Notable Festivals: New York
Since the beginning of time, men and women have been at odds with each other. One of the grand ironies of the universe is that testosterone and estrogen act against each other despite needing to work in harmony in order to perpetuate the species. We scoff at the term “battle of the sexes”, like it’s some absurdly epic war over territory or ideology, but the fact of the matter is that, no matter how hard we try to bridge the gap, men and women just aren’t built to fully comprehend each other like they would a member of their own sex. Yet despite these fundamental differences of opinion and perspective, we continue coupling up and procreating in the name of love, family, and civilization. In this light, the institution of marriage can be seen as something of an armistice, or a treaty– an agreement by two combative parties to equally reciprocate affection, protection and support. Naturally, when this treaty is violated in a high-profile way like, say, the murder or sudden disappearance of someone at the hands of his or her spouse, we can’t help but find ourselves captivated by the lurid headlines and ensuing media frenzy. Names like OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, or Scott Peterson loom large in our collective psyche as boogeymen symbolizing the ultimate marital transgression.
The treacherous world of domesticity serves as the setting of director David Fincher’s tenth feature film, GONE GIRL(2014). Adapted by author Gillian Flynn from her novel of the same name, the film marks Fincher’s return to the big screen after a three year absence following the disappointing reception of 2011’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. In that time, he had refreshed his artistic energies with Netflix’s razor-sharp political thriller HOUSE OF CARDS (2013), with the serial’s warm reaction boosting his stock amongst the Hollywood elite. Fincher’s oeuvre trades in nihilistic protagonists with black hearts and ruthless convictions, so naturally, the churning machinations and double crosses of Flynn’s book were an effortless match for his sensibilities. Working with producers Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, as well as his own producing partner Cean Chaffin, Fincher manages to infuse a nasty undercurrent of his trademark gallows humor into GONE GIRL, making for a highly enjoyable domestic thriller that stands to be included amongst his very best work.
GONE GIRL begins like any other normal day for Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). But this day isn’t like any others– it’s the fifth anniversary of his wedding to wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a privileged New York socialite and the real-life inspiration for “Amazing Amy”, the main character in a series of successful children’s books authored by her parents. He leaves home to check in on the bar he runs in the nearby town of North Carthage, Missouri, expressing his dread of the occasion to his twin sister Margot, who mixes drinks there. When he arrives back at the generic suburban McMansion he shares with Amy, he finds a grisly scene– overturned furniture, shattered glass, streaks of blood… and no Amy. The police launch an investigation into Amy’s whereabouts, with her status as minor literary celebrity causing a disproportionate stir in the media. He’s taunted at every turn by deceitful talk show hosts and news anchors, as well as clues from Amy herself, left behind in the form of letters that are part of gift-finding game that’s become their anniversary tradition. In her absence, the clues have taken on a more much foreboding aura– channeling similar vibes and imagery from Fincher’s 1997 classic mystery THE GAME. The media’s increased scrutiny on Nick’s life and the history of his relationship with Amy drags his flaws as a husband out into the light, where they’re subsequently used against him to raise the possibility that he just might be responsible for her disappearance. But did he kill his wife? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t… but the truth will be more surprising than anyone could’ve expected.
Ben Affleck headlines the film as Nick Dunne, skewering his real-life image as a handsome leading man by bringing to the fore a natural douchebag quality we’ve always suspected he possessed. Dunne covers up his supreme narcissism and anger issues with a thin layer of charm, finding the perfect balance between a sympathetic protagonist who is way in over his head and a slick operator who thinks he’s got his game on lock. Affleck proves inspired casting on Fincher’s part, and it’s nice to be reminded that besides being a great director in his own right, he’s still a great performer. As Amy Dunne, Rosamund Pike conjures up one of the most terrifying villainesses in screen history. An icy, calculating sociopath, Amy will do anything and everything necessary to carry out the perfect plot against her husband– even if the physical harm she deals out is on herself. Pike’s skincrawling performance resulted in the film’s only Academy Award nomination, but it’s a well-deserved one that will be remembered for quite some time.
