There are many directors working in the industry who could be considered to have a distinct, signature style. These auteurs usually keep the same crew from project to project, often relying on similar genres, tones, plots and visual styles. David Fincher is likely one of the best examples of this in mainstream Hollywood, with his color palette of icy blues and grays, his penchant for the darker and more twisted elements of society, for sex and violence and male-dominated storylines. Fincher-esque is the sort of word that could be used to describe those up-and-coming in his wake. For every Dennis Villeneuve, the shadow of David Fincher looms large over him. He is a consummate director who brings the same polish and prestige to every one of his projects. All of his films, even the less than impressive ones, can be counted on for production design of unerring quality.
Gone Girl, his new film written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel of the same name, certainly has all the trappings of a David Fincher film. Shot by Jeff Cronoweth (the cinematographer of Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in those trademark blues, the story follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), who comes home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. The kidnapping investigation (spearheaded by a pair of officers played by Kim Dickens and a distressingly grown up Patrick Fugit) soon turns to homicide as more details emerge, with the spotlight trained directly on Nick as the culprit. As his life disintegrates in the days following Amy’s disappearance, the film intercuts flashbacks, narrated through entries of Amy’s diary, that give her side of the relationship and the events leading up to that fateful day. The story continues to unfold., and cracks begin to form in the stories of both spouses, bolstered by two unreliable narrators (of a sort). It is impossible to know what to think or who to believe.
Ben Affleck may not be the best actor on Earth, but he has a cocky energy that fits what is needed for Nick Dunne. Clad in baggy dress shirts in an attempt to hide his Batman physique (being ripped to shreds could complicate the domestic violence aspects of the narrative), he navigates through his role with some measure of competence, though it is by no means a blowaway performance. For the first half of the film, the same could be said of Rosamund Pike, who has had an up-and-down career, often a bit shaky when shedding her native accent. Pike is stunningly gorgeous, her face lighting up the room even when confined to a missing persons poster. Her performance in flashback is stilted and flat to the point of distraction, though there is a reason for this revealed in the second half of the narrative that pays off quite well. Specific details cannot be offered without ruining the twisty plot, but by the end of the film’s lengthy narrative, she is somewhat of a marvel. Fincher’s films have always been male-dominant, sometimes queasily so, but he does sometimes have the ability to find the right woman when the film needs it.
The supporting cast, featuring the likes of Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris and Missi Pyle among others, is strong. Pyle is particularly wonderful as a Nancy Grace analogue, eviscerating the media and their role in sensationalizing personal tragedies. Perry also shines as the hotshot lawyer brought in to help Nick through his troubles as the noose around him tightens. Pyle and Perry’s performances are roundly comedic, pointing to Flynn and Fincher’s penchant for gallows humor and dramatic irony as a relief valve for the tension when Gone Girl is at its darkest. Fincher also takes advantage of his burgeoning relationship with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose scores are weird and daring, eschewing melody for ambient mood-enhancing blips and boops, electronic and impersonal, the perfect match for Fincher’s cold, sterile production design. Gone Girl is the work of an accomplished professional, and its look and feel is exacting and perfectly realized.
What is not perfectly realized, unfortunately, is the structure and polish of the script. The novel, with its shifting perspectives and unreliable narrators, presents a challenge for adaptation into a visual medium, and in practice the experience of watching the first half of Gone Girl is choppy and disorienting. One could argue that the disorientation is intended, and it likely is, but the choppiness is an unfortunate byproduct of the bifurcated story. It is a complex plot with multiple twists and turns and a plurality of moving parts, and the film manages to feel simultaneously overstuffed and stretched thin because of it. It is a crime potboiler that wants to frame its interest through a vivisection of the marriage of its two leads, and it cannot successfully establish doubt in Nick’s side of the story or his culpability in the murder investigation. The third act, once the twist is out of the way and everything is laid bare, is a crackler, featuring the cast’s best moments and indeed the film’s best moments, and it is surprisingly adept when giant exposition dumps are necessary. Still, the first 90 minutes of the film have pacing and plotting issues that cannot entirely be overcome.
Over his career, David Fincher has proven time and again that he is only as good as the script from which he is working. When given an all-timer like Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network or James Vanderbilt’s for Zodiac, he can create a masterpiece. Saddle him with Eric Roth’s treacly screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the results are not nearly as enticing. Gone Girl is better than Button, but is has serious flaws that Fincher cannot entirely push through for all of his mastery of tone and camera and design. There is a lot of good to be found in Gone Girl, and when weighed on some cosmic scale, the good outweighs the bad. But these flaws and these weaknesses hang around the back of the brain even as the film picks up steam and the tension boils over. Like every David Fincher film, it is definitely worth seeing (for one scene in particular at the very least), but it is just a little south of where it needs to be to become something special.