Who’s That Girl?

4 October 2014

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s potboiler about a violently dysfunctional marriage, has the big screen adaptation it didn’t quite deserve: precise, pedantic, bloodless and lacking any redeeming features.

Like millions of other readers looking for a tasty distraction on my morning commute, I gobbled up Gone Girl in a few long and mostly satisfying mouthfuls. It’s a potboiler with pretensions to being great literature, and a murder mystery that attempts to say something about the disappointments of modern marriage and the impossibility of knowing someone you claim to love.

I’m not sure Flynn has much wisdom or insight on love, marriage or anything else, but she understands the basic techniques of writing gripping mystery fiction: keep it dark and a bit creepy, withhold as much as you show, play with the readers’ expectations and keep ‘em guessing till you reveal your shocking twist. The first half of Gone Girl creeps along effortlessly: Flynn’s writing is crisp and airless and she has great fun with her he-said-she-said narrative. Her narrator Nick Dunne is a nasty piece of work with a disturbing misogynist streak, and a deeply unreliable narrator. It seems highly likely that he’s killed his wife Amy and staged things to look like a kidnapping. The missing Amy’s diary entries, interspersed throughout, provide further fuel to the fire, revealing how their storybook romance and glamorous life in New York disintegrated as they lost their jobs, moved to the Mid-West and fell out of love with each other. Amy makes not-so-veiled references to physical abuse, anguishes over Nick’s infidelity with a student – and then she goes and buys a gun.

Flynn flips the switch at the halfway point, reverting to Amy’s perspective, and then it becomes a very different story. This was, for me, anyway, the novel’s fatal flaw. All the tension Flynn worked so hard to build up gets released in a single, disappointing moment, as the whodunit is “solved”. While this allows Flynn to re-examine her characters’ motives, her plodding detailing of the police investigation is a wan replacement for what’s gone before. In the end, Flynn sacrifices plausibility for sensation: there’s an eleventh hour bloodbath that feels wildly self-indulgent and pushes the book into the realms of slasher-movie horror. Still, there is something grimly satisfying about her final image of marriage as a ninth circle of Hell. Short of Strindberg, there are few writers around with this cynical a view of human relationships.

It was inevitable that Gone Girl would be made into a film. Flynn’s rapid-fire cutting between scenes and focus on beautiful people doing terrible things seemed tailor-made for a glossy Hollywood adaptation. And here it is, scripted by Flynn herself and directed by David Fincher, the misanthropic genius behind the zeitgeist-defining films Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network.

In one sense, David Fincher is the perfect director for the piece. His forensic obsession with detail allows him to lay out the clues to the mystery with clinical precision, and his cynical perspective on human nature and enduring interest in psychosis seems like a good fit for the material. The casting, too, seems note perfect. Ben Affleck’s square-jawed is a nice fit for Nick, the nice All American guy who may not be as great as he seems. Affleck often resembles a wooden plank onscreen, a quality that’s weirdly perfect here. He’s dour and unlikeable and, for possibly the first time in his career, manages to reveal more than he shows. Rosamund Pike, taking a major step up into leading lady status, seems equally perfect for Amy. Pike has a crystalline beauty and a cool patrician quality reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ice-blonde movie heroines. It’s easy to imagine her as Amy, the impossibly glamorous and poised New York princess, hiding nasty little secrets beneath a porcelain facade.

Like the book, the first hour of Gone Girl ticks along smoothly enough. Everything is filmed in Fincher’s trademark desaturated colour palette: his sickly greens and dour browns suggest something diseased, like bacteria growing in a laboratory petri dish. The photography is precise and composed, the editing sharp as a knife blade and Flynn manages a punchy (if overly long) adaptation of her own novel. Affleck brings just enough shading and restraint to his performance to suggest Nick’s possible unreliability, and Pike is appropriately wide-eyed and maudlin, if a bit one-note to start. There are some nice supporting performances by Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister and Kim Dickens as the investigating policewoman – two characters who felt flat and formulaic on the page but who add a welcome texture and gravity to the world of the film.

