The darkly funny Gone Girl begins as a procedural illuminating the disintegration of an “ideal” marriage. But this is a David Fincher movie, which means that both dramatic forms happen concurrently and illuminate each other in the process. With the head-spinning drunken-revenge/party montage in The Social Network, Fincher set off in a new direction, braiding cues and micro-events—narrative, gestural, visual, sonic, textural—into an unbreakable cinematic cord. His films now have a diamond-cut sleekness that fits comfortably with the blind momentum of current popular movies, but said sleekness results from an attention that is hair-raisingly precise in its focus.
There are no generalized categories in Fincher’s filmmaking; there are, strictly speaking, no such things as “cross-cutting,” “flashbacks,” “extras,” or “inserts.” He has achieved a new form of superfluid omniscient storytelling, in which a knowing nod of the head from Patrick Fugit’s cop or a single glimpse of a search party on a sweltering afternoon are just as significant as the latest developments in the strange case of Amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike) and her unsympathetic spouse, Nick (Ben Affleck).
There are two pretty big knots in Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn’s cord. The narrative shifts gears twice, and on both occasions Gone Girl more or less redefines its terms and begins again. With the first rupture, our understanding of Amy is undermined, our attention is re-routed to a series of fairly outlandish narrative developments, and we are placed mid-movie in territory that is very close to the trans-global ruination of Wennerström in the penultimate stretch of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The massive popularity of Flynn’s source novel aside, this is a risky undertaking, because it shifts the story’s center of gravity. We might wonder: is Fincher’s cord tightening or is it going slack?
Most filmmakers working in the popular sphere are risk-averse, but not this one. Fincher is confident enough in the tensile strength of his material to lead his characters and his audience through the looking glass of improbabilities, banking on the proposition that they will come out the other side in a new and uniquely disturbing realm. I think his bet pays off.
There is a specter haunting Gone Girl. In the early scenes it is simply sensed as a mood, realized in a series of caustic exchanges and lazy banter between ambition-free people, either wallowing in their disappointments or getting off on their resentments and moralizations. Once Amy’s disappearance is announced, the mood grows into something coarser, eerier, and more subtly pervasive, and the film becomes a hyper-acute rendering of a world filled with people forever checking and re-checking their own media-ready self-presentations, acting on their every emotional impulse and mortally afraid of being disliked.
One might say that the heart of the film is an exchange that happens in the blink of an eye: a woman at a rally for Amy takes a selfie with Nick; he sheepishly recalls that it might not look too good to be flirting when he’s supposed to be desperate to find his missing wife, and asks her to delete it; she takes umbrage and stalks away. Like The Social Network, Gone Girl has the feel of science fiction set in an instantly recognizable present. And this powerful evocation of what Marilynne Robinson has called an institutionalized “absence of mind,” incarnated in virtually every character and every interaction, is the secret force that drives this movie and makes its final section so rich and strange. Nick and Amy are delivered back into each other’s company, shorn of all pretenses and alibis, and we are confronted with two pure creatures of their poisoned social environment, a new Adam and Eve glowing with the cold light of a craziness they’ve each fully absorbed.
In short, this “trashy,” “misogynist” popcorn movie based on a “supermarket best seller” is one of the gutsiest and most complex cinematic enterprises I’ve encountered in a while.