Gillian Flynn’s impeccably crafted, if garishly written, novel Gone Girl leads readers down a rabbit hole so mind-bogglingly twisty that it almost defies reason. The sea-sawing motions of the book’s he-said-she-said structure, which so cunningly involves the audience by toying with their expectations of narrative and male-female relationships, clearly appealed to David Fincher, a filmmaker whose art has always been devoted to the enigma of personality and memory, and so often reflected in his surgical-like fondness for symmetry. His films don’t lack for thieves and crooks, scheming and sleuthing, and Gone Girl and all its slippery sleights of hand are very much in his wheelhouse. But it remained to be seen if this postmodern observer of procedure would challenge or obscure, with his propensity toward cool and sobering aesthetic spectacle, the having-it-both-ways moral relativism that Flynn so stridently engenders throughout her book.
The film begins deceptively on the straight and narrow, with a privileged husband and wife, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), in the wake of some money problems, moving from New York City to the heart of Mark Twain country. In the first shot, Nick passes his fingers through the blond locks of Amy’s finely shaped head, which suggests, like Fincher’s crystalline images, a patina of myth. And even though he wants to break her head open, and even though she’s been given so little agency in the choice of their move to the Midwest, his shock is palpable enough when he comes home to find broken glass on the floor to suggest that he has nothing to do with her disappearance. At least not in ways the audience might expect. Fincher is in the business of obfuscation, and Gone Girl thrills in its lack of temporal fluidity and withholding of cause and effect. This is, on the surface, a run-of-the-mill anatomy of a crime that finally becomes an almost surrealistic dive into the mind of a psychopath.
As murder mystery, Gone Girl abounds in minutiae, in speculation, clues, witness testimony, and news reportage. Yet this isn’t, as Nathan Lee wrote in praise of Zodiac in the Village Voice, an “orgy of empiricism.” Fincher catalogues the events of the novel with an elegant brusqueness that feels wiped clean of potential resonances, like the kitchen floor where Amy lost copious amounts of blood. There’s an acknowledgement of the economic despair that’s depleted our nation in the postcard-pretty montage of decrepitude that opens the film, but any insight into this desolation and how money woes color Nick and Amy’s predicament stalls there. Even a later scene, where the investigation into Amy’s disappearance leads to an abandoned mall where she might have bought a gun from a homeless person, is too busy fulfilling Fincher’s familiar shtick of having detectives flash lights into chasms of inky-black darkness to ever hauntingly scan as an empathetic imprint of a world having been left behind.
Fincher’s detachment is fitting here only insofar as he’s dealing with characters who are always on guard. But there’s detachment, and then there’s disinterest. In flashbacks that punctuate the film, Amy is scrutinized with a transparency that’s laughable. If she’s into bending men to her will in the present, it’s a mania that’s easily traced back to her parents, who “plagiarized her childhood” for Amazing Amy, a popular string of children’s books wherein her fictional doppelganger achieved everything she couldn’t in real life. Woe is Amy, a practically brick-to-the-head example of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, and woe is Nick, the prototypical nebbish who’s unlucky to have gotten caught in her crosshairs. Or any woman’s crosshairs, for that matter, which is consistent with the book’s vision of Nick being incessantly victimized by the other sex, women who are depicted only as shrill, lecherous, petty, or conniving. There’s a comic streak to the film that suggests Fincher may understand the material as trash, but it’s the kind of affectation that only reinforces, rather than dulls, its insults.
As in Flynn’s novel, because Nick’s point of view doesn’t take the form of written letters and isn’t understood as an appeal to the audience, his innocence, at least in Amy’s killing, is always assumed. No suspense there, and if the shrillness of the cloyingly appeasing Amy on the page was belied by her convincing earnestness (this is Flynn’s one masterstroke, which is easily confused for bad writing), there’s no leavening agent in the film, as Pike’s guileless delivery makes clear that Nick is unmistakably in the right, even if he doesn’t always have the upper hand. Just as Fincher views the infinitely frayed layers of Affleck’s prized mug, from the furious to the resigned, as the orbit around which the entire film pivots, he more or less delivers Amy as an open book, reducing the revelation of her spectacularly feigned innocence and sense of victimhood to just a matter of time.
Gone Girl is at heart a melodrama about a marriage’s collapse and bonkers restoration. The ending many readers wanted from the book is the one where, as mischievously suggested by the film’s early teasers, Nick sends Amy to the bottom of the Mississippi. But that’s not the one we deserve—and it’s not the one we get in this most faithful adaptation. In the pathological way Amy retaliates against Nick, the true Amy is revealed as a stereotypical embodiment of feminism by wanting to strip men, and not just Nick, of their “power.” Affleck is so committed to how his character becomes resigned to the anxieties that Amy causes him that his surrender feels more understandable than it does in the novel, where it was even more fabulously and conspiratorially orchestrated. But Fincher and Flynn should have gone further and truly grappled with the real horror that, by giving his relationship with Amy another chance, Nick is indulging in one of the great myths of feminism: that it emasculates men. Rather than undermine that noxiousness, Fincher enshrouds it in funereal brushstrokes that cast his Gone Girl as a fashionable tumbling into an abyss of willful denial.