I don't like to throw out terms like 'master' or 'genius' on the regular. In a collaborative medium, especially, it's tough to truly pin those titles on the bulk of directors. Gone Girl, though, makes one thing very clear: David Fincher is a master of adaptation. Specifically, he's quite possibly the best and most qualified person to direct any and all psychological thrillers adapted from bestselling literature. If you're agreeing with me so far, let me push this just a little further: I'm actually 99% sure that even The Silence of the Lambs would be significantly improved (or, at least, more temporally dislocated) if Fincher had made it. Controversial opinion, right? Really, though, just imagine how much more haunting those prison scenes would be through Fincher's lens. Try to attach a Trent Reznor score and revel in the clarity and hue of those close-ups.
Whether you buy into that or not, Fincher's way with thriller novels seems to be second to none these days. If Fight Club was a prelude (now contemporary classic), the one-two punch of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl seals the deal: these are adaptations that feel definitive. It doesn't matter how popular the original text was, Fincher's film versions bind and replace them in our minds. They become the text, they mesh with it, they are somehow what we wanted them to be. Or, more precisely, they are what we didn't know we wanted them to be. In the case of Stieg Larsson, Fincher's manipulation of the basic pigments can transform a generic, blandly written procedural so that we understand the rage beneath its surface. In the case of Gillian Flynn (who, wisely, wrote the script here), Fincher draws out the tension from a character driven work. He fills in the spaces; with silence, with madness. He makes them haunt us. [Spoilers ahead]
This is Gone Girl's true success: it makes something that was once rooted in a type of happiness legitimately frightening. We're haunted by the possibilities well after the credits have rolled, by the exquisite tension of two nasty souls stuck in limbo. The now mundane nature of the source material, read and retold by millions has become a fresh hell, and the questions shouldn't be whether or not the film grounds itself in social commentary or comes out in favor of either side in a battle of the sexes. We are not dealing with archetypes here, we are dealing with two characters who struggle, at all times, to be something close to human at all. As their marriage begins to dissolve, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are each gifted their own blend of mental disorders ripped from the DSM V.
Just as in the book, the film begins its story with the interwoven narrative of Nick and Amy's marriage. We get the he-said/she-said tale of their once-upon-a-time happiness and the fissures that have begun to surface on the morning of their fifth anniversary. The camera tells us all we need to know as Nick jumps ship, grabs a whiskey at the bar he owns with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), and returns: a little more numb before participating in the forced celebration. Instead, though, he finds Amy missing and signs of a struggle. The police (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) arrive, and soon the media does to. The two halves of the film now begin to tear at each other. The old jokes, the good dates, the explosive sex is all punctuated, now, by candlelit vigils for Amy's return, by police interrogations and questions of Nick's commitment. It becomes clear that he didn't know his wife's life well. That he doesn't seem appropriately bereaved. He smiles when he shouldn't, he's smug when he shouldn't be. Did he kill his wife? Who can we trust?
The answer, of course, is ultimately nobody. As the film enters its second act Amy is revealed to be a mastermind with exceptionally malicious talents, but of course, to some extent the film has already made that perfectly clear. It's difficult to say who put in the better performance here between Pike and Affleck, and harder perhaps to determine which role is the more difficult. Affleck is better than he has been in some time, in part because the thing we hate about Nick is precisely the thing we tend to hate about Affleck: even when we're told he's a nice guy, he comes off as smug and somehow shallow. He channels that into the character here, playing his look to his advantage and suppressing surface feelings we're somehow still acutely aware of the character having. Pike, meanwhile, is given an even more placid surface with even more tension just below. It's difficult to put the level of nuance needed her into words, especially as we shift seamlessly into round two.
Everything we've seen to this point has been controlled not only by Amy (as it was with the Flynn text), but by Fincher's attention to narrative detail. Each exchange lands precisely as it should, each happy moment is juxtaposed with precisely the right cut from Nick's present torment, and so the pressure mounts. Those new to the story oscillate wildly between suspicions, searching for (and finding!) evidence of their theories until the reveal forces them to refocus their energies entirely. It's wickedly on point, and each story telling element is meticulously calibrated to achieve a kind of maximum psychological impact. There are moments of black humor that shine through if you're willing to go grim enough to find them, but largely Fincher sticks to his aesthetic. The creeping darkness exists at all times, and even the jokes read as cruel jabs to someone.
For some, that darkness may be too crushing, too stylized, too Finchery. Frankly, though, I'd have a hard time buying into it. Gone Girl remains, at all times, a kind of exquisitely lurid piece of work. Its haunting final images are simultaneously enhanced and undermined by something like a wicked cackle. Later, we laugh at the trap they've built for each other. In the moment, we are dead silent. And that, my friends, is how a thriller should be.