WARNING: This review contains plot spoilers
Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel Gone Girl always had the makings of a great trashy thriller, since the book itself was mostly an airport read- a potboiling page turner with plenty of twists, gore, mystery, and spoiler alert- a fantastic femme fatale, so villainous as to rival any of the women in a classic film noir. Yes, Amazing Amy herself is what really sold the book- she holds her husband and the audience in the palm of her hand, manipulating every word, action and event in what turns out to be her story from start to finish.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you're on her side though, and the book was told in equal part (at least during the first half) from Amy's dunce of a husband Nick's perspective, which lets us in on the reality of what's happening from that first, surreal day that Amy went missing. Amy and Nick Dunne were once a happily married couple who met in New York but moved to his hometown in Missouri when Nick's mother got sick and they both got laid off from their jobs as magazine writers. The blissful happiness they once shared then began to fall away bit by bit, as resentment, frustration, money problems, and eventually infidelity took a toll on the marriage, as it does with so many couples. The marital troubles should be recognizable to most, but this film only wants to skim the surface of what makes marriage viable or not for these two people, and the real heart of the story lies in the pulpy thriller material, which director David Fincher so excels at.
In a way, genre material like this is perfect for the meticulous technician, who draws comparison to Alfred Hitchcock in the way he controls his shots and actors, and who creates an effective atmosphere of dread that permeates every frame. That's all done as well here as it is in his best movies, which include Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The first half of the movie follows the procedural aspects of the early days when Amy went missing, as we see the little Missouri town begin to turn on Nick as the prime suspect, due in no small part to the uninviting way he acts in the face of mass media scrutiny. This would require a tricky performance from Ben Affleck, as he needs to play a guy who's not that smart but also convey the shiftiness of a potential killer- we in the audience need to suspect him as much as the local cops do. He mostly pulls it off, although I've never seen a whole lot of range from him as an actor and that perception has not been changed by this movie. It may just be a case of his having been well cast, as he comes across as both a nice guy and kind of a jerk at different times in reality as well as on film.
The other lead is Rosamund Pike, the British actress from bit parts in movies like Pride and Prejudice and Die Another Day, who's now been given the role of a lifetime in Amy Elliott Dunne, one that any actress who read the book would certainly relish the chance to sink her teeth into. Even though I ventured into spoiler territory early on by explaining aspects of her role in this, all I'll say now is that she gets a couple of great moments by virtue of the screenplay and Fincher's mesmerizing direction- the iconic "Cool Girl" monologue from the book and a pivotal scene with Neil Patrick Harris as ex-boyfriend Desi are two of the best directed scenes I've seen in any movie so far this year. As to the rest, I have to say that Pike does a serviceable job, but many of Amy's best moments are as much due to the part as to the performance itself. I'm not sure that she has the dynamic screen presence of some of the more memorable female villains in modern movie history, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Pike's Amy is much more of an ice queen in the film than she was in the book, and the movie version lacks Amy's sick sense of humor and gleeful narcissism that I took from almost every page of her inner monologues in the second half of the novel. She remains an illusive mystery in the movie, and we are far less privy to her thinking and personality than we are on the page- but for what it is, it does work in terms of the film as a thriller.
Every part of the movie that does work so efficiently is to Fincher and Flynn's credit (Flynn adapted the screenplay herself), more so than the actors. You can't help but be drawn into the story, which to an audience that is not familiar with the book, will seem unpredictable, funny in parts, and even campy by the surreal end that awaits its doomed characters. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Carrie Coon as Nick's wisecracking and sympathetic sister Margo, and most surprisingly, Tyler Perry as the hotshot lawyer Tanner Bolt, whom Nick must hire to defend him. They provide the warmth and likability that the leads are written to repel. As I said earlier, the satire and commentary the movie may want to make about marriage is touched on at best (those themes were also explored in more depth in the book), but for the entertaining and precise way Fincher brings this mostly faithful adaptation to the screen (which includes those great scenes on par with his best work, which is still for my money, Zodiac and The Social Network), it's a pretty fun night out at the movies.
* * * 1/2