Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl is a perfect marriage of complex plot and complex characters.

WARNING: This article will include all manner of Gone Girl spoilers, up to and including the ending.  If you have not seen the film, I highly suggest you turn back because this is one film that is absolutely enhanced by knowing as little as possible!

You have been warned.

I have not read Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl. I actually made a pretty effective effort at not being spoiled about the details of the story before seeing the feature film adaptation directed by David Fincher and written by Flynn herself. If you're unfamiliar with the novel, that's the viewing experience I recommend for all of you because Gone Girl is one of those films that works best when you're not sure which way it's going to swerve.

What I appreciated most about Gone Girl is that this was not a film that felt like it made a choice between having a complex, twisting plot and complex characters. There's enough real estate here for both. Usually in these kinds of films, the plot goes through so many contortions that the characters either don't have time to be fleshed out, or the film needs them to be cyphers so that later twists aren't telegraphed. Wild Things is a good example of this, a fun, trashy thriller with more turns than a roller coaster, but barely any pretension about its cast of characters. It's far harder to tell a story about complex people and maintain enough mystery about them to keep shocking us late into a complex story. I assure you, while it might be an odd comparison to draw, Wild Things was a film that kept springing to mind during my viewing. The two films would make a great double feature.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an unemployed professor who comes home on his fifth anniversary to find his wife Amy missing and some furniture smashed. He calls the police and they immediately begin investigating as a missing person's case, starting with going through the motions of checking out Nick as a suspect. Because Amy's a minor celebrity (her mother is a children's author who's used Amy as inspiration for the heroine of her books), the case quickly becomes a media frenzy.

Speculation and rumor all become grist for the mill of the 20-hour news cycle. Pundits don't waste much time before speculating on Nick's guilt, pointing out strange behavior like smiling while posing for pictures with his wife's "Missing" poster, and noting that he seems unusually close to his twin sister.

Just as the police and the press aren't sure what to make of Nick, we find our opinion of his innocence wavering as well. The crime scene at the house seems staged and Nick alternately seems too eager to please and too defensive when his own guilt is floated. Those suspicions only deepen as we learn that his marriage with Amy wasn't the fairy tale that they're feeding the press. Flashbacks show us their union in an early blissful state, but soon we are presented with money troubles. There was tension when Nick moved the two of them from Amy's home of New York to Nick's birthplace of Missouri to be with his dying mother. As both suffered the loss of their jobs, financial pressures and internal tensions mounted, capped off with disagreements over whether or not to have a baby.

Some of this we are told from Nick and a great deal of it comes from Amy's diary. Amy doesn't always paint the most flattering portrait of Nick and when Nick's behavior appears to back up Amy's observations, it becomes more apparent that Nick might not see his wife's death as the worst thing that could happen to him. After all, it's hard not to make a suspect out of a guy who's revealed to be sleeping with a student of his who's in her "early twenties." (When Nick uses this to describe her, it feels like we're almost supposed to read that as "19" or "20," and frankly, the only detail we get that truly contradicts that is her later presence in a bar that Nick happens to own.)

Nick supposedly told his mistress he was getting a divorce, and since other scenes have helpfully informed us that Amy made him sign a pre-nup, it's not hard to make the leap. A sudden increase in her insurance policy just months earlier reinforces that suspicion. Affleck does really good work here, in a performance that's bound to be underrated.  It's a full hour into the film before Gone Girl really starts showing us its hand, and until then we need to be suspicious of Nick's guilt without Affleck's performance reading as clearly innocent or clearly guilty.

That's a tricky tightrope to walk, particularly when this is a movie that knows the audience will be jugging their assumptions of innocence and guilt. Affleck's performance needs to make us speculate. It's not a role that's meant to be seen as totally innocent up to a point so that we can be blindsided with a twist reveal of his guilt. Affleck needs to play Nick in a way that essentially turns us into those pundits, scrutinizing every out-of-place grin. Harder still, it's a delicate dance that the film needs to maintain even in Nick's "private" moments rather that just the instances he's in the public eye.

And then comes the first big twist, arriving just over an hour into the film - Amy is not only alive, but she's faked her own kidnapping and has spent months, possibly years plotting the perfect crime so that Nick will be framed for her death. It's a twist that most movies would use as their final denouement. When Gone Girl deploys it less than halfway into its two-and-a-half-hours, we know we're in for a ride.

She's very carefully left a trail of bread crumbs for the police to uncover - details like a fake journal that gradually makes Nick out to be a monster, the testimony of a "best friend" who became the supportive ear for Amy to talk about her "abusive" husband, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive merchandise that maxed out Nick's credit to make him look financially overextended with something to hide. That's not even getting into the lengths to which she's staged the "murder" scene and then plotted her own escape.

The second half of the film features some incredible work from Rosamund Pike, whose Amy is revealed as more and more unhinged as we peel back the layers of her psychosis. At one point, she indicates she plans to go so far as to kill herself just to make sure Nick gets the death penalty. That is conviction. It's amazing how far back her manipulations extend, having played both a boyfriend of seven years ago and one of twenty years ago like a fiddle.

The latter of the two is Desi, played by Neil Patrick Harris, whom Amy turns to after her first plan goes sour. The film makes an interesting choice here, too. Desi is no mere patsy, and when he quickly embraces Amy and sets up his lake house to act has her safe house, there's a glint of an edge to his joy at getting to play house with his ex. As he gives her the tour and notes the camera's everywhere, recording everything, for a moment we forget that Amy is a manipulative lunatic and almost shudder at the gilded cage she's about to be locked up in.

As obsessive as Amy is, Desi is a portrait of a different sort of obsession and Harris plays him like a stalker who's delighted that the object of his desire is now under his thumb. A lesser script might have made Desi an earnest dope, so as to heighten the tragedy when Amy kills him and then "escapes," claiming Desi had been holding her all this time. Much like how Nick is more interesting for not being a model husband, Desi is more compelling by how "messy" his character is too.

Yes, Amy's scheme is so convoluted that you could probably pick a lot of it apart if you were determined. This is where Fincher's wizardry is visible and the movie effectively casts its spell while we view it. Where movies often get into trouble is when the execution is so sloppy that the audience can't help but question the logic in the moment. It's not that there aren't loose threads to pull on, but they're very well hidden.

The film's final stages become genuinely unpredictable, and it is here where the twists are leavened with some dark humor. Much of it lands, but the audience I was with was clearly thirsting for those reliefs from the tension. Lines that should have been darkly funny (and seemed to have been delivered correctly) got uproarious laughter because of the pent-up nervous laughter. Particularly during some of the final chess moves between Nick and Amy, it threatened to break the spell.

I feel like I could devote a full day or two of posts just to Amy and what the final act says about her insanity and motivations. There's a delicious irony in that in order to clear his name, Nick had to pretend to be the man whom Amy always wished she had married. Now that she's has exonerated him by turning up alive, she coerces him to continue that act for the rest of his life. How she pulls this off is an act of pure evil that's astonishing even after everything we've seen her do. Nick might have escaped any legal judgement, but he got a life sentence nonetheless.

The very first screenplay I ever wrote dealt with the police investigation of the disappearance a college co-ed, with suspicion quickly falling on her egotistical film student boyfriend.. As the story progressed, it seemed the film student was almost making sure he was a suspect, as if the whole thing was staged.  And then the girl's body turned up, with evidence implicating the boyfriend... who was now in the position of trying to convince police that he did stage the disappearance with the girlfriend and that her turning up dead was never part of the plan.  I liked the idea of someone masterminding the perfect frame-job and having that upended in a way that totally screwed them over.

(In Gone Girl, I also felt echoes of a season ten episode of Law & Order called "Patsy," where a man claims he's been framed not only for the murder of his girlfriend, but an assault on her comatose sister. Of course, the lengths someone would have to go to in order to frame him for those crimes appears to be preposterous.... except that it might be exactly what happened.)

That old script of mine had a number of flaws that I eventually learned from to become a better writer, but I couldn't help but think of it during stretches of Gone Girl. I sat there in the dark, musing, "Damn. This is the movie I wish I'd made."

We're given a number of memorable characters and performances, but this is a real breakout for Rosamund Pike, whose character is brilliantly summed up by Affleck in a line every viewer will feel like they could have written: "You. Fucking. Bitch." You won't easily forget her as credits roll, that's for sure.

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