Friday, October 3, 2014
Thrillers are a genre that need quality people in them to excel. Once in a while a film that has been tossed together will leave a mark, but true works of suspense need the kind of professional touch that comes from confidence in the field and the contributions of skilled actors and technicians. In the mid part of the last century we had Alfred Hitchcock. In the early part of the new millennium, David Fincher has stepped forward to supply the kind of bubbling, slow burning , suspense piece that audiences will crave. In the last twenty years he has made a half dozen films that rely on tension more than action, plot more than flash and performances that reflect reality more than theatricality. "Gone Girl" is another success in this line of suspense films with clever plot twists and a creeping sense of isolation as the story moves toward it's resolution. This movie is backed by several strong performances and a visual style that makes the audience feel haunted like it was a cloudy day, even when there is bright sunshine around.
The screenplay was written by the author of the novel that the movie is based on, Gillian Flynn. Adapting a novel to screen is always more complicated than people think. I'm not sure what her attitude was toward making a film out of her story but she has done an admirable job in forging an effective film. With the exception of the last five minutes , I could easily follow and appreciate the plot twists and story line. The tone of the ending seems right to me, especially given several foreshadowing scenes in the film. It was just the final motivation that fuels that exit tone that was not entirely clear to me. After having spent almost two and a half hours setting it up, the exit felt rushed and much less comprehensible than all of the main parts of this story filled with reversals. The director has the shots right and the mood is appropriately foreboding, but the script leaves it unclear why our main character makes the final decision that completes the film.
I have always enjoyed Ben Affleck as an actor. I know he is often criticized as a callow personality, overwhelmed by the material he is in, but he also has charm and a winning face and that has rescued him many times. His most serious role in his own "Argo" is a demonstration that he has chops and not just good looks. He uses both of those gifts in this film and helps make a convoluted and potentially unbelievable story much more grounded. Nick Dunne is a fairly likable guy who gets the Scott Peterson treatment from the media when his wife Amy vanishes. The film starts off without giving us any clues as to whether he really is involved or not in the disappearance. As events play out we discover that he is not as affable or admirable as he first seems. We learn that he has secrets, but also that his secrets probably have little to do with the event, but that will never be the way it is seen by the media. A large part of the tension in the film is driven by the tabloid like coverage of his wife's vanishing. A Nancy Grace doppelganger pursues the story and leads the social media lynch mob that is ready to convict Nick in the killing of his wife. As the film unfolds we do get some rival views of the marriage itself. It seems to have gone sour in the economic turndown and Amy has her own demons that fuel those problems. Since I made the decision not to read the book before seeing the film, I think it is safe to say that knowing the story would undermine some of the pleasures of the film. There are five or six smart twists that all work without undermining the things that come in front of them. Those who read the book can admire the adaption, those who went in blind like me can thrill at the surprises.
The technical choices that help make the movie work as a suspense film will be recognizable as Fincher specialties. The camera movements are slow and steady and fluid. There is stillness in a great many sequences in the movie. The background score by previous collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is moody and dissonant. The color and lighting are crisp but subdued to just this side of muted. When there is violence, the camera does not look away any more than it did in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". There are two or three great scenes where a character tells us everything we need to know without it being shown, It would have been easy to let the camera fill in as a character narrates, but Fincher chooses to let the voice and face of the character tell the story and it works really well. A long interlude at a decrepit motel reminded me of the basement scene in "Zodiac". The characters we encounter are sometime more than they first appear to be. I won't give away anything but I think audiences who responded to those earlier films will not be disappointed here.
Special mention must be made of the performance by Rosamund Pike. She has been given one of the great female characters of the last few years to play. Her work as a chilly upper east-side elite, drawn into a warm romance with a misplaced mid-westerner is very believable. Even more believable is her emerging brittleness and renewed frost as the marriage seems to fall out of the narrative that she has in her own head. Her character's mother took her weaknesses as a child and turned them into a fictional alter ego that became world famous. That makes what follows seem almost inevitable and Pike sells the sense of entitlement and superiority perfectly. There are a number of male leading roles that have been touted already for awards season, this is the first woman's role that breaks out of the pack and will demand a salute from her fellow actors at the end of the year, well done. Others in the cast are also excellent; Carrie Coon who plays Nick's loyal twin sister, Neil Patrick Harris is flinty and disturbed as a former beau ill used by Amy in high school, Kim Dickens portrays the detective pursuing the evidence rather than the man and she seems very authentic.
This is an audience pleasing suspense thriller assembled by the modern authority on that genre. If Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch and the Cohen Brothers are on your regular watchlists, than you will be glad to spend two and a half hours puzzling out the plot, admiring the performances and feeling satisfied with the logic of the twists in this terrific film. If you have not read the book, stay away from any stories that might contain spoilers. The most satisfying parts of the experience are the the clever turns that all drive the story rather than merely shifting it's narrative.