David Fincher's film version of the Gillian Flynn bestseller "Gone Girl" is a stealthy, snake-like achievement. It's everything the book was and more — more, certainly, in its sinister, brackish atmosphere dominated by mustard-yellow fluorescence, designed to make you squint, recoil and then lean in a little closer.
So often in Fincher's movies, and especially in this one, actors are placed precisely against a window, or in shadows surrounded by low-wattage electric light sources. It's all deliberate. Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, shooting digitally, address moral rot through direct means so that the guilty consciences and hidden agendas of the characters are made manifest. This is a prime date movie for couples harboring at least one good-sized secret or several years of serious resentments. Flynn makes a couple of missteps, I think, in adapting her hit novel for the screen, at least one of which will fuel the argument that the author's conception of the story is misogynist. But so much works well here, from the spectacularly right casting to the eerie musical score. The story implications are what they are, but we're talking about high-grade pulp fiction here, crafty and unsettling.
A brilliantly edited opening-credits sequence flashes quick, nervous images of the recession-hobbled Missouri town where the story unfolds. The film's primary narrator is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, never more subtle or effective), a laid-off Manhattan magazine writer. (Flynn herself was let go from Entertainment Weekly, where she wrote about television.) To look after his aging parents Nick has returned to North Carthage, Mo., with his wife, also a writer. She is Amy (Rosamund Pike), who in her closely watched childhood served as the inspiration for her parents' "Amazing Amy" series of storybooks.
Nearly two years into their North Carthage life together, knocking around a pristine McMansion without communicating what's actually on their minds, Nick and Amy are in trouble. Nick's mother is dead; his father, struggling with Alzheimer's, is in assisted living; and the marriage has hit rough road, with not much money left. Amy expected more. In Nick, back in New York City, Amy found her quick-witted, temperamentally easygoing Midwestern dream hunk. He saw a golden girl out of his league, up for anything. That's all in the flashbacks; the present-day action of "Gone Girl" begins when Amy disappears one day from the home leased with her trust-fund money.
The narrative options are pretty simple, considering how many complications Flynn concocts. Either Amy was abducted, or Nick somehow faked the disappearance and killed her, or...well, let's stick to the evidence. We first hear from Amy by way of voice-over, as Pike reads diary entries from happier days. Soon the entries grow more foreboding. Long before she's aware of the diary's existence the local police detective assigned to the missing-person case, Rhonda Boney, speculates on Nick's guilt, and that look in his eyes that says: Something's wrong. Boney is played by Kim Dickens and whatever sort of Mark Twain-country Sherlock you imagined reading Flynn's book, Dickens is right on the money, a savvy voice of intelligence and reason. She's also a strong counter-argument to the line that "Gone Girl" has one particular vision or version of female behavior to offer. Carrie Coon is terrific as Nick's twin, Margo, the sounding board and Greek chorine who gets most of the choice wisecracks as she navigates the aftermath of Amy's disappearance.
The way Flynn wrote Nick, every big actor in the industry could relate to "Gone Girl's" tortures-of-the-media-damned angle. Eventually Nick learns how to change public perception under the wing of his hotshot legal defender. Tyler Perry plays the lawyer, Tanner Bolt, and like Affleck he's never been more relaxed and truthful on screen — which sounds weird, in a crime story built upon lie after lie.
It's safe to say that Amy, portrayed as an immaculate series of enigmas by Pike, belongs to subspecies of chameleon, and in interviews Flynn has spoken about what "Gone Girl" says about the false fronts afflicting so many modern marriages. Here's a structural flaw of the movie: In the book, Flynn kept the twin-track points of view nice and even, so that Amy gave us her version of the marriage and related matters to the same degree we heard from Nick. The movie tips things in favor of Nick. It also leaks information about the story's first major revelation earlier than Flynn did in the novel. As in the novel, the movie threatens to buckle around the three-quarter mark, when a key character transforms into a straw psycho more on the Michael Crichton pulp level than the Gillian Flynn pulp level.
It's up to Fincher to take us home, and to justify the two-and-a-half-hour running time. That he does. His control-freakish mastery draws out something strange or discordant in each new scene. And the big moments carry genuine impact. Take, for example, the way the director stages and edits (with editor Kirk Baxter) the film's bloodiest act of violence. It's shocking and, like all the sex-related material in the movie, about as sexy as a trip to the morgue. But the scene itself, scored with remarkable, throbbing underscoring by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is enough to make you forget the story's phonier constructs and less plausible supporting characters, such as Amy's boarding-school sweetheart played (a tad archly) by Neil Patrick Harris.
Like the novel, the film will frustrate a certain percentage of customers who'd prefer the story to go a different direction. As proven by "Zodiac," Fincher's commercially disappointing masterpiece, this is a director who believes in the power and the value of frustration. In light of his craftsmanly but wholly unnecessary English-language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," one could say this director "should" be doing some other kinds of stuff, more ambitious or unexpected. On the other hand, the film world needs its first-rate dreadmongers. I'm not sure Fincher has tremendous range; in the second half of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the whimsy of the story became a weird mismatch with Fincher's innate, gleaming cynicism. "Gone Girl" presents no such mismatch. I am getting a bit sick of Fincher's patented mustard-yellow palette, but the fact that it's on my mind indicates how many different ways this director controls our responses. There is no moral to "Gone Girl," though the more paranoid and reactionary among us may take it as a validation of their attitudes toward women. I think Flynn's working on a higher level than that though. This is a black comedy about true love, as some people define it, and Fincher turned out to be the right cinematic conduit.