‘Gone Girl’ marks another unforgettable Fincher thriller

WASHINGTON — It never gets old watching a master filmmaker work in his genre wheelhouse. For David Fincher, it’s always been the dark, twisted thriller.

After grabbing the franchise reins from Ridley Scott and James Cameron to make his directorial debut in “Alien 3” (1992), Fincher has woven a series of unnerving psychological yarns, from “Se7en” (1995) to “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999) to “Panic Room” (2002), “Zodiac” (2007) to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011).

Even his non-thrillers feature dark underbellies, from the creeping Hurricane Katrina waters in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), to the creeping legal nightmares in “The Social Network” (2010), to the creeping political shadows across Washington monuments in “House of Cards” (2013).

Which is why so many were excited to hear that Fincher would be the one adapting Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel “Gone Girl,” a twisting and turning tale of a missing wife. It hit bookshelves in June 2012, so there’s a good chance it was on your reading list over the last three summers. You can almost imagine Fincher sitting on the beach, the ink blots and “Immigrant Songs” of “Dragon Tattoo” still swirling in his head, when the pages of this insanely gripping novel crushed him like a wave.

The setup is nothing new, but the execution is something special. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to his suburban Missouri home to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary with Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), only to find the place ransacked and his wife missing. What’s more, Amy is a successful author known as “Amazing Amy,” so her disappearance sparks national headlines and accusations.

Affleck is convincing as the poker-faced husband who leaves us guessing as to whether he is concerned or relieved. His moral ambiguity is repeatedly explored with the familiar image of a “scouts honor” promise on his cleft chin, daring us to question our beliefs and find complicity in his actions. After the Oscar success of “Argo,” these are the nuanced roles Batman should continue to do.

It doesn’t hurt that Affleck is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. Neil Patrick Harris follows TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and Broadway’s “Hedwig” to shine as Amy’s clingy ex-boyfriend. Kim Dickens channels Marge Gunderson as the tough-as-nails detective. Tyler Perry charms with big laughs as the Johnnie Cochran-style lawyer Tanner Bolt. And Carrie Coon is feisty as Affleck’s sister, navigating a “rock and a hard place” of wanting to support her brother, but not wanting to be an accessory to murder.

Yet the real revelation is British actress Rosamund Pike, who goes from unknown to unforgettable in a single role. You may remember her supporting roles in such films as “Pride & Prejudice” (2005), “An Education” (2009) and “Die Another Day” (2002), but she’s a long way from a Bond Girl in “Gone Girl.”

There’s no way you’ll leave this film forgetting her. The Academy should feel the same. Pike steals the show with her cold, flashback readings of Amy’s diary entries in the days before her disappearance.

The script, written by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, cleverly weaves in past and present, multiple perspectives and unreliable narration. “Amazing Amy” might as well be a proxy for “Glorious Gillian,” who pulls from her own experience being laid off by Entertainment Weekly to create characters whose marriage problems begin as out-of-work writers in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Her feminist undertones also provide a poignant backdrop to the mystery, commenting on the very relevant topic of spousal abuse — verbal, emotional or physical. But this marital study is never one-sided. Both husband and wife are given sympathetic and unsympathetic moments, allowing us to understand just how this marriage fell apart. Flynn creates more than a simple “whodunit.” She builds a “why-dunit,” and the answers to the thematic questions are genuinely thought provoking.

“You ever found that the simplest answer is also the correct one?” Affleck tells the detective.

“Actually, I’ve never found that to be true,” the detective replies.

The whole thing borders on being ridiculously high-concept, but then again, so was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), which international critics recently voted the greatest film of all time. Suspension of disbelief is part of the cinematic deal between filmmaker and audience. At some level we crave outlandish twists because they allow us to explore fascinating life questions we otherwise couldn’t.

In this case, the plot revelations make for just some of the fun in Flynn’s script. The snappy dialogue recalls the rapid-fire repartee of film noir, particularly in the flashbacks to Nick and Amy’s budding relationship. The narration works to similar fatalistic effect. There’s even a postmodern edge, as one character laughs at the fact that Nick’s bar is simply named “The Bar,” quipping, “That’s so meta.”

As for Fincher’s direction, we never once doubt that we’re in the stylish hands of a master. This is his game, and we’re simply the detectives tracking our own deadly sins. Fincher’s touch is there from the start, as Affleck carries a “Mastermind” board game in his hand just before his wife goes missing. It’s there during the romance, as Affleck and Pike kiss amid a cloud of sugar from a nearby bakery in a dark alley. And it’s there during the horror, as surveillance footage instills a voyeuristic uneasiness.

We also get to revel in the work of Fincher’s favorite collaborators, including another unsettling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for “The Social Network,” another master class of cutting by editor Kirk Baxter, who won two Oscars for “The Social Network” and “Dragon Tattoo,” and bleak cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, who first collaborated with Fincher on “Fight Club” and earned Oscar nominations for “The Social Network” and “Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s “Dragon Tattoo” that “Gone Girl” most resembles, a hit novel with a memorable heroine adapted into a slow-burn mystery with sporadic, salacious jolts it earns with careful plotting. Remember Rooney Mara’s tattoo punishment for her rapist? “Gone Girl” strives to top it.

Unfortunately, it also resembles “Dragon Tattoo” in the way it overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes. This isn’t “Se7en” or “Fight Club” with shocker endings that send us out of the theater with jaws dropped. In “Gone Girl,” the best surprises come mid-way through the movie, while the ending suffers from trying to cram the last half of the book into a forced Third Act.

The pacing builds such that we think it’s over, only to explore an entirely different dynamic between the characters. It’s a fascinating dynamic for sure, but it seems like an afterthought in this presentation. If Fincher really wanted to explore this, he should have made the movie three hours and gone for it. But under the current pacing, the film would have been better off ending with a certain line of profanity in a certain driveway. I won’t say what or where so as not to spoil it. You’ll know it when you see it.

Contrast this with last year’s child-abduction thriller “Prisoners,” which cut to black at precisely the right time, just as Jake Gyllenhaal heard Hugh Jackman whistle. We didn’t need to see Jackman return to his family or go to jail. The story was done. For this reason, “Prisoners” is the slightly better flick.

Still, “Gone Girl” is a must-see movie experience, offering complex characters you’ll never forget while providing a searing critique on the sensationalist Nancy Graces of the media world.

Let naysayers take their jabs: too cute by half, too clever for its own good, too brash in its own artifice.

But I promise you this: you’ll never look at missing person cases the same again.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our “Fraley on Film” page.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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