If the pairing of Affleck and Pike as GONE GIRL’s leads seems a bit odd or off-center, then Fincher’s supporting cast boast an even-more eclectic collection of characters. Neil Patrick Harris– Doogie Howser himself– plays Amy’s college sweetheart Desi Collins. A rich pretty boy and pseudo-stalker with bottomless reserves of inherited funds, he’s so intent on dazzling Amy with his high-tech toys and spacious homes that he’s completely oblivious to her machinations against him. Primarily known for his comedic roles in TV and film, NPH makes a successful bid for more serious roles with a performance that’s every bit as twisted as the two leads. Beating him in the stunt casting department, however, is maligned director Tyler Perry, whose films are often derided by critics as patronizing and shamelessly pandering despite their immense popularity amongst the African American population. The news of his involvement in GONE GIRL with met with gasps of disbelief and confusion by the blogosphere, but here’s the thing– Tyler Perry is great in this movie. He effortlessly falls into the role of Tanner bolt, a high-powered celebrity lawyer from New York, soothing Nick with his seasoned expertise and wearing expensive designer suits so comfortably they might as well be sweatpants. He’s extremely convincing as a whip-smart, cunning attorney, never once hinting at the fact this is the same man who became rich and famous for wearing a fat suit under a mumu.
Emily Ratajkowski and Patrick Fugit are great as Nick’s jiggly co-ed mistress Andie and the no-nonsense Officer Gilpin, respectively, but GONE GIRL’s real revelation is character actress Kim Dickens. Calling to mind a modern, more serious version of Frances McDormand’s folksy homicide investigator in FARGO (1996), Dickens’ Detective Boney is highly observant and sly– almost to a fault. The joy in watching Dickens’ performance is seeing her internal struggle against the growing realization that none of her prior experience or expertise could ever prepare her for Amy’s level of scheming.
GONE GIRL retains Fincher’s signature look, thanks to the return of his regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. As a team, they’ve built their careers out of using new filmmaking technologies to fit their needs, and GONE GIRL isn’t one to break the tradition. One of the earliest features to shoot on Red Cinema’s new Dragon sensor, GONE GIRL was captured full-frame at 6k resolution and then thrown into a 2.35:1-matted 4k timeline in post-production. This allowed Fincher and his editing partner Kirk Baxter to re-compose their frames as they saw fit with razor-precision and minimal quality degradation. This circumstance also afforded the ability to employ better camera stabilization in a bid to perfect that impossibly-smooth sense of movement that Fincher prefers. As one of the medium’s most vocal proponents of digital technology, Fincher inherently understands the advantages of the format– an understanding that empowers him with the ability to make truly uncompromised work.
Appropriate to its subject matter, GONE GIRL is a very dark film. Fincher and Cronenweth use dark wells of shadow to convey a foreboding mood, while Fincher’s signature cold color palette renders Nick’s trials in bleak hues of blue, yellow, green, and grey. Red, a color that Fincher claims to find too distracting on film, rarely appears in GONE GIRL, save for when he specifically wants your attention on a small detail of the frame– like, say, a small blood splatter on the hood over the kitchen stove. Despite the consistent gloom, the film does occasionally find short moments of warm, golden sunlight and deeply-saturated color. Fincher’s slow, creeping camerawork leers with omniscience, placing its characters at an emotional arm’s distance.
Knowing Fincher’s background as a commercial director, it’s not surprising to see GONE GIRL throw around nonchalant product placement for flyover-country conglomerations like Walmart, KFC and Dunkin Donuts. Looking back over his other features, it’s clear that Fincher has never been one to shy away from the presence of well-known brands in his frame– indeed, a large chunk of his bank account is there as a direct result of his interaction with brand names and logos. Product placement is a controversial topic amongst filmmakers, with many seeing the intrusion of commerce as an almost-pornographic sacrilege towards art, but Fincher’s view seems to be that reality is simply saturated with corporate logos, branding, and advertisements, so why should a film striving for realism be any different?
In Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his musical partner Atticus Ross, Fincher has found a kindred dark soul, and their third collaboration together after 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOOdoesn’t surprise in its aim to bring something entirely unexpected to the proceedings. Working from Fincher’s brief that the music reside in the space between calm and dread, Reznor and Ross’s electronic score for GONE GIRL is characterized by soothing ambient tones interrupted by a pulsing staccato that conveys the razor-sharp undercurrents of malice that Amy so effortlessly hides behind her statuesque facade. Outside of John Williams and Steven Spielberg, it’s hard to think of a composer/director partnership where each artist’s aesthetic is so perfectly suited towards the other. Reznor, Ross, and Fincher have cultivated a symbiotic relationship that, together with Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce and his consistently excellent and immersive soundscapes, elevates any project they undertake into a darkly sublime experience.
A nihilistic sentiment abounds in the style of GONE GIRL, falling quite effortlessly into Fincher’s larger body of work. The same attention to detail and insight into the banal side of law enforcement (paperwork, legal red-tape, etc.) that marked 2007’s ZODIAC is present in GONE GIRL’s almost-clinical depiction of the day-to-day process of investigating such a luridly mysterious crime. Two of Fincher’s most consistent fascinations as a director– architecture and technology– play substantial roles in the drama, but never at the expense of story and character. The architecture that Fincher concerns himself with in GONE GIRL is the domestic structures in which we house our families, or to put it another way, the castles in which we shelter our charges. However, as seen through the perspective of Fincher’s particularly dark and ironic sense of humor, our suburban castles instead become prisons. The neutral tones of upper-middle-class domesticity that pervade Amy and Nick’s McMansion are almost oppressive in their blandness, while the structural elements on which they’re painted bear no characteristics of the values of those who inhabit them. Fincher reinforces this idea by shooting from low angles to expose the ceiling, suggesting that the walls are figuratively closing in on his characters. Likewise, Desi Collins’ grandiose, rustic lakeside retreat is simply too spacious to ever feel constricting or claustrophobic, what with it’s cathedral-height vaulted ceilings and oversized windows letting in an abundance of sunlight. However, Desi has rigged his well-appointed home with an overblown array of security cameras and other surveillance, effectively trapping Amy inside if she wishes to remain under the auspices of “missing, presumed dead”. And speaking of technology, Fincher places a substantial focus on Nick’s distractions with video games, cell phones, oversized televisions and robot dogs. This “boys with toys” mentality is quite appropriate to Fincher’s vision, as it is crucial to the authenticity of Amy’s convictions that Nick has fallen prey to that all-too-common suburban phenomenon of men turning to the stimulation afforded by electronics and gadgets after growing tired of their wives. The dangers of growing complacent in your marriage– whereby we distract ourselves with screens instead of with each other– is a key message in GONE GIRL, and Fincher’s career-long exploration of mankind’s relationship to technology makes him a particularly suitable messenger.
Thanks in part to GONE GIRL’s high profile as a bestselling book as well as Fincher’s own profile as a highly skilled artist with a fervent cult following, the film was a strong success at the box office. As of this writing, it actually holds the records for Fincher’s highest-grossing theatrical run in the United States. Critical reviews were mostly positive, and while it received only one nomination for Pike’s performance at the 2015 Oscars, it’s generally regarded as one of the best films of the year. The tone and subject matter of GONE GIRL may not feel particularly new for Fincher (a notion that may have played into the film’s lack of Oscar nominations), but this well-trodden ground provides a solid platform for Fincher to perfect what he already does best: delivering taut, stylish thrillers with razor-sharp edges.
Now firmly into middle age (52 as of this writing), Fincher could be forgiven for what so many other artists his age do: slowing down, mellowing out, looking backwards, worrying about legacy, etc. It’s pretty evident however that he has no intention of doing any of those things. While his next feature has yet to be announced, he’s deep in development on several projects running the gamut from theatrical to television. Fincher’s skill set may have become more refined and sophisticated in its taste, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone soft on us. Indeed, he’s actually grown much sharper. He’s cleaved off extraneous waste from his aesthetic, and in return he’s able to focus his energies to the point of laser precision. One only needs to look at GONE GIRL’s gut-churning sex/murder sequence to see that he hasn’t lost his unflinching eye for the macabre and his affinity for stunning his audience out of complacency. He may be older, yes, but in many ways, he’s still that same young buck eager to shock the world with Gwyneth’s head in a box.
GONE GIRL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Produced by: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Edited by: Kirk Baxter
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross