There are few words reviewers can apply to thrillers and suspense films that are more clichéd than “Hitchcockian.” There are also few directors whose body of work is more suited to that label than American David Fincher, whose oxygen-depleting detours into the dark side include single setting thriller Panic Room, literary adaptations Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and serial killer whodunits Zodiac and Se7en.
The last is notorious for a last minute “head in the box” revelation involving a crazy-furious Brad Pitt and a decapitated (though this was left to the imagination) Gwyneth Paltrow.
No Hitch film could have been that overtly gnarly; for starters Se7en‘s scuzzy washed-out look is a distinctively modern aesthetic. But indirectly Hitchcock could be just as macabre, moreso if you take into account social mores of the time. The opening of 1948′s Rope, for example, begins with a shot of a man being strangled. His corpse is placed in a trunk that two murderers then use to serve food to the victim’s unