“Gone Girl”: A Book Reader’s Perspective

[This is a spoiler-heavy review of David Fincher’s “GONE GIRL” examining the film as an adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel on which it is based — you have been warned]

“What have we done to each other?”

As a novel, Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” is the definition of a page-turner. Synopsized: Nick Dunne arrives home on the morning of his five-year wedding anniversary to discover that his beautiful wife, Amy Elliot Dunne, has disappeared. A search investigation begins with all evidence pointing toward Nick as the prime suspect. What happened to Amy? Is she alive, or is she dead? Either way, who is responsible? After much unraveling things begin to become slightly clearer, with true motives being unearthed slowly and, only sometimes, surely. The beauty of Flynn’s storytelling is the perpetuating uncertainty; the pieces come together in a meticulous fashion, and even when they seem to be all there, she does something brash and brilliant, right up through the trap-door final act. It’s the kind of ambitious writing that has a plot designed for cinematic presentation, but full of devices and nuances that are much harder to translate faithfully.

However, the adaptation task is fit for none other than the author herself; for director David Fincher, Flynn repurposed her magnificent novel with few changes. For a dense piece of literature like “Gone Girl” (412 pages split into three distinct sections and told from two specific points of view usually in different, but related, timelines) there seems like there is little fat to trim, but Flynn knows herself and her medium well enough that at a brisk two and a half hours, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” might appear bloated, but it feels extremely lean, even though it carries layers of narrative muscle. Flynn retains the circles of narration – the first person omniscience of Nick Dunne and the compounding diary of Amy Elliot Dunne – which allows the overarching structure to proceed undisturbed. The flashback device of a stark fade followed by icy voiceover that calmly leads us into a pearly memory is wonderfully executed by editor Kirk Baxter; he never lets the device become overly repetitive, and Flynn narrows down the diary entries to the most poignant so that we never find ourselves wading in pointless deviations from the linear plotline of Amy’s disappearance. Key checkboxes like Amy’s parents’ wealth extending from their Amazing Amy book series and then their sudden bankruptcy, the economy forcing both Nick and Amy into unemployment, Nick’s mother’s cancer diagnosis that brings the Dunne’s back to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, and the annual treasure hunt that Amy puts together for Nick on their anniversary, are integrated seamlessly into these important flashbacks. Like all good adaptations, the screenplay is the novel at its bare essentials, but the impact is equal.

Similar to the novel, the past and present simultaneously balance and corrupt one another. What we know about the past obviously influences the future, but that works in both plotting and in character-defining action. We’re given two sides of the story and neither of them match in action, but the repercussions, regardless of the truth, are the same. Amy is missing and Nick looks troublingly guilty. Flynn puts the biggest emphasis on Nick’s unreliability in the novel, especially in the first act. For the majority of this section (labeled ‘Boy Loses Girl’), Nick’s innocence is not only strained by the evidence and accosts of the police and the townspeople of North Carthage, but also by his emotional inner thoughts. The way he reacts to what people say, how he chooses his words, what thoughts are promoted by lies and what facts he purposefully, and stupidly, keeps under wraps (i.e. his mistress, Andie) all call Nick’s narration into high question, and characterize Nick as a pretty awful guy. For almost the entirety of ‘Boy Loses Girl,’ it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Nick is in fact guilty of his wife’s disappearance.

Fincher’s approach is different as he alleviates the audience of this ‘did he or didn’t he’ stress. Instead, the focus is on solely Nick as a character, and this is where the inspired casting of Ben Affleck comes into play. Nick’s confusion and disarray is apparent though muted, his sincerity is questionable but not entirely doubtful, and while the love he has for his wife has definitely dissipated it doesn’t change the fact that he’s desperate to know what has happened to her. Affleck’s affable charm and humble, handsome appearance is Nick Dunne to a tee, and with the erasure of the tangential inner monologues and flooding web of memories and feelings that Flynn granted us in the book, Affleck has to let his actions and reactions in the present define his character and develop him in the future. This is without question the most complex role Affleck has ever faced, and with the exterior down pat, he does an astounding job embodying a man who is the target of numerous camera lenses, on the butt end of heated questions, and on the wrong side of public popularity (art imitates life). Don’t mistake his performance for boredom, it’s the restraint and inner retreat that sharpens Nick’s dryness; Nick Dunne is not a good guy, regardless of his innocence, and Affleck manages to make that abundantly clear.

Coupled with that inward turmoil is Nick’s temper, which always comes off very surprising in the book because of how he can predict and comment on his mood swings, but is even more shocking in the movie as it erupts quickly from his boiling core. His marriage to Amy has been tattered, to which he routinely admits to his twin (Margo, whom in the hands of actress Carrie Coon becomes a more dynamic presence), but Nick’s temper is a corruptible abstraction, especially because in its illustrations lies truth. Amy speaks of some abuse in her diary: Nick’s passionate desire to not have children, his undisclosed long nights out of the house, how his displaced yearning to make love with Amy will return fleetingly yet lovelessly, the continuous arguments, and the physical aggressiveness. Amy presents these memories as a bruise that only gets worse, until finally she predicts the inevitable on the morning of her disappearance, “The man of my dreams, this man of mine, may kill me.”

