Review: David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ pits Affleck against Pike in a wicked satire of marriage

David Fincher has been frequently compared to Stanley Kubrick over the course of his career, and most of the time, the comparison is based on the most facile of things. Sure, there's a level of technical mastery to the films Fincher makes that is almost hard to believe, on the same level as that displayed by Kubrick, but I think there's another reason that the comparison is apt, one that goes deeper and that isn't just about how they approach their craft.

At his best, David Fincher makes films that feel like they were made by an alien who is visiting Earth, someone who is determined to understand the way these strange naked apes behave, and it's that same sort of cultural anthropologist voice that marked many of Kubrick's movies. There is a feeling watching Fincher's movies that he feels like we're all insane, and he doesn't trust any of us, and that misanthropic streak is on full display in his new film, “Gone Girl,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn.

The novelist adapted her own book for the screen, and for the most part, she's done a fairly straightforward job of porting over all the important events and all of the various twists of the narrative. Overall, anyone who loved the book should feel very well served by the film, and anyone who sees the film first can probably feel secure in skipping the book. The difference, of course, is that Fincher has to find a way to visually express what is a largely internal piece of work, and he's done an admirable job of finding just the right way to visually draw us into the dark and damaged marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne.

Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are celebrating their fifth anniversary, and their marriage has reached an impasse. Nick wants out, but when he returns to their home to discuss this with Amy, she's gone and there are signs of a struggle. Nick calls in the local police, and Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) launches an investigation. It's a high-profile case, too, because Amy is better known to the general public as Amazing Amy, the lead character in a series of children's books written by her parents, and as soon as word gets out, the media descends on the small Missouri town where they lived, turning Nick's world upside-down.

It's safe to say that things are not what they seem at first, and part of the pleasure of watching the story unfold comes from seeing just how much the truth and the story being sold differ. At its heart, though, this is a movie about marriage, and it is a deeply cynical one. “Gone Girl” suggests that marriage is less about love and companionship and building a life with someone than it is about agendas and lies and inevitable secrets. There is a seething anger that boils along below the surface of the film, building to a classic screen kiss, complete with a dip, that is a total perversion of one of cinema's classic romantic moves.

What may surprise some fans of Fincher's work is just how straightforward the film is, narratively. Like “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” this feels like Fincher making what he sees as a completely mainstream down-the-middle movie. It's not, of course, because I don't think he's capable of really doing that, but Flynn's novel is a potboiler, a thriller. Just because Fincher's ladled all the craft in the world on top of it, that doesn't change the basic nature of what the story is.

Casting Affleck as Nick is a master stroke, and Affleck gives one of his smartest, most nuanced performances in the role. Nick is basically an amiable dummy, a guy who was drifting through his marriage just as he'd drifted through life, and at first, he thought he'd hit the jackpot with Amy. Watching Nick get fed into the meat grinder that is the daily television news cycle, Affleck does a great job of showing how Nick curdles, that charming grin of his masking a growing horror at the thought of what fate might await him if people decide he actually killed his wife.

Rosamund Pike is flat-out great as Amy, and she has the harder of the two roles, it seems to me. Amy is an enigma, and even when we're allowed access to her inner life, we have to question it. How deep does Amy's damage really run? She is a terrifying creation, and if this were a book by a male writer, I'd question his motivations because of just how much she embodies every worst fear that men have as they consider a lifelong commitment. Amy isn't meant to be a universal blank, though, a placeholder for all woman, any more than the shark in “Jaws” is meant to represent every single shark. Amy is a singular monster, and Pike plays her without any attempts at softening her. There is an image near the end of the film that would be beautiful under normal circumstances, but that is horrifying in context, and Fincher uses Pike's stunning beauty to reveal just how rancid she is, rather than conceal it.

The film is dense with great performances. Carrie Coon plays Nick's protective twin sister Go, and she takes what could easily have been the wise-cracking supporting part and turns it into something richer. The depth of feeling she has for Nick is evident, and when things start to go badly for him, she's a ferocious sidekick for him. Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit have a lovely low-key chemistry as the lead detective on the case and the primary officer serving under her. Fugit's got a great face for silent reactions, something Cameron Crowe leaned on heavily in “Almost Famous,” and something that Fincher utilizes expertly here as well. Casey Wilson is perfect as Noelle Hawthorne, making her slightly ridiculous without tipping it over into flat out comedy, and Missi Pyle walks that same line as Ellen Abbott, an obvious riff on Nancy Grace. Neil Patrick Harris makes a strong impression with a very small amount of screen time, and you can almost see this as the sociopathic endgame of the character he played on “How I Met Your Mother,” the worst instincts and behaviors all cranked up as loud as they'll go.

Perhaps the biggest performance surprise for me in the film is Tyler Perry, who is pitch-perfect as Tanner Bolt, the defense lawyer Nick is eventually forced to hire. Bolt is a camera-hog, a man who has made a career out of making as much noise as possible, and anyone who is concerned that Perry would bring any of the traits of his characters from his own films to his work here should relax. Perry is very good, and enormously likable in his time onscreen. I wish more directors would hire him based on his work here, and I suspect they will.

Jeff Cronenweth's photography is exquisite, and it feels like Fincher is pushing the use of digital photography as hard as anyone out there, testing it each time out. There's an early scene where Nick and Amy are falling in love and they walk through an alley where a sugar delivery has kicked up what can only be called a sugar snowstorm, and the way Cronenweth captures the delicacy of the image is sort of breathtaking. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute the most difficult score they've composed so far here, giving us nothing resembling a typical emotional cue. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the score that Thomas Newman wrote for “The Judge,” all clingy and needy and cloying and over-emphatic about any possible feeling the audience might be expected to have for themselves. Ross and Reznor have written something that feels designed to make you uncomfortable. It is a hair shirt of a score, itchy and strange and almost offensive on some level, and I love it.

Special credit must also be given to whoever designed the film's opening titles. This might be one of the most unsettling title sequences in recent memory, but not for any overt reason. Instead, there's something about the rhythm of it, the way it plays with the titles, the places where the cuts from shot to shot land. It's an insanely sophisticated piece of work, but it's almost invisibly simple when you look at it. It does something subliminal to the viewer, making you want to lean in to the screen, and it's an amazingly effective way to start the film.

There are places in the book and the film where I feel like the story unravels a bit, where Flynn's tight control over the way the screws turn begins to loosen. I don't think the film solves any of the book's shortcomings, but it does power through many of them. Even with a running time close to two-and-a-half hours, the film feels like it is rushing to hit every beat of the book, something that runs counter-intuitive to the way Fincher likes to hold on beats or images. It works, but it still feels like something speed-reading the book to you, just a bit.

“Gone Girl” is not Fincher's best film, nor is it the most conventionally satisfying of them, but it feels like this is a movie that represents the very best that Hollywood craft can offer at the moment. It is mean, and I appreciate that it never makes a misstep when it comes to how to be mean. It picks its targets well, and it lands most of the punches it throws. I wish we hadn't already had a hundred other satires of the modern TV news cycle and the industry of fear and bullshit that it sells, but Fincher doesn't seem to be doing anyone else's version of the message. He set out to tell a very particular story and, to absolutely no one's shock, he made about as slick and elegant a package as this story was ever going to inspire.

“Gone Girl” is in theaters everywhere October 3rd.