infidelity, etc. This is a movie that very aggressively deals with all the downsides of being married, examining them through one of the most fucked-up marriages I’ve ever heard of in past, present, or fiction. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch how Nick and Amy are so hopelessly damaged, yet they’re still stuck together.

Before I get to the film’s most prominent drawback, I want to make it clear that I have not yet read the source novel. I can’t speak to its quality directly, I can only judge the story from the screenplay. Though the screenplay was written by Gillian Flynn, who was adapting her own book, so there’s that.

Anyway, as great as the cast and direction were, this screenplay had some problems that were too much to gloss over. The plot structure is a great example: The narrative moved right along through the first half, intercutting flashbacks with the main plot in a way that felt seamless and coherent. The denouement, however, dragged its feet terribly. Even after the central mystery had been resolved, the film just kept going long past the point of overstaying its welcome.

More to the point, there are so many times when the characterization seems to thin and events are sped up entirely for the convenience of plot. The characters come dangerously close to being two-dimensional, and there are times when the “female empowerment” angle is written in a lazy way that seems like trashy fantasy. My screening was preceded by a trailer for the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation, and there were times when I wondered if the two books might have been written for a similar audience. And this is where I wrap up before I go any deeper into spoilers than I already have.

I don’t normally like to quote other reviewers, but Nick Nunziata, my colleague at CHUD, hit the nail on the head when he said that Gone Girl was “cheeseburger treated like a filet[…] That’s why David Fincher is one of the best we’ve ever had. To weave gold out of shit.” There’s no way I can top that. This whole movie — especially the back half — feels like lowest-common-denominator trash that had the good fortune to be elevated by a phenomenal cast and a master filmmaker.

That treatment is ultimately what makes the film worth watching. For all of its faults, this is still a wonderfully tense movie with jaw-dropping performances throughout. Even so, I do hope that Fincher picks a better script next time so he’ll finally get a shot at winning an Oscar. Like he damn well should have for The Social Network.

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