But at the beginning of act two (‘Boy Meets Girl’), Flynn executes her first of several big twists.

Amy Elliot Dunne is a big ol’ liar. A dangerous, practically psychopathic liar. Amy has orchestrated an outrageous ‘MacGuffin’ (a Hitchockian slang term for a narrative motivator) in that her disappearance and potential murder is neither sudden nor a criminally inspired mystery; Amy Elliot Dunne has painfully prepared for her own disappearance, planted the clues to insinuate murder, and left two separate trails of clues so that Nick would come to understand that he has been fatally duped, and that the cops will eventually arrest Nick. Even if Nick discovers his wife’s plot way ahead of the police (which he does), he will have no defense. Amy has thought of literally everything, with numerous pieces of plot waiting in the wings to be motivated at her command (for instance, Go’s woodshed full of extravagant credit card purchases). This is a wild narrative shift that works so miraculously in the book that it takes more than a minute to process. It’s unbelievable in every way, shape, and form but is oddly acceptable given the place at which it occurs in the whole story, and the pace at which it is packaged and disclosed to the readers. To my delight, it worked just as triumphantly in the film, via a rapid-fire montage narrated by Amy in a much more sarcastic, almost giddy voiceover. Rosamund Pike’s performance blossoms here as she creates an audible difference in her personas; she has the buoyant, transformative, all-knowing Amy, and then she has the manufactured, icy Amy who is likable, sensual, and devious.

And now, just as quick as the shock came, things really open up and the narrative takes an angular turn on both sides as we find Amy observing her disappearance from afar under a new look and new name (she also is forced to roll with several punches, like deviating from the pre-meditated finale of killing herself and forcing a new character to enter the plot after she is unceremoniously robbed), and we find Nick trying to reroute to the offense, introducing celebrity-lawyer Tanner Bolt into the fray.

Praise must be extended to both Fincher for casting Tyler Perry and to Perry for accepting. Non-book readers might not understand this as they are watching, but Perry’s appearance alone foreshadows the act three narrative jettison. His casting, as well as Neil Patrick Harris’, are totally ironic; they allow an iota of camp to drip into “Gone Girl” that is impressively subtle at first, but will grow throughout the remaining runtime. Perry and Harris play characters that invert their real-life celebrity: Perry is (in)famous for his cross-dressing alter-ego, Madea, but here plays a slick, put-together lawyer, while Harris, who’s role as ladykiller Barney Stinson already juxtaposed the actor’s sexuality, plays the possessive, overly caring and domineering Desi Collings. This is how Fincher works to dull the blow of what is irrefutably the novel’s biggest rug-pull.

As Nick’s power-play with the public turns into a continuous volley: TV gossiper Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) brands Nick as guilty from the outset, then he turns the tables with a candid interview in a bar (a segment nixed from the film), before his mistress Andie (Emily Ratajkowski of the “Blurred Lines” music video) holds a press conference that outs Nick as an adulterer. Nick fires back with an amazingly earnest interview with Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), but the discovery of Amy’s (fabricated) diary and the contents of Go’s woodshed lead to Nick’s arrest. But even with those two incriminating elements of Amy’s plan doing the last bits of dirty work, Nick’s Sharon Schieber interview settles the score as far as Amy is concerned. Her recent robbery has forced her to bring in former lover, Desi Collings. Desi takes Amy to his lakeside mansion where she watches Nick pour out his heart and soul to the millions tuning in and for the first time she sees the man that she knows once loved her. Of course, Nick’s playing a massive act, but, just like how Amy has Nick down to a science, Nick shows that he’s not as foolish as Amy thinks.

So Amy’s plan changes drastically, and this is where Flynn starts to divide readers.

What is a cliffhanger ending of section two, forcing readers to brave the polarizing section three (‘Boy Gets Girl Back [Or Vice Versa]’), Fincher shows the murderous lengths that Amy is willing to go. Fincher turns the murder of Desi Collings into a powerhouse sequence with image and sound marrying together in heart-stopping fashion. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ absorbing score grapples us as crimson splatters and flashes of Desi’s nauseating demise are hurled at us from all different heights and angles. In his own ingenious way, Fincher homages both Hitchcock and De Palma as the ravenous blonde beauty slashes Desi’s jugular mid-coitus and fearlessly forces him to bleed out before she drives back to North Carthage covered in blood and reveals herself to the media and her husband in theatrical fashion. It’s gory, and nutty, and absolutely lovely.

But the curveball ending is the tour de force as Fincher continues his radical descent into full-blown satire, totally in line with what Flynn cooked up in the last twenty to thirty pages of her novel. For all of its twists and turns and darkness and calculations, “Gone Girl” has been a nervous riot. It is dastardly funny and not only because of the sarcasm and the unspooling of absurdity in the plot, but because of its wicked tendencies; how irresistibly acceptable every insane plot point becomes, how menacing it always seems and how deconstructive it actually is. The pettiness of the media is crucial subtext while the story, as both a film and a novel, is a mystery, but the collision of marriage is paramount when the story reveals itself to be a satire.

And that is what “Gone Girl” and Gone Girl both are, blazing satires on marriage and gender roles both hyperbolized to the extreme. Marriages are not the conclusions of storybooks; in real life they become a contest where both sides fight to dominate the narrative. It’d be a far more evil diagnosis if it weren’t so cynically true; so many unhappy marriages become moral and ethical trials that usually end in dour compromise. Therefore, how should the story of Nick and Amy Dunne end? But with compromise. Amy returns home a hero, she reconnects with Nick and admits to her crimes, but Nick’s security remains flimsy as Amy tries to gauge how game Nick is to continue living a lie. He tries to fight (more so in the book as he and Go and Detective Boney meet regularly to search for flaws in Amy’s plot, and Nick even attempts to write a manuscript version of the events hoping to emotionally prove his side), but Amy shuts him down with the ultimate compromise: A pregnancy. Suddenly Nick has been checkmated. With a child, Amy would be all powerful, first manipulating the child to hate his or her father, and then what after that? The options are unspeakable. Nick agrees to play house.

My good friend once commented that the ending of Gone Girl comes across “as if a lazy 4th grader wrote it.” On a surface level, it definitely feels like a cop out, but viewing it under a satirical lens, this ending is the only appropriate conclusion. In the book, Nick concludes his narration by embracing Amy as his match. She has righted him into a good person despite how much he might resent her for it. The wife has made the husband the best person he can be, and isn’t that why a man asks a woman to marry her? Because she makes him into the best person whenever she’s around. Amy, as a creation more than a character, is truly amazing because she is that concept personified; she has had an impact on his life that he will surely never forget, and in three-quarters of a year there will be a newborn baby who can attest that to that change even more so than Nick himself. Nick and Amy are made for each other, eternal antagonists like Luke and Darth Vadar, Tom and Jerry, Batman and the Joker, Pan and Hook, Holmes and Moriarty.  Like so many broken marriages, they are a never-ending climax. “What have we done to each other?”

This is why the ending works so well, arguably even more so in the book. In the final entry of Amy’s diary (her real diary), she explains that when she asked Nick why he is now so wonderful to her, he says it’s because he feels sorry for Amy. “Every morning you have to wake up and be you.” Nick might have compromised, but if life will forever be a compromise, hard truths are expected. Amy cries that all she wanted was the last word, “I think I deserve that much.” And in one stroke of brilliance, Flynn’s satire has stuck the landing. Amy’s actions are unforgivable, but so are Nick’s on a much more rational level. Her punishment is strictly retribution for his acts, and the joy for her is watching him jump through the hoops in order to repent and reconcile. She may have done a number on him, but he’s accepted his faults, rectified his shortcomings, but has refused to relinquish his integrity. Gone Girl is a satire pretending to be a mystery; in the end it was one giant marital argument; all that anybody really wants is the last word.

As an adaptation, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is immaculate. In another world, this story would have fallen into the hands of Brian De Palma – master of the macabre – but with someone as prolific and precise as David Fincher, the film strikes an even more tricky tonal balance and skillfully crafts, builds, delivers, and narrows in a bravado arc that is never too campy and never too self-serious. Even if “Se7en” and “The Social Network” leave much more to chew on, “Gone Girl” is still ace work, and masterful as an exercise in ushering a book to the screen. For as much of “Gone Girl” seems to work within Fincher’s wheelhouse, the stuff that doesn’t – the humor, the satire – brings back memories of “Fight Club” and how twistedly deliberate each piece of that film was built. The narrative rug-pull in “Fight Club” is as divisive as the thematic one in “Gone Girl,” but both are streamlined because of Fincher’s controlled design. This design is never breached by estimation because Fincher is so deliberate; for those who were turned off by the ending of “Gone Girl” in the book, chances are it will not be that way upon viewing the film.

Lastly, while Fincher orchestrated it all, Flynn and Pike are what make it a wonder. Pike’s performance is a study in acting as her performance is literally a series of transformations, a barrage of masks, a swell of performances. Amy is a concept, and I don’t believe there is anybody who could have made that ring more true on screen than Rosamund Pike. And now Flynn, the great overseer and creator of this story, her abilities have increased ten fold. While undoubtedly a gifted writer, she’s found a new home as a screenwriter (next, she’ll be collaborating with Fincher on the HBO series, Utopia). Entertainment Weekly divorced her from its writing staff just before she began writing Gone Girl, another irony in that she went from pop-culture reporting to a pop-culture icon and will undoubtedly be on the shortlist for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.

“Gone Girl,” on screen and on the page, are marvels. This film is an adaptation done beautifully.

By Mike Murphy


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