Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Sela Ward, Scoot McNairy
Written by: Gillian Flynn, based on her novel
Directed by: David Fincher
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language
Running Time: 149
Date: 10/03/2014

Gone Girl (2014)

4 Stars (out of 4)

On and Off Camera

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Fincher's tenth feature film, Gone Girl, runs about 2-1/2 hours. It was probably somewhere near the end of the second hour when my thoughts changed from, "this is a pretty solid thriller" to, "this is a great film." I have enjoyed Fincher's career and have enjoyed watching him develop a style (having started out with Madonna videos). His films have a hard, cold surface, suggesting a kind of control, while underneath squirm unspeakable things, ranging from bloody crimes to maniacal egos.

But there's also a deception going on in his work, and not just in the form of plot twists, though that's certainly the case in Fight Club (1999). Zodiac (2007) is a serial killer movie that becomes a movie about not catching a serial killer, and The Social Network (2010) was a masterpiece about a character that didn't know how to be social. Gone Girl seems to be the most perfect crystallization of all his themes so far, which is probably not surprising when we learn that author Gillian Flynn is a huge David Fincher fan.

Based on Flynn's bestselling novel and adapted by her for the screen, Gone Girl begins with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) admiring his wife's blonde head, and thinking about how nice it would be if he could smash it open and find out what goes on inside, what her thoughts and feelings are. If that's not a perfect Fincher image, I don't know what is.

It's Nick's wedding anniversary, and he goes out the bar that he and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) own together. He downs a whisky and talks about what kind of present to get his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), but something is clearly wrong. When Nick returns home, he finds the housecat outside, an overturned table, and Amy nowhere to be seen. He calls the police, and Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) with her soft-spoken partner (Patrick Fugit) arrive and begin to look around. They ask questions. What does your wife do all day? Who are her friends? Nick doesn't know the answers to these questions, and suspicion immediately begins falling on him.

For a long time, I was curious about whether or not Nick killed his wife, but eventually I discovered what the movie is really about when the slick lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) comes into the picture. Bolt begins doing his detective work, but every single step he takes has to do with Nick's image, rather than the facts of Nick. I even began to question just how far Fincher's deception went, given the casting of Perry. Perry generally makes films that are hugely successful with their fan base, while the artistic elite grumble about all the damage he has done to our culture. Now this same artistic elite are presented with a masterpiece in which Perry has a key role; how many of us will immediately, hypocritically turn around and praise his "performance" in this? It's all part of the same, huge media machine. Are we being fooled, too?

Many of the other casting choices are similarly canny, especially Neil Patrick Harris as a former lover of Amy's, and Missi Pyle as a talk show host. But clues extend further back into the film. During a press conference, Nick speaks to reporters the best he can, and then poses for pictures next to Amy's "missing" poster. Cameras fire at him and a voice from the back yells, "smile," and for a second, Nick does. It's captured in several photos, and we know the truth, but to the world, it looks bad: Nick grinning like an idiot next to his missing wife's photo. In another scene, a woman appears to be coming on to Nick, snapping a selfie of herself posing with him, and then quickly sending it out on social media.

This concept of how things look versus how things are just seems to grow more and more potent, in Fincher's films as well as in life, as time goes on, given the steady stream of information we have today and how much time we have to process any of it. We snap to our opinions based on very little. Fincher and Flynn have cooked up a delicious story that invites plenty of public opinion; Flynn knows just what to reveal and when, and Fincher forever seems to know how and where to put his camera. Likewise, his characters also know how to use cameras; as the drama goes on, the characters become better and better actors, learning how best to perform for the results they want. And each performance, no matter how carefully calculated, can be easily eclipsed by the next, like a series of chess moves that take out increasingly powerful pieces.

There was a moment, so long ago, when Madonna made a documentary about herself called Truth or Dare, around the time that Fincher was directing some of her videos. In the movie, a sheepish Warren Beatty -- who was dating the pop star at the time -- finds himself on camera. In a moment of clarity, he mutters, "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing?" Now it's not even about living on camera. It's about creating life on camera, like a Frankenstein monster, made up of pieces of illusions.

While I was pondering Gone Girl, my mind drifted back to Fincher's only big failure to date. No, not Alien 3 (1992), his feature debut, which is a very interesting movie that just needs to be re-assessed. I'm talking about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a total misfire, and a betrayal of everything Fincher stands for. But what if it's not? It was a goopy, treacly, self-important, 3-hour film from a work by a great author and adapted by Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump). It contained heartrending, headline-grabbing references to Hurricane Katrina, and had a lightweight sense of existential pondering. In short, it was everything the Academy Awards usually jump on. It's a bad film that looks like a good film. OK. So what if Fincher made the movie this bad on purpose, just to see if he could fool people into reacting a certain way? And what if he's so good that he succeeded? The movie has a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is roughly 3 out of 4 critics giving it a positive review. It received a whopping 13 Oscar nominations and won three awards. Incidentally, it also became Fincher's highest grosser to date.

Is this cynical of me? Maybe, or maybe not. But this is the kind of world Gone Girl proposes. Even Tanner Bolt, who has seen everything, departs the picture with a little chuckle of disbelief, leaving the rest of the characters to lie in their beds, now that they are made. Like some of Fincher's other films, there's no predicting how well or how badly this one will age, but for now, it's an essential movie of its moment. Fincher's world may not be pleasant, but he at least calls attention to it, and puts a little perspective on it, which may point us in the right direction back toward being human.

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