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"Gone Girl," Directed by David Fincher

Gone Girl

Directed by David Fincher
Showing at the Senator Theatre and other theaters Oct. 3

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.

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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.

This is a bold choice and one that could potentially alienate some of the film’s audience. And Fincher seems to be aware of the risk, not to mention his reputation as a po-faced, blandly dark Hollywood director, and he accounts for it as the movie plays out. When Nick informs the investigating detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) that he is the owner of The Bar, she rolls her eyes, commenting, “very meta,” unraveling any sense of New York literary superiority he might have been cultivating. Indeed, Dickens’s Boney, perhaps the sleeper performance of the movie, always seems to be standing just a little bit outside the onscreen happenings, as though she somehow resents the role she is made to play in this clever fucking movie with its grotesque drama and all these clever fucking people.
Nick’s twin sister, his tireless advocate, is another of the movie’s few islands of sanity, periodically reminding her brother to remove his head from his own ass. Early in the movie when all involved still view the case as a likely abduction, Margo, who clearly never got along with Amy, quips to her brother, “well, whoever took her is bound to bring her back.” Or, in one of the film’s most pungent moments, when she asks why he wouldn’t have used a hotel room instead of screwing one of his teenage students (more on this presently) in places where he could easily get caught and Nick responds that Amy would have seen the charge on the credit-card bill and the student’s credit-card bill goes straight to her parents, Margo’s terse “ew” hilariously expresses the audience’s disgust at his cliché sexual adventurism.

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.

The pace at which information is doled out is deftly controlled by Fincher and this results in a movie in which the stakes of the onscreen events are constantly in flux. Nick cocks up the public-relations aspects of his role as husband of the missing woman pretty much from the gate, smiling inappropriately at press events, his persona alternating between gruff annoyance and suspect smarminess. When it is revealed that he has been carrying on an affair with Andie (Emily Ratajkowski, best known for her appearance in the video for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines,’ another clue that this is a story that should be taken liberally salted),  aforementioned teenage student from a creative-writing course he teaches at the local community college, and evidence in the house suggests that Amy was murdered rather than kidnapped, Nick is crucified in the media and immediately becomes the lead suspect. So he goes on a counter-offensive, hiring a high-profile celebrity defense attorney played by, that’s right, Tyler Perry, the sentimental, crowd-pleasing auteur behind the “Madea” series, and making tearful and contrite media appearances aimed at salvaging whatever public sympathy he can.

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.

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