Beautiful girl, lovely dress, where she is now I can only guess

As I started gathering some digital resources to provide supporting research in writing about the new film Gone Girl, I was briefly taken aback when reminded that Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name came out just two years ago, arriving in June of 2012. Something about the book makes it feel like it’s been out there for much longer, maybe forever. It could be the way it touches on primal fears and animosities, doing so with a scathing directness and a brilliantly bleak sense of humor. Or it could simply be attributed to the uncommonly fast turnaround from page to screen, making the jump at a clip largely unseen since John Grisham’s novels were practically being published with film production call sheets as appendices. There was barely time to move a bookmark from front to back before the scuttlebutt about the film was in full lather, interest only compounded by Flynn’s very direct involvement in the production. She’s the only credited writer on the adapted screenplay, which made rumors of changes — even highly significant changes — all the more intriguing.

Despite hints otherwise, the finished film is highly faithful to Flynn’s original work. Yet, what’s fascinating in that respect is the skillful, sometimes merciless adaptation Flynn has rendered. A former writer for Entertainment Weekly who spent her fair share of time covering film, Flynn noted that her experience allowed her to approach the task of adaptation without a sense of preciousness about her plot and words. She recognized that prose and film are two entirely different beasts, and her new task was reshaping her story to the needs of cinema. She’s succeeded beautifully. Gone Girl has the same headlong, devilishly unpredictable storytelling of Flynn’s novel. If she necessarily transferred a couple of the slightly questionable plot turns, Flynn also shrewdly knew what to cut. Even stretching out to director David Fincher’s preferred lengthiness (he hasn’t made a film that runs less that two hours since 2002’s Panic Room), the film never feels long because the story has been shaved down to its essentials.

And the essentials of Gone Girl are consistently compelling. A woman named Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her suburban Missouri home, on her wedding anniversary, no less. Her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), seems the likeliest suspect, especially as different details emerge about oddities at the crime scene and strain within the marriage, largely, so it seems, due to Nick’s various transgressions. In the novel, Flynn deftly withholds information without resorting to trickery, making the truth unclear for a remarkable length of time. If the film can’t quite replicate that uncertainty, it has its own intriguing tension to it, building meticulously rendered thrills in the discovery process, which is happening on multiple levels — with the police, with Nick, with everyone else that slips into the orbit of the mystery.

Those discoveries are met time and again by an absolutely perfect cast. Rosamund Pike is the most stellar, playing a deeply complicated role with subtlety and restrained invention, but there a great turns throughout: Tyler Perry as an assured, coolly gregarious attorney, Kim Dickens as a detective investigating the disappearance, Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister (arguably the only character who can be said to be consistently sympathetic), and even Sela Ward, making the most of a handful of minutes as a television interviewer. The little miracles even extend to Affleck, that most opaque of actors, who is ideally suited for the role and handles it with the right balance of anxiety and agitation. He can’t quite find his way to the nuance needed for some of the later scenes, but there’s a high degree of difficulty to those most critical moments. It’s hardly a huge failing that Affleck clips his toe on the top of the final hurdle.

The movie has already launched a thousand think pieces, with another thousand sure to come. This fevered attempt to parse the deeper meanings and subtexts of the story only makes me that much more grateful that Fincher is at the helm. I don’t agree with or celebrate every choice he makes as a filmmaker, but at least he makes choices with some meaning behind them. It would have been so easy to hand this hot property over to a safe Hollywood hack like Brett Ratner or Ridley Scott and just watch the box office tote board spin to ever higher numbers. But Gone Girl is more richer work than that, one that deserves proper attention given to its deeper, darker themes. For example, those who challenge the whole work as problematically playing to the misogynistic suspicion that most women who are reporting some sort of abuse are doing so out of calculation and retribution aren’t entirely wrong, but in ignoring the inherent judgments rendered against nearly every character in the story, they’re not precisely right either.

Fincher makes his own choices that further challenge easy conclusions about that Gone Girl is ultimately trying to say, the most prominent in the staging of the famous “Cool Girl” monologue. Needing something visual to go with the words, Fincher puts a truncated version of the monologue over point of view shots of women in passing vehicles who presumably fit the angry description. This shifts the judgment in interesting ways, but not necessarily in the way that’s most readily apparent. There’s been some consternation about the choice, saying the blame shifts from oppressive social constructions to the women themselves (which already offers a slightly more generous reading of the original passage). That ignores, however, that the women in the nearby cars aren’t accompanied by men, so there’s no reason to believe they’re performing. Maybe they are indeed being themselves, as most do when in the supposedly protected, private space of a moving car (in truth, everyone can see the full-throated singing along to a Kelly Clarkson song). This then makes the monologue untrue and maybe just another manifestation of the unhinged disdain that defines the character delivering it.

I have no idea as to whether or not my little “think paragraph” there accurately describes Fincher’s intent in the scene. In a way, I don’t care. That there’s material within the film to explore, to hold up to the light from as many different angles as possible, is cause enough to celebrate Gone Girl. Fincher, Flynn, and everyone involved could have settled for a humble potboiler. Instead, they took a stab at complex, ambiguous art. Maybe that’s why it strikes me as timeless.

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Posted in Film

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