Every great murder mystery seeks two answers. The first answer is to the basic question of who committed the murder (after all, that’s why we call these stories “whodunits”). But the better entries in the genre probe deeper, seeking an understanding of the institutions that led to the murder in the first place. These films want to know who we are, and why we do such horrible things. They examine our world and, by association, often end up assigning a hint of the blame back to the audience.
Director David Fincher is our greatest living director of mysteries because he understands these concepts. Seven and Zodiac elevated the police procedural to existential art by placing their serial killer in the context of urban and suburban decay, respectively. In The Social Network, he looked under the steely façade of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, while also uncovering the society that created him – and the one he has created.
Now, with Gone Girl, he has created a mystery that asks – and mostly answers – more questions that you can count. It is an incisive treatise on how we live now, a timeless portrait of a marriage gone wrong, and a compelling whodunit, all packaged in a commercial, crowd-pleasing form. It is also deeply misanthropic, emotionally gruesome, and darkly hilarious. It is my favorite movie of the year so far, and not by a small margin. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne, an enviably attractive couple whose slick outer sheen hides a rotting core. Their marriage crumbles after they vacate their New York City existence for the drab suburbs of Missouri – filmed in unforgiving, abrupt angles and a deep gray palette by cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth – to care for Nick’s ailing mother. The tension mounts in familiar ways. Amy wants a child, and Nick doesn’t. He has an affair; she catches him, but doesn’t say anything, and they grow further and further apart. On the day Nick is planning to serve Amy with divorce papers, she is abducted from their home, and almost immediately, Nick becomes the primary suspect. Soon, a media swarm descends on their small town, and Nick must juggle dual objectives: to find out the truth about his wife’s disappearance while trying to defend himself from accusations in the court of public opinion.
To keep the audience off-balance, Fincher digs deep into playbook of Alfred Hitchcock, the original master of movie mysteries. He relies heavily on unreliable narrators, subverted archetypes, and red herrings; for much of the film, for example, I was convinced that the Dunne’s family cat had something to do with Amy’s disappearance (spoiler alert: he didn’t). There are twists a-plenty – including a big one you hopefully haven’t had ruined for you – and the whole enterprise could easily have fallen apart or devolved to a B-movie mystery (like say, 1998’s Wild Things) without the stellar performances of its two leads. Pike is a revelation here, nailing a subversive combination of two American female archetypes – the put-upon housewife and the blonde bombshell – that Mr. Hitchcock also employed liberally. Affleck’s performance is something altogether different, and it counts as one of the finest synergies of actor and role in recent memory. In Nick Dunne’s arc, we can track the rise and fall of Affleck’s own career: the too-perfect early days, the wrong choice of projects that had disastrous consequences, and then the inability to cope with intense media scrutiny. When Nick is chastened by the media for failing to properly play the role of concerned husband they have assigned him, you can feel the echoes of Affleck’s difficult relationship with the media during his run of awful movies last decade and his much-publicized marriage to Jennifer Lopez. Although Affleck admirably digs deeper than ever before, the credit for his performance must be shared: Fincher’s casting of a character maligned for being unable to properly express emotions with an actor often criticized for his wooden performances deserves special mention, as well.
Through these performances and Fincher’s efficient direction (the two-and-a-half hour runtime feels more like a taut ninety minutes), Gone Girl emerges as a rare artistic entity: a Hollywood film that challenges, rather than placates, its audience. It is an inversion of the typically Hollywood ending that is sure to spark a few discussions on the drive home. I’m sure that Fincher, who has spent his career poking holes in our most dominant cultural institutions, would not have it any other way.