Highs Of "Gone Girl" Lost In Translation

Part I: No Spoilers

Gillian Flynn’s smash-hit novel “Gone Girl” giddily took a butcher’s knife to the American ideal of marriage, conjuring the kinds of marital demons usually left to the imagination – or, at least, cable news. In turning a funhouse mirror on suburban America, the author found something pulpy but truthful, summoning anxiety from the mundane – much like the work of director David Fincher (“Se7en,” “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”). Pairing Hollywood’s master of existential dread with Flynn (adapting her own book for the screen) seemed a perfect match – but so did Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).

No, the film version of “Gone Girl” doesn’t fracture in the spectacular way its characters do, but its cracks are real. Instead of expounding on the exposed nerve of the book, Fincher’s adaptation settles for mere abrasion, losing – perhaps inevitably – the hyper-descriptive language and unorthodox structure of Flynn’s prose in the process. “Gone Girl” is a fine, strapping film – and just as darkly playful as its source material – but not the psychological rollercoaster it might have been, settling in as a moderately satisfying translation of a superior thriller.

Laid off from a New York City writing gig, thirty-something Nick Dunne has returned home to Missouri to take care of his dying mother. He’s joined by his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund kid whose parents found fame through a series of children’s books based on their daughter – an idealized version that’s bred a nasty inferiority streak in real-life Amy. As affected East Coasters with snobbish tendencies, the move back to the heartland has unsurprisingly driven the couple apart. Soon, to Amy’s chagrin, Nick has essentially taken up residence at the new bar he co-owns with his twin sister, Margo “Go” Dunne (Carrie Coon).

True to the structure of the book, most of the aforementioned set-up is relayed via intermittent flashbacks, as told through Amy’s diary. The film actually begins with Amy going missing on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick finds their living room disturbed – ottoman overturned amidst shards of glass – and cops are quickly called to the scene. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, with a Kathy Bates-like lilt) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, “Almost Famous”) take to Nick immediately, teaming up to solve Amy’s annual anniversary treasure hunt. But things slowly curdle as the evidence against Nick mounts.

Flashbacks aside, the film’s first half proceeds like Fincher’s previous procedurals, with Nick spiraling from person of interest to suspect to emotional disaster. The character’s self-ascribed unlikability – from cleft chin to smug grin – doesn’t play well with the media, nor do his ever-glassy eyes and disinterested body language. Did Nick murder his wife? It’s the question on everyone’s lips, from townspeople to cable news junkies, and Fincher goes all in on the mystery, from casting sinister shadows across Nick’s face to hammer-to-head usage of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” But apart from one tacky musical choice, the soundtrack – by Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is a character unto itself, expansive and darkly immersive. Comparatively, scenes without music occasionally slide into he-said she-said melodrama.

Flynn and Fincher have curiously left out some of the book’s best passages – including a suspenseful trip by Nick, Amy’s father, and some stragglers to an abandoned mall – leaving the picture to feel all at once undercooked and overlong. Little of its nearly 150 minute running time is devoted to the kind of scene-setting that Flynn did so well in her novel – Nick’s evocative trip to Hannibal is also missing – and much of the book’s ice pick-sharp inner monologue is clumsily translated to spoken word. Worst of all, Flynn’s breathless intra-chapter cliffhangers are absent entirely, stripping the material of much of its intrigue.

But Fincher’s talent for audio-visual detail is as strong as ever, from the distant early morning buzz of cicadas outside Go’s house to a wonderful editing choice that juxtaposes an open-mouthed kiss between Nick and Amy with Nick’s tongue being scraped for DNA. One of the rare instances of Fincher divulging Flynn’s amped up imagery features Nick and Amy waltzing down an alley, past a bakery, through sheets of airborne sugar. Scored by a sweetly peculiar melody from Reznor and Ross, the scene ranks among Fincher’s most visually striking.

The filmmaker remains peerless when it comes to style and, more importantly, getting uniformly strong performances from his actors. Affleck is Nick Dunne, catching the character’s uneasy mix of charisma and self-loathing, while Pike competently juggles the multi-dimensionality of Amy. But Carrie Coon is the stand out, snarky and stubborn enough to bring us to question Nick’s use for two strong-willed women in his life. Tyler Perry acquits himself well, too, as Tanner Bolt, Nick’s celebrity lawyer. Along with Missi Pyle, the duo vividly brings the story’s gossip-columnist bent to the screen. Every last cast member does stellar work, beautifully giving life to Flynn’s jagged assortment of ne’er do wells. And, boy, do they need all the life they can get.

Part II: Spoilers

Regrettably, “Gone Girl” nearly face plants with the placement of its big reveal. The first act is overly pedantic – and Flynn knows it – so she overcorrects by bringing the twist in too early. Amy is, of course, alive and well and framing her husband for murder, and Fincher obviously, rightfully revels in the reveal of the film’s big fish sociopath. It’s a breathtakingly choreographed sequence, but its positioning is off beam, making for an ineffective launching point into Amy’s psyche. The character, as realized in the novel, should be one of the most frightening femme fatales in film history, but Flynn’s screenplay misses the deep-seated pitter-patter of paranoia that permeated her novel.

Without the inner monologue of the book’s second half, we’re left to glean character motivation from information that simply isn’t there. From Nick’s plan to bring Amy home to the ostensible melting of Amy’s icy heart, the picture lacks the nuance to communicate the vitally important plot points that made the book’s ridiculousness palatable. As a result, audiences new to the material won’t be able to tether the film’s increasingly schlocky revelations to the real world, something the book did with relative ease. The screenplay remains an intense, darkly comedic look at marriage, but gone are the novel’s terrifying mind games and psychological scarring.

The film’s best sequence – and its only bloody one – is Amy’s calculated murder of over-bearing ex-lover Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), done so she can return home to her husband. The scene is so in Fincher’s wheelhouse that the filmmaker practically bursts through the screen in excitement, an energy that’s visibly lacking in much of the rest of the film. And readers who rejected the novel’s open-ended conclusion will have even less use for the pic’s ending – it’s even more sudden, even more vague. The film ultimately fades like the names in its opening titles, slowing itself into non-existence.

“Gone Girl” will undoubtedly be a different experience for fans and novices, but a worthwhile one. The material doesn’t prove itself inherently film-friendly – making Fincher’s involvement less vital than it might have been – but even if it only scratches the novel’s surface, it’s a surface worth scratching. Flynn’s first foray into screenwriting seems just that – a first foray into screenwriting – but it’s functional and provides fleeting glimpses into the trashy brilliance of her prose. Even though the pic doesn’t rank among his best (“Zodiac,” “The Social Network”) Fincher and company have done good – if not earth-shattering – work here. Now the burden is on audiences to decide which version of “Gone Girl” they prefer.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 3, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Carrie Coon
MPAA Rating: R (for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language)