From the opening minutes of Gone Girl, aka Diary of a 21st-Century Mad Housewife, director David Fincher sets the rat-a-tat-tat pace, one that he manages to maintain throughout his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-selling page-turner. There’s not a reaction shot held too long; one set-piece builds momentum on top of the other.
The film quickly gets down to its nasty business, flashing the opening credits in rapid fire succession. This is the rare two-and-a-half-hour film that feels shorter than its running time. Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, packs in several movies worth of plot, yet she has pared down her narrative without losing the devious details. Her characters remain warped, with take-it-or-leave-it flaws.
Flynn jettisons the book’s alternating “he said, she said” perspective of a toxic marriage, though the female protagonist, Amy, has her say—and how. For the most part, the audience assumes husband Nick’s point of view, sharing his reactions to the chain of events. In the long run, and based on what viewers witness, Nick gains our trust. Blonde and regal Amy, however, remains a puzzle to solve. Not purely plot driven, the movie constantly reminds us that Nick and Amy are flesh and blood, aided in large part by the strategic use of pungent voice-overs, especially from the vitriolic Amy. (The book allows a snarky Amy to fully vent, and thus is a juicier pleasure.)
On the day of the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy vanishes while Nick commiserates with his twin sister, Margo, at the bar the siblings manage. A trust fund baby, Amy bought the business to give Nick some purpose; money is just one source of tension in the relationship. The couple had moved to his Missouri hometown after his mother was diagnosed with cancer—Amy refers to her new residence as the “navel of the country.” Both of them have had to lower expectations. Former magazine writers once living in Brooklyn, their livelihoods have become extinct.
When Nick returns homes to an empty house at 11 that morning, he finds the front door wide open and the coffee table smashed. Not much else appears to be out of the ordinary, except for smudges of blood in the kitchen, which catch the attention of the lead police detective, Kim Dickens’s Detective Rhonda Boney. Nick’s glib responses to her questions raise red flags; meanwhile, the broadcast and cable news networks rear their heads. On camera in a press conference, Nick appears detached and taciturn, and it doesn’t help his PR that an attractive woman posts a photo of her and a smiling Nick on Facebook during the first days of Amy’s disappearance.
The role of Nick is a natural fit for Ben Affleck. What has come across as woodenness in previous roles is justifiable opaqueness here, and it works to the film’s advantage, given that the plot’s a steadily unraveling mystery. Affleck’s poker face keeps viewers guessing: What is he hiding? How much does he know?
As for Amy, Reese Witherspoon, one of the film’s producers, pursued the role originally. Luckily, Fincher went in a different direction by casting the lesser-known Rosamund Pike. It was not for nothing that she played the title character in the original London stage production of Hitchcock Blonde. She’s facilely aloof and regal with a brittle sense of humor (for more of Amy’s bon mots, read the book). Amy graduated with honors from Harvard, and her actions also indicate that she’s extraordinarily cunning, yet Pike imbues her with sensitivity. Pike also knowingly lets the audience in on a secret: the type-A Amy, coasting on her ego, may not in fact always be the most perceptive person in the room.
The spot-on casting carries over to the supporting cast: This thriller has the sort of lineup that will draw viewers to IMDb.com, possibly crashing its server. It’s like a studio film from the golden age featuring reoccurring and transformed contract players. Kim Dickens has had a long career, but she’s among the actors who are at first unrecognizable, in her case, as the by-the-book, pragmatic investigator with a Southern twang. Her sidekick is the deadpan Patrick Fugit (remember him as the kid in Almost Famous?).
In an episode set in the Ozarks, Lola Kirke becomes a formidable presence and for a time commands the film away from Pike. One sure to gain notice is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister/confidant Margo. If the plot strains credibility, she brings the film back down to earth, in a combination of Janeane Garofalo and Rebecca Hall. Casey Wilson, of Saturday Night Live and the new sitcom Marry Me, is sadly not on screen long enough as the nosy drama queen neighbor down the block.
In its depiction of a marriage as a blood sport, men probably will root for the put-upon Nick, but women aren’t likely to rally around Amy as much. She doesn’t give a damn about feminist solidarity anyway; she’s in it for herself as a member of a twisted sorority that would include Bonnie Bedelia in Presumed Innocent and founding member Gene Tierney from 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven, who makes Amy look like an amateur. On screen, Amy can’t help but also come across as the nightmare version of a woman hell bent on having it all. Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest would win a popularity contest opposite Amy. After the film reveals all of its cards by the two-hour mark, Nick has long earned the viewers’ sympathy, and Amy is left to their withering judgment.