Warning: While there will be an attempt to minimize it, there may be some spoilers for both the novel and the film adaptation of Gone Girl within this review. Readers who have yet to read the book or see the movie should proceed with caution.
When the film faded to black and the credits started rolling, the audience at my local AMC shared a moment that I’m sure most of them have never experienced in a theater before. Once the credits for David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl began, there was a large and quite audible sigh of shock that erupted forth. Audience member after audience member exhaled in response to what they just saw. This humble critic shared a conversation with the old lady next to him that almost entirely consisted of “wow”’s and “woah”’s. In short, the audience had just watched a film very bleak and so dour, that once it ended, the viewers needed a moment to let the unpleasantness of this story wash over them so they could leave and continue on with their lives. It was euphoric.
Gone Girl has been a widely discussed book since it hit the bestseller’s list in 2012, and a film adaptation was natural. The film follows the Dunnes, Nick and Amy (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), as Amy goes missing on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. What follows is two competing tales, one of Nick after Amy has gone missing, and one of Amy in the years leading up to her disappearance. It’s a tale that critiques long term relationships, the media response to missing persons cases, and the roles people play in various sectors of their lives. As a result, the film is one where a character’s personality can change on a dime, and where every action can be questioned.
Gone Girl is a story that is open to discussion on various formats (Zack Budryk wrote a fantastic and spoiler filled article for Quail Bell where he discusses one of the major draws of this story), and a film adaptation of such a book is going to bring many of those discussions to the forefront. Does the movie accurately portray the message(s) of the book? Does the process of adaptation cost the viewer some scenes, characters, or themes that they could get from the book? Does the story change now that it is being filtered through the lens of another person?
Most of the questions are answered positively, although some changes to the tale do make the story a bit better and a bit worse than the book. For the most part, most of the adaptation’s changes do work for the film. We lose one of the people who knew the real Amy, but we still have one who can fill us in on how far she can go. Amy’s parents have less of a role and most of her history with them is sidelined, but they still fulfill their part in the narrative. Flynn rewrote the ending for the film’s screenplay, and what happens? The story gets even more bleak and hopeless than the book.
Part of what made Gone Girl fascinating was that it’s a tale of two people trying to assume roles. Nick and Amy are trying to move away from their pasts and start anew with a serious adult relationship. Nick attempts to leave his humble, Midwestern background and the influence of his misogynist father and tries to become a cultured and interesting writer. Amy has to escape the passive aggressive children’s book series her parents wrote based on her life and make it on her own. The issue is that neither Nick or Amy are able to possess foresight.
When the economic recession hits, Nick and Amy find themselves out of work and low on direction. Amy’s trust fund is zapped when her parents ask for financial assistance and is later cleaned when Nick and his sister open a bar. They both also have to abandon New York when Nick’s mom falls ill, and they both have to give up ideas on making their Missouri life be the same as their New York life. After that, the two just start to spin out of control, and the choices they make end up leading to the plot of the film.
I feel this tells of a larger theme of the story, where attempts to control and plan everything tend to never work, but also how frustrating that can be to the people who do try to make things work. Nick is constantly losing track of what he wants to do and tends to have issues being able to make room for things Amy wants. Amy, as we learn, is someone who can plan to extreme degrees, but even she is forced to improvise and do some quite dangerous and vile things. At the same time, both of them come to understand how fragile their lives can be when they have to make compromises and choices based on their actions.
What the new ending does that the book didn’t do was remove a lot of the “what comes next” that the book ends on. Most of the beats from the book’s ending are in the film’s, but there’s less of a view into the future. Things are even more uncertain between Nick and Amy at the end of the film than the book. We see aspects of each of them still shine through in the final scenes, but we have no idea how long they can last in their current lifestyle, and we have no idea when it can all come crashing down.
I do believe David Fincher was a good choice for making this film. After making films like The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has demonstrated a talent for creating artificiality. That sounds like a weird comment when talking about a filmmaker, who should specialize in make artificial work, but with Fincher, I’ve come to realize how fake and calculated the world in his movies looks. A few of his films feature unreliable narrators, tend to have scenes with multiple points of view, and ultimately carry the “he said, she said” attitude that makes most scenes questionable.
With Gone Girl, everything looks too good to be true. The homes the characters live in are too clean and nice looking. The characters look too perfect at times, and too imperfect at other times. Because he’s constructing a work of fiction, Fincher is tying in the falseness that comes with the film art form and plays it with the artificiality that is the lives of the characters. Nothing in this world is as it should be, and most of the people in it are unable to accept how fake they act.
The film is a mostly good adaptation, but there are some weak moments in the story. Fincher uses montage a lot, and while that is well done in this film (especially at the mid-film reveal), there are times where it doesn’t work. Some points are brought up, but never expanded upon. Images and items are introduced, and a few never come into play. The viewer can make guesses about some of them (the gun and the bag of hair in particular), but it can be a bit odd when the film can remember Nick’s visit to a sperm bank but not some of those items.
The cast of the film is very competent, with special nod to Pike’s portrayal of Amy. The Amy of the book was someone who could never be read properly, and Pike manages to make the film version of Amy just as ambiguous as the novel. She is able to change emotions very quickly and fluidly, and there are times where you have to look at her and think of if she’s acting for the characters on screen or if we’re seeing the real version.
Affleck also does fine as Nick. Affleck is someone who you could think as a handsome and simple guy overwhelmed by the situation, but can also look like a smug douche you want to punch in the face. He plays both of these sides of Nick pretty well. The one issue with Affleck’s portrayal and the film’s handling of Nick is that, towards the end of the film, it sort of forgets how terrible Nick is and doesn’t make his fate as ironic as the book did.
Overall, this is a film that adapts the book well and makes many good choices when it comes to adapting a popular novel. It probably should be watched after reading the book, but it really doesn’t have to. What does matter is that you go into it blind (I say, after giving many details of the plot away), and be willing to watch this with a single thought in mind: Is any of this truthful? I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourselves.