On the surface, David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel tells the story of the dissolution of the marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), two out-of-work writers who relocated from New York City to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri when his mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Over the course of its roughly 150 minutes, though, the movie goes through a series of transformations: from abduction tragedy to irritatingly clever literary thriller to a sophisticated and brutally hilarious evisceration of media culture and the sensation industrial complex.
The movie opens on the morning of the couple's fifth anniversary. After spending a cursory hour drinking bourbon and complaining about his wife Amy to his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) at the bar the two siblings own—a bar called The Bar, mind you—Nick heads home to find the front door of the couple's rented suburban pile wide open, a glass-top coffee table overturned and shattered on the living room floor, his wife nowhere in sight. The authorities are called and this movie moves quickly into pretty-white-girl-abduction mode. But it's an abduction story at its most bathetically absurd and Fincher pulls no punches in mining this rich vein of cultural material for opportunities to subtly satirize and lampoon his characters and the institutions involved.
Like Flynn's novel, the narrative alternates between Nick's more-or-less real-time point of view as he deals with the disappearance of his wife and the mounting suspicion that he is somehow responsible and a history of the couple's marriage drawn from Amy's journal. There's a literary self-awareness to this strategy: Developments in one narrative thread are counterpoint and occasional ironic commentary on the other. As Nick undergoes the metamorphosis from concerned husband to philandering lout to murder suspect, the story of their relationship charts its devolution as a series of lost illusions. When the couple meet at a party in mid-2000s New York City, Nick and Amy are both writers, he a film and TV critic for a men's magazine and Amy a composer of personality tests for women's magazines, living out their salad days as print media breathes its last breath.
But things are never as they seem in Fincher's droll thriller and the movie quickly becomes a tense battle for control of a public narrative that has reached Nancy Grace levels of lurid ridiculousness. Just as Nick manages to turn the tide of public opinion in his favor, there are whispers about the nature of his relationship to his sister—"twincest"(!)—and evidence comes to light that appears to point incontrovertibly to his culpability for his wife's murder, even implicating Margo for good measure.
Fincher seems to have had it with the obscene theatre of white middle-class (and middle-brow) tragedy. He and Flynn, who wrote the screenplay, smartly take an already fairly sophisticated literary thriller about a beautiful young wife's disappearance and give it a gruesome twist, playing the material for unexpected laughs, driving home the grotesque ways in which the media have turned us into hungry consumers of tragedy.