Gone Girl

October 4, 2014
Rosamund Pike & Ben Affleck in 'Gone Girl' (2014)
Rosamund Pike & Ben Affleck in 'Gone Girl' (2014)

Having written a smash No. 1 bestseller, there are not many authors with the discipline – or know-how – to sit down and thrash out the screenplay. This makes Gillian Flynn a rare talent, as she has managed to take a brilliant novel and put it through all those necessary cuts and compressions required of a film script. The movie, Gone Girl, is necessarily different from the book, but the changes are unlikely to rankle with readers (6 million and counting). There could hardly be a better choice of director than the fastidious David Fincher, who has a special penchant for psychopaths, role-players and shape-shifters.

Gone Girl is a portrait of a marriage breakdown in which the stakes are life and death. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott met when both were working as writers in New York. She was a waspy New York princess, whose parents had cannibalised her childhood in a series of best-selling books about the character, Amazing Amy. Nick was a regular guy from Missouri, whose down-to-earth nature was the perfect complement for Amy’s intellect.

Or so it seemed until both lost their jobs in the recession, and Amy’s parents reclaimed her trust fund in order to bail themselves out of their own bad investments. With Nick’s mother dying of cancer, and no work in New York, the couple relocate to Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri. It’s here their marriage starts to fall apart, as Nick uses the last of Amy’s money to open a bar with his twin sister, while Amy looks around for something – anything – to do, feeling like a pariah in Hicksville.

That’s the background. The film begins with Nick coming home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find Amy missing, and signs of a violent struggle in the house. She has vanished, and soon the hunt for Amazing Amy will begin. As the days go by it will swell outlandishly – dominating the American airwaves. The entire nation will divide up into opposing camps, as they argue whether or not Nick has murdered his wife.

The evidence starts to pile up, and even Nick’s closest friends are shaken. If we are not quite so concerned it is because we have seen Nick enter the house on the first morning and seem genuinely shocked. The game is given away in those first scenes, whereas the book, with its alternating ‘his and her’ chapters, keeps us wondering right up until the half-way mark.

Nevertheless, the film successfully manages to show us that Nick and Amy are both playing roles. The bright, beautiful, kind, sensitive trophy wife, is a control freak of tyrannical proportions. Nick’s ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ persona conceals a selfish, lazy slob. As their relationship deteriorates following the move to Missouri, Nick’s attentions stray and Amy decides to punish him.

Gone Girl is the story of that punishment, which soon becomes a media firestorm that makes a mockery of the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’. What really matters is how Nick is perceived by millions of strangers watching TV, who feel that he looks too relaxed for a guy who has just lost his beloved wife. As he tries to claw back this audience, which has taken on the status of judge and jury, Nick must overcome his growing hatred for Amy and impersonate a loving husband. With the imaginary noose tightening around his neck he realises he doesn’t have to convince millions of viewers, only his wife, who has the option of remaining dead.

This is the crux of Flynn’s story: the way the most personal, intimate details of a relationship become public property in the age of reality TV in which ratings are boosted by lurid scandals. Under the pressure of public scrutiny the story of Nick and Amy’s marriage becomes a complex fiction in which both sides try to manipulate perceptions to their own advantage.

The casting could not be bettered. Ben Affleck has just the right brand of superficial charm to bring Nick to life. British actress, Rosamund Pike, was an unexpected choice as Amy, but she is a revelation in this role. Her smooth, slightly haughty features are ideal for a woman who could never allow herself to be less than perfect.

As we become acquainted with Amy we learn that her unnatural perfection is actually a kind of monstrosity. For Nick, his habitual desire to make a good impression renders him blind to the depth of his own duplicity. Nevertheless, these two flawed characters have a remarkable understanding of each other, and this forces us to realise that Gone Girl is really a love story, albeit a completely twisted one. Of course this may just as well serve as a working definition of the word “marriage”.

Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, from her own novel
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, David Clennon, Lisa Banes
USA, rated MA 15+, 149 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th October, 2014.