It’s clear from the outset that Fincher isn’t much interested in depicting the happiness that the Dunnes might have had, real or imagined. The opening romance scenes are glibly scripted and played, and Trent Reznor’s score is so pervasive that it’s often difficult to hear the lovers’ dialogue. It doesn’t seem to matter to Fincher, who itches impatiently to get to the grim stuff. The romance is quickly brushed aside, as Fincher returns to his joyless CSI-style of filmmaking. The clock ticks, Amy remains unfound, the cops slowly amass evidence about Nick’s guilt, and nobody smiles.

This depressiveness has worked well for Fincher in films about serial killers and autistic geniuses, but it nearly grinds Gone Girl to a halt. Flynn’s novel worked (just) because she was able to create a palpable chemistry between the lovers, even if it was only a vantage point from which to throw them into the abyss. She’s found a poor interpreter in Fincher, a director who is almost uniquely uninterested in the erotic. While he managed some sexual charge between Brat Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club, he has no idea how to direct Affleck or Pike as a couple or to create anything like the sexual charge the story needs. This proves especially fatal for Pike’s performance: though she looks the part, she’s neither femme enough to be plausible nor fatale enough to be interesting. She needed a director with a beating pulse and a hard-on to direct her. Fatal Attraction’s Adrian Lynne could have done it, or Brian de Palma. But in Fincher’s hands, Pike never manages to be more than an unblinking cipher. She glides Teflon-smooth through the film, unknowable to anyone and never blooming into a fully realised character.

There are one or two bright moments. Fincher allows himself some fun with Flynn’s comic sub-plot about Nick’s lynching in the court of public opinion, lampooning Nick’s nosy neighbours and trashy tabloid journalists with a certain relish. It’s not especially subtle or original – the digs at Amy’s self-proclaimed best friend Noelle feel especially snobbish and mean-spirited – but it injects some welcome humour into a dour first half. Sadly, Fincher’s tendency to embalm his story and his characters means that dolour is never far away. Even the film’s one scene of outright gore, which should provide a grisly kind of release, is executed as coolly and antiseptically as a hospital operation. And there’s a bizarre change of pace in the final act, which lurches awkwardly between black comedy and Bette Davis camp. The laughs feel forced, rather than deserved – further evidence that Fincher has too tight a stranglehold on his material to let it breathe.

The beauty of film is that it can exact in a few carefully composed shots what it would take a writer fifty pages to describe. It’s puzzling to me, then, why Gone Girl was so goddam long – a bum-numbing, bladder-tightening 149 minutes, that felt ready to finish at least half an hour before it was over. Fans of the book will be pleased to know that Fincher has stuck closely to Flynn’s novel, and retained nearly every plot point – but I’m not sure this is a good thing. Film adaptations of novels do better when they reconceptualise a story cinematically, rather than creep respectfully around the original as if it’s a Fabergé egg. Gone Girl could definitely have been improved by hacking off a few limbs here and there. The scenes with Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris, a perky but epicene actor who fits perfectly into Fincher’s sexless universe), feel like they’re from an entirely different film and push the story into the outer realms of plausibility. What works in fiction can sometimes just look silly on the big screen.

Gone Girl has been marketed as a discussion-piece for date-night audiences – a kind of Female Eunuch for the post-Fatal Attraction and internet porn generation. From my perspective, there’s very little of lasting worth in the film, other than the curiosity of seeing a best-selling book rendered in another medium. Like the thrill of a one-night stand or ripping off a bandage, it’s an excitement felt only once, and there’s not much to talk about afterwards.

Which is, I think, the way Fincher wants things. He wants audiences to be disturbed and disquieted, and to adopt as cynical a view of human relationships as his own – an ambition that requires him to close down rather than open up channels of debate or delight in his films. He’s like one of those computer game-playing geeky boys from the 80s who never wanted to share his toys or play with girls. You might get to play with him for a while, but you’ll never ever get to be friends, and he’ll go and sulk in his room if he’s provoked. I say leave him alone to play with his movie camera. Just don’t let him direct a film with a female character in the lead ever again.

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