All movies are puzzles. They all share the segmented, jigsaw quality of sutured shots, acquired out of order and over a much longer period than the eventual running time. They are snapshots, in isolation meaningless, and yet miraculously imbued with purpose when aligned in a carefully constructed narrative sequence. Certain films, like those of David Fincher, are more puzzle-like than others. His latest, Gone Girl, aligns its puzzle pieces in a way which deliberately omits salient information, first interweaving two accounts of a possible abduction/murder, accounts we suspect herald more than meets the eye, before exposing their reality when the film ‘flips’, and the actual truth is revealed. While the ‘flip’ comes too early – or what follows is too long, it’s hard to tell – the film is still an engrossing puzzle, on an aesthetic and narrative level, if a largely unemotional one.
The two accounts come from both halves of a dysfunctional (as we shall see, a grossly inadequate description) marital partnership, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), with the latter being the injured/abducted party. The invitation to play with this puzzle comes early in the narrative, with Nick visiting his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) bearing a gift of Mastermind, the classic board-game requiring one player to guess the other’s chosen sequence of colours, a classic puzzle of combinatory logic and guesswork. For the rest of the film, the audience plays guesser to Fincher/Flynn’s (the latter penned both the screenplay and source novel) mastermind, the filmmakers playing coy for the first few acts, presenting an all-too-perfect marriage and its perceived accoutrements.
In this initial presentation, one could be mistaken for thinking that a David Lynch film is playing instead. The opening act features an unsettling sonic atmosphere, said to be inspired by Fincher’s visit to a masseur, where the supposedly comforting music instead came across as creepy. This subtly ‘off’ soundtrack, birthed by long-time Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is accompanied by an all-too-perfect inception of a relationship. Nick and Amy’s origin is too clean, too idolised, not unlike the unsettlingly ‘actor-y’ sense inspired by Lynch’s dual female leads in Mullholland Dr. (2001). They seem like characters playing themselves. Which indeed Amy is; her parents wrote a series of children’s books based closely on their daughter’s upbringing – ‘they plagiarised your childhood’ in Nick’s words. Perhaps it’s because of this suffocating moithering that Amy is as duplicitous and malleable in terms of her identity as she is revealed to be. Hers is a life lived in constant shadow of a fictionalised self, a shadowy mirror, and she eventually chooses to revoke the bounds of her idealised identity.
Of course her husband has something to with that. It is his viewpoint which dominates the film’s ‘present’, even though the film opens, and indeed finishes identically, with a shot of Amy’s upturned face. It is Nick’s words that overlay her, stifling her independence with its wishes to ‘crack her head open’ and reveal her inner secrets. Nick’s narrative occasionally fades, the image rushing to black like a narcoleptic episode, and the narrative regains consciousness under Amy’s guise with her voiceover reading us her diary entries. These dreamlike interludes loose us from the established time, and we are right to doubt their dubious relationship to the real world.
Amy is calculating, cold and impenetrable, something Fincher’s style might easily be accused of. And there is a Kubrikian standoffishness to his work, but coupled with appropriately distant characters (as in Mark Zuckerburg focused on in ‘The Social Network’) it’s a winning combination. Just don’t expect to care for the characters presented in Gone Girl. Nick is smug and aloof, unappreciative of his multi-talented wife; Amy is icy in her calculating manipulation of self. More so even than in Fincher’s previous films, these characters are cogs in a wheel, not welcoming personas around which an audience may pivot relatable emotion. So we are merely interested, not empathetic. But sometimes that’s ok.
In Fincher’s detective-like attention to detail and shot construction, one might think artistic flourish would be stifled. But it’s still to be found if you look for it: an example being the atypical light emanating from behind the Dunne’s door when the publicity people arrive mimics lightning flashes, a visual indication of the oncoming media storm.
I’m being cagey on the plot details because the less you know before watching the better, but I’ll try and discuss my issues with the film’s turning point without giving too much away about what it is. It is necessary that a ‘flip’ of a kind be included in murder mystery stories, and the one Fincher/Flynn present elucidates an unbelievably strong female character, whose active agency is never doubted, and for this they deserve credit. I have concerns however about specific methods she uses to achieve her ends – specifically (spoiler) faking rape – as she includes what might as well be a guidebook on how to emulate it. While it would admittedly take someone of comparable intelligence, malevolence and motive to make the endeavour even remotely possible (or desirable), it is still problematic for a potentially impressionable audience. I would complain about the method’s inclusion even if it only gives voice to it being used as a mechanism in society; a minute section of women who, unfortunately, have influenced rape cases such that a man may claim an innocent woman is faking/leading him on in a similar fashion, a detestable situation whose original aggravator is given explicit, reasoned voice here. This image should not be propagated in any form, even if the character concerned is condemned afterwards.
On a more intrinsic level, the film is far too long. The flip comes halfway instead of the more convention timing of after Act 2 (in a 3 act structure). It’s almost as if it becomes another film at this point, one concerning the narratives we tell ourselves and the ones the media construct about our lives. A fair and intriguing enough subject, and one which is semi-justified by the couple’s respective careers as writer/journalist (therefore excellent at constructing narratives), but one which ultimately belongs to a different film. Either that, or shorten the murder mystery which is allowed to play out for nearly an hour and a half, the run time of many more successful films.
So while not without substantial issues – the runtime, and to some extent justifying (spoiler) faking rape as a means to an end – Fincher’s 2014 effort is an intriguing and masterfully constructed puzzle, visually inventive while also maintaining the director’s distant, clinical gaze. It postulates marriage partners as con artists of the most insidious degree, and overall it is a con of which we the audience are gladly, voyeuristically implicit.