Great Girl

Gillian Flynn’s book “Gone Girl” was a rarity in the publishing world – a word-of-mouth bestseller. It parked itself on the fiction bestseller list shortly after it was published and stayed there for almost 2 years. Part of the appeal of the book was a third-act twist that changed everything. With that kind of readership, it was not a question of “if” but rather “when” the book would be made into a film. The biggest question, though, was if the film version of Gone Girl would be a good one.

When David Fincher signed on as the director, the odds it would be excellent rose to almost a sure thing. Fincher cut his teeth on twisty thrillers such as Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club, which had its own remarkable third-act twist. In recent years he expanded his reputation with the true-crime thriller Zodiac, the beautiful Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the Oscar-winner The Social Network. He also did the English-language adaptation of another phenomenal mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If anyone was a perfect fit for Gone Girl, it was Fincher.

Fincher asked Flynn to adapt her novel. Flynn, a former “Entertainment Weekly” writer, had never done a screenplay before, but she distilled the book to the essential scenes and reworking some of them so the 400+ page novel is faithfully transferred to the screen. If you’ve read the book, the movie is like watching the visions of what happened that you saw in your mind recreated on a panoramic screen.

If you haven’t read the book, the bare bones of the plot is this: On his 5th anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is called home by a neighbor who’s noticed Nick’s front door is standing open. Nick finds evidence of a struggle, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) finds some curious things, including an envelope marked “Clue One.”  Amy has celebrated their wedding anniversaries by creating scavenger hunts for Nick, but with her disappearance the hunt takes on an ominous air.

Amy is a minor celebrity thanks to a series of children’s books that chronicle the adventures of “Amazing Amy” that were written by her psychologist parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott (David Clennon, Lisa Banes). The search for Amy becomes a media circus, while Boney’s investigation turns up disturbing evidence about Nick. Is he a cold-blooded killer, is he innocent, or is the truth something much more messy and messed up?

Flynn and Fincher keep the novel’s format, contrasting Nick’s experiences after Amy’s disappearance with her diary that records their life before she vanished. It allows the absent Amy to be a major character. Affleck captures Nick perfectly with a restrained and nuanced performance. His career had just about imploded thanks to Gigli and the whole Bennifer tabloid mess, but Affleck has done the almost impossible and completely reinvigorated his career, both behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo) and in front of it with the last two movies. If anything, his experience with the tabloids helps his embodiment of Nick.

Fincher is excellent at casting a film, and often will make unusual choices that hit the bull’s eye, such as Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo. Originally, Reese Witherspoon had purchased the movie rights, intending to play Amy. Fincher didn’t see her in the role, though, so instead she’s one of the film’s producers. Fincher’s choice was a gutsy one: Rosamund Pike’s first major movie was the final Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, Die Another Day. Since then she’d done a number of supporting roles, including Jane Bennett in the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice. Last year she was the female lead in Tom Cruise’s version of Jack Reacher, a role that was badly underwritten and reduced her to damsel in distress status. Gone Girl shows how fine an actress she is as she delivers a riveting, devastating performance as Amy. I would not be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

The rest of the casting is similarly fine. Kim Dickens, who’s mostly worked on TV series like “Deadwood” and “Saturday Night Lights,” invests Boney with a sharp intelligence as well as an iron backbone. Multi-hyphenate Tyler Perry plays Tanner Bolt, the sharp lawyer Nick finally turns to for help, while Neil Patrick Harris is Desi Collings, a man from Amy’s past who shows up when she disappears. Rounding out the cast is Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), Missi Pyle (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Casey Wilson (“Happy Endings”) and Sela Ward (The Fugitive). Of particular note is Carrie Coon, who plays Nick’s twin sister Margo – Go for short. She’d only done a couple of one-off TV roles before this year, when she won the role of Nora Durst on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She was good on that series; in Gone Girl she’s a revelation, providing an emotional heart to the story.

As he did with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher recruited Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) to do the soundtrack. Reznor creates a tone-poem to support the action that goes into white-noise dissonance at times, a perfect match for the story. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who also did Network and Tattoo as well as Fight Club with Fincher, keeps a moody edge to the film with shadows and diffused light throughout.

The old saw is that a movie is never as good as the book it’s based on. The movie version of Gone Girl is shorter than the book, but it is as good as the source material. That is an accomplishment for all involved.

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