Saturday, October 4, 2014

Believe No One: Absorbing "Gone Girl" a deliciously cold, nasty snake

Gone Girl (2014)
149 min., rated R.

With director David Fincher's predilection for the dark and disturbing (1995's "Se7en," 2007's "Zodiac," 2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), the smart and cerebral (1999's "Fight Club," 2010's "The Social Network"), and sometimes the playful and Hitchcockian (1997's "The Game," 2002's "Panic Room"), "Gone Girl" is deliciously nasty, twistedly manipulative, cold-hearted and labyrinthine. Put together Fincher's atmospheric stylistic strengths and former Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn's 2012 best-selling novel, which she adapts for the thematically dense script, and it's a match made in heaven that allows for the director to be quite playful and ironic with his storytelling. "Gone Girl" might be more intoxicatingly classed-up pulp than a meaningful and important portrait of a poisonous marriage, but damned if it's not near-flawlessly executed in how it bleakly takes the piss out of the way cruel, manipulative people see marriage and how the media sensationalizes the truth, or the closest thing to the truth. There are always two sides to every story and this one has a genuine sick factor all over it.

On his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a creative writing teacher who lost his job as a Manhattan writer in the recession and returned to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, returns to his suburban home to find traces of a struggle but no sight of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). He immediately worries, calling in detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) who investigate and find clues of a potential crime. They not only find a smashed, tipped-over glass coffee table and a small splatter of blood but an envelope labeled "Clue One" as part of Amy's scavenger hunt for Nick's anniversary present. Supported by twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), Nick gets the cold shoulder from his concerned in-laws, Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth Elliott (Lisa Barnes), children's book writers whose popular heroine "Amazing Amy" was always ahead of their own trust-fund princess' accomplishments. Soon enough, Nick gets caught in the media circus, becoming a prime suspect and being painted as an unsympathetic killer. This could just be the tip of the iceberg.

Fully absorbing in all of its 149 minutes, "Gone Girl" deceptively begins as a moody, seductive crime investigation with a mystery not easy to solve and then becomes a bait-and-switch into a lurid, disturbing Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven collaboration, in a good way. Via Amy's (unreliable?) narration of her journal entries, the film jets back and forth between her five-year relationship with Nick, tapping into the disillusionment Amy feels of the fairy-tale romance she and her partner once shared. Some could even call the film's ultimate destination a bitingly cynical black comedy about marriage with the meanest of hearts and a satire of the frenzied media. Around the halfway point, the curtain is pulled back and we reassess who we should side with. It's hard to always get a grip on Nick and Amy, and that's surely the point. Both complicated and narcissistic enigmas who might just deserve each other, these are people the audience cannot fully trust. Something isn't quite what it seems even as we hear Amy's inner monologue and how she fears her husband. Ben Affleck proves to be cannily cast as Nick Dunne, the charismatic and attractively square-jawed actor himself formerly hounded by bad press and even said to resemble convicted wife murderer Scott Peterson. Once Nick is under media scrutiny for trying to be polite and smirks for a picture in front of his missing wife's poster at a press conference, there is something sinister and insincere beneath the Prince Charming facade. Looking like one of Hitchcock's icy blondes, Rosamund Pike turns in her meatiest and most fearless performance, also revealing a cunning and meticulous intelligence behind that smile and wide, fearful eyes, and is probably exactly who Gillian Flynn had in mind. Both actors communicate a relationship that's gone from love to hate, a kiss in a "sugar storm" as a N.Y.C. bakery truck unloads to one's narrated desire to bash their beloved's skull in.

The superlative level of performances doesn't end there. Carrie Coon (HBO's "The Leftovers") is superb, shining right alongside the two leads as Nick's twin sister, Margo, who co-owns and tends the bar her brother opened. Her Margo, the film's true heart and audience surrogate, has a tell-it-like-it-is wit and voice-of-reason levelheadedness that are more than welcome. Kim Dickens is marvelous as always, here playing hard-bitten, inquisitive Detective Boney, and Patrick Fugit is close to her equal as partner Jim Gilpin who wouldn't mind locking Nick up sooner than later. An against-type Neil Patrick Harris, who might have stood out like a sore thumb, actually makes a half-creepy, half-sad impression as Desi, one of Amy's suspicious ex-boyfriends. Somehow, Fincher even manages to find a charisma in Tyler Perry, who's right on the money as a sharky celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt who helps Nick in his case. Also, Missi Pyle (usually a face to shticky comedy) is a hoot, doing an unmistakably dead-on Nancy Grace impression as glossy journalist Ellen Abbott. Even in the tiniest of roles, the irresistible Casey Wilson makes for an amusingly dimwitted baby-crazy neighbor, Noelle Hawthorne, who saw Amy as her best friend.

Right down to the haunting, fatalistic open-endedness of the last shot, "Gone Girl" continues to surprise, peeling back different colors and layers of characters we thought we had figured out. A lot of movies that pull twists and turns rely on convenience, but director Fincher and screenwriter Flynn alternately bring such a slick precision to make us buy what they have in storewhat comes later obviously won't come as such a surprise to those who read Flynn's novel, but let's focus on the medium at hand. Even when the implausible is made plausible, one can sense Fincher kicking up the salacious, macabre vibe to a level of fascinating psychological complexity rather than mere plot contrivance. Thanks to Fincher's pedigreed craft behind the camera and his most recent go-to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the film is gorgeously sleek, visually precise, and effortlessly paced. Another edgy, eerie music score by reliable team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also underscores the insanity of the plot reveals. One final thought: methinks that audiences will be better off not having read Gillian Flynn's book and not getting caught up in comparisons. As a film, "Gone Girl" should knock your socks off.

Grade: A - 

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