We've seen this story with a thousand minor variations on cable news: A beautiful, blond woman disappears. Her picture-perfect home shows signs of a struggle, and her handsome husband gives the cameras a grin that's just a bit too charmingly insouciant. Something's wrong here — but can we be sure of what?
In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn plays on those expectations to craft a tale that delivers both pulpy shocks and acerbic insights into relationships in a supposedly postfeminist age. The combination made it a massive commercial success. Scripted by Flynn, David Fincher's film version faithfully adapts both the novel's literary and genre elements to the screen. Nonetheless, moviegoers who've read Gone Girl may find themselves reacting differently to the film from their friends who haven't.
That's because so many of Flynn's effects depend on a literary device that's tricky to translate: first-person narration of dubious reliability. Husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) narrates the action as the police search for his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). The couple hasn't gotten along since the two moved from Manhattan to Nick's podunk Missouri hometown, and Nick tells us that he was about to ask for a divorce when Amy conveniently vanished. Meanwhile, excerpts from Amy's diary flesh out the happier early days of their marriage — and increasingly make us suspect Nick isn't telling the whole truth.
Fincher juggled different timeframes and competing perspectives with aplomb in The Social Network, and he applies that experience to the challenge of the book's narrative structure. Amy's diary entries feature as flashbacks in the film's first third, smoothly integrated through devices such as match cuts. Meanwhile, the movie gives a bigger role to the detectives on the case (Patrick Fugit and Kim Dickens), turning them into audience surrogates: He's quick to believe Nick is a killer, while she remains skeptical.
Most of Gone Girl is visually unshowy in an appropriately midwestern way, keeping the focus on the performers. Supporting players such as Dickens and Carrie Coon (as Nick's twin sister) get to shine, and even Tyler Perry pulls off a hilarious turn as Nick's lawyer. But the main event is Affleck and Pike exploring the convolutions of their characters. Nick looks glib and shallow to the TV cameras, but reveals his touchier — and darker — sides to his sister; Amy's ice-queen exterior hides emotions of primal force. When tensions come to a head, Fincher brings his style to a more operatic level.
In the novel, Flynn sets up her two central characters so artfully, placing them in relatable contemporary contexts, that, even when their story goes to purple places, we believe in them. Because the movie lacks so much of this context and backstory — by necessity; it's already long at 149 minutes — those who see Gone Girl in isolation may find it less compelling than those who can draw on their memories of these characters on the page.
For instance, because thriller conventions dictate giving more screen time to the present-day search for Amy than to the flashbacks, the evolution of her character suffers. We can't feel for this woman the way we might if we saw, say, her struggle to reconcile her competitive New York upbringing with her new home.
Whatever its limitations, Gone Girl is the rare character-focused drama that can make audiences gasp audibly — and laugh, and cringe. (Come prepared for both emotional and physical violence.) Flynn mercilessly details how spouses can lie to themselves and each other to maintain the relationship they want to have — and how the sensation-hungry media embroider lies on top of lies when that relationship becomes everybody's business. Pulp-news storytellers like Nancy Grace (parodied here as the ubiquitous "Ellen Abbott" [Missi Pyle]) crave victims and villains. But in this story, nobody is innocent.