The predominant image throughout David Fincher's films, from the uncovered horrors of "Se7en" to the Machiavellian maneuverings of "House of Cards," has been a flashlight beam cutting through the dark.
In his latest, the Gillian Flynn adaptation "Gone Girl," he shines it into the deepest depths of not a serial killer's mind or a schizophrenic's madness, but on a far more terrifying psychological minefield: Marriage. In "Gone Girl," Fincher has crafted a portrait of a couple rivaled in toxicity only by "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and one with just as much — if more subtle — roleplaying.
The results are a mixed bag of matrimony mayhem, but an engrossing, wonderfully wicked one. Despite its perspective-shifting, "Gone Girl" may be too male in its viewpoint. And the schematic setup of Flynn's screenplay does sap some of its force. But in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, "Gone Girl" is delicious suburban noir.
It begins with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) caressing the head of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), and wondering to himself, "What are you thinking?" It's the film's unsolvable mystery: the unknowingness of another, even one who shares your bed.
On a regular morning in North Carthage, Missouri, albeit one begun with an early drink of whiskey at Nick's bar with his bartender twin sister, Margo (an excellent Carrie Coon as the movie's voice of reason), Nick returns home to find Amy missing and scenes of a struggle. Even as she cheerfully pledges help, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) sticks post-it notes around the house, marking areas of suspicion.
As the investigation turns toward Nick, and the high-wattage glare of the TV media finds his concern unconvincing, we get an autopsy on the Dunnes' marriage. In flashbacks narrated by Amy's journal, she recalls their fairy tale beginnings and — despite earnest intentions to avoid becoming "that couple" — their gradual dissolution.
Nick is laid off from his magazine writing job. They move from New York to Missouri to be near his family. Amy, the cool New York daughter of a publicity-savvy literary couple who based their bestselling children's book series "Amazing Amy" on her, recoils at her Midwest McMansion nightmare, finding herself wed to a videogame-playing frat boy who, after a loveless afternoon tryst, suggests the Outback for dinner. She seethes: "I drank canned beer and watched Adam Sandler movies," and an ocean of empathy washes from Nick to her.
This is the mischievous game of the movie, which hopes to sway your sympathies with each twist in the story.
Their bland suburban house becomes a prison to Nick, its windows lit up with the strobe-light flashes of the swarming media. The manipulation of image, both in public opinion and in private relationships, shapes the story, with Tyler Perry (in a spectacular performance that ought to, by its own strength, incinerate his Madea costume) swooping in as the narrative-controlling defense attorney Tanner Bolt. When Nick pledges the truth will be his defense, Bolt grins with cynical perfection.
Pike, in the fullest performance of her career, struggles to make Amy more than an opaque femme fatale. But — and it's a big one — she does lead the film to its staggering climax, a blood-curdling sex scene: the movie's piece de resistance, the consummation of its noir nuptials.
Fincher's sinister slickness and dimly-lit precision has sometimes been considered a double-edged sword, a complaint that strikes me as missing the point. Mastery isn't a negative.
"Gone Girl" doesn't give the director the material that the propulsive "The Social Network" did. But you can feel him — aided by the shadowy cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth and the creepy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — moving closer to the disturbed intimacies of Roman Polanski.
So, despite its imperfections, let us clink our glasses and throw rice on "Gone Girl."
"Gone Girl," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language." Running time: 145 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.