Director David Fincher loves his big third-act reversals, which can make his movies tough to review in detail, since it’s hard to examine their strengths and virtues without spoiling the surprise. “Gone Girl” starts dropping its plot bombs about halfway through, transforming into a considerably different film in much the same way “Fight Club” stopped being a movie about underground boxing. Instead of that earlier film’s blue-collar hooligans, “Gone Girl” goes to work on the upper middle class with Fincher’s favorite power tools, including everything from a dash of unreliable narration, to protagonists who might deserve less sympathy than the audience is accustomed to giving characters in that position. The extreme head games of “Fight Club” were really just an over-the-top way to chide the audience for placing too much faith in characters simply because they expect somebody to be the “hero” of the story; he’s playing a longer, lower-key, somewhat less deranged version of the same game here.
So to review “Gone Girl” without spoiling too much, it’s not quite the movie it appears to be from the trailers. It’s a deconstruction of both potboiler thrillers about men accused of heinous crimes, and of the media circus surrounding real-world stories of disappearing women. There are a few times when “Gone Girl” veers close to satire… but then you remember how many real stories have unfolded the same way, with similar layers of wild speculations slathered on by media eager to fill the gaps in round-the-clock saturation news coverage. Three days after a man’s beautiful wife disappears under enigmatic circumstances, he’s watching what he later describes as a panel of nitwits fill up an hour of cable news by speculating that he might be having a lifelong incestuous relationship with his twin sister. When he eventually gets a chance to confront the offending cable hostess about that, she waves it off with a laugh, as though he were still complaining about a bad referee call from last year’s Super Bowl.
Besides ripping the media, “Gone Girl” spends a great deal of time meditating upon the current state of marriage, the expectations men and women have for each other, and life in a world that moves so fast 2007 seems like ancient history. A whirlwind romance and dream marriage go south so quickly that viewers accustomed to the mores of the previous generation might find themselves double-checking the onscreen dates just to confirm that yes, this whole cycle of love and hatred played out so fast that the couple barely had time to put down new mulch around their fashionable suburban house.
And yet, the dramatic irony of the story is that all of the characters are guided by forces that built up over their lifetimes; they only think the world is hurtling past at blinding speed, because we’ve all been taught to see it that way. The ancient hungers and frustrations built up from childhood onward remain powerful forces. What tends to change quickly are the pretenses we put forward, the false faces we wear to please or manipulate others. The motif of pretense and shattered illusion recurs throughout “Gone Girl,” most obviously in the way Ben Affleck’s character is coached to manipulate the police and media by his friends and lawyer, but it applies to what we learn of the central couple through flashbacks as well. Sometimes those masks turn out to be worth the effort it took to maintain them; sometimes they fall away to reveal monsters.
There’s loads of good acting on display here – everyone’s great, especially the two main female players, Rosamund Pike as the titular Gone Girl and Carrie Coon from “The Leftovers” as the protagonist’s sister, who might be the only character in the story who neither holds nor projects any illusions. Ben Affleck is an inspired choice for the lead, not only because he plays the part well, but because this is the sort of role where it helps that the guy looks like a famous actor – a face everyone in America would know within a matter of days as the mystery played out on cable TV. It also helps that he can be both charming and faintly loathsome at the same time. The great mystery of this film is not what Affleck’s character did, but who he is.
Everyone I saw the movie with was irked by the ending, which I think means it worked perfectly. Given its provocative thoughts on relationship conflict between men and women, it might not be the best date movie in theaters right now – especially for the first date – but it will stay with you for a while after it’s over, insistently asking uncomfortable questions about what happens when the people in a long-term relationship stop putting on a show for each other and reveal who they truly are.