As the entire world must surely know by now, “Gone Girl” is the story of a disillusioned but seemingly idyllic married couple, Amy and Nick, and the turmoil that ensues when Amy goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick eventually becomes the prime suspect due to his stoic nature and a slowly mounting pile of evidence that seems somewhat staged from the start. Just as in the blockbuster book by Gillian Flynn on which it is based, the story unfolds from the viewpoints of both spouses, so the audience gets both sides of the story – and in a winning midway twist, another more revealing side of the story.
So let the spoilers begin. After reading Flynn’s novel last year, I was blown away by its knife-point ending. I can be overly traditional at times – meaning I often want the villain of the piece to get his or her comeuppance, and that doesn’t happen in the book. That’s part of what makes it so unusual and, on some level, refreshing. But my old-fashioned sensibilities of wanting justice to prevail in the end were left wanting, and I was more than a little annoyed about it. I’m embarrassed by my reaction because I consider myself a sophisticated consumer of stories both on the page and on the screen – one cool enough to embrace unhappy endings because they are more akin to real life. But I guess it’s because I am such an avid consumer of stories that I have that reaction. Historically, we’re accustomed to our fiction ending in happily ever after.
So when I heard that Flynn may have altered the ending of her screenplay for the book, I was intrigued, but I began to doubt whether I wanted to see a full-on happy ending after all. Regardless, it was great to think there would be a surprise for all of us who read the book when we saw the movie brought to the big screen by one of my favorite modern directors, David Fincher.
Alas, I was misled. The ending was not so different from the book – not essentially anyway. But it was a satisfying ending and one that resonated with the two strongest ideas or talking points from Flynn’s thoroughly entertaining and insightful story: What have we wrought with our culture’s media circus and courts of public opinion, and are female characters as free to be extreme as male characters on the big screen?
First, the media. Fincher works the escalation of the sensational media coverage beautifully, including all the things that can tip the scale one way or another for a man trying to look innocent when he may or may not be innocent. Random photos with provocative, spotlight-hungry strangers, allowing his natural instincts to smile or be gracious to come through when others expect to see a meltdown – all leading to the 24-hour news channel onslaught of wildly irresponsible accusations as fact and final judgment. It seemed like this aspect of the story was ramped up for the movie. It was tied directly into the ending, which was not the case at the end of the book.
And then there’s “Amazing Amy” – easily one of the most diabolical women portrayed on screen in years. Her parents based the heroine in their popular children's book series "Amazing Amy" on their charming daughter, but they had no idea how amazing she truly was. Played with understated relish by Rosamund Pike, Amy is a first-rate villain, and women don’t often get to play such archetypes and come out on top in the end. Most often, the bad girls – your Lady Macbeths and Alex Forrests (“Fatal Attraction”) – don’t get to win. Even the strong female characters who are not true villains but exercise power and freedom don’t often get to win on the big screen. Take Thelma and Louise. But the truly bad girls and femme fatales nearly always go down – whether it’s Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon” or Glenn Close’s Marquise in “Dangerous Liaisons,” the laws of cinema rarely allow her to get away with her crimes. Granted, that is often true of the male villain as well in our happy-ending-obsessed culture, and I do have to concede that there have been a few films in recent years bucking the trend for empowered female characters coming out on top. A prime example is the warrior Beatrix Kiddo in the “Kill Bill” films slashing her way to revenge on those who tried to destroy her.
But Amy is a different animal, although as far as she is concerned, her actions are as justified as Beatrix Kiddo: She is getting revenge on the man who tried to destroy her. She is a monster, and that’s fine. There’s room for all types in the storytelling canon. It makes it hard to root for her, but you do have to respect her abilities – her daring, her brilliance, her resourcefulness, her strength.
Nick, the not-so-doting husband, is less affecting at first. He is played by Ben Affleck with the best of his casual and unassumingly callous manner. It is nice when he finally finds his strength and knows how to counter Amy’s offensive. But even then, you know he’s not going to win. And perhaps he shouldn’t. He has done his share of dirt, too, even though the punishment Amy has set up for him does seem to far exceed his crimes.
As for performances, they are all solid: Affleck, Pike, even Tyler Perry as the superlawyer. I especially like the relationship Affleck and Carrie Coon were able to capture as close siblings in the story. Kim Dickens is great as the lead detective, and Neil Patrick Harris is convincing as Amy’s former obsessed lover, although he may be a little too eager in his character’s controlling pool of madness.
Fincher’s direction is steady and polished as usual. But as interesting as the story is, it somehow lacked urgency. That may be because I already knew what was going to happen, or it could be there was something amiss in terms of compelling storytelling – that “je ne sais quoi” to push the film from good to great. But it definitely works.
And as for the lack of a happy ending, I do find some solace in the media mavens having to eat crow upon Amy’s return and the fact that Nick is not convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. But at what price? To live with a woman he knows to be a sociopath and raise a child with her? It’s interesting that his only way out may be to commit the crime he was accused of all along. It would be a big step up from his original crime, growing bored with and resentful of his wife, but Amy might be able to bring him up to her level – which seems to be her goal along with manipulating their public image. Amy is clearly amazing, and the world keeps on spinning.
THE FINCHER FILES
Here’s how I rank the films of David Fincher, one of my favorite modern directors.
3. “The Social Network”
4. “Gone Girl”
5. “Fight Club”
6. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
7. “The Game”
9. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
10. “Panic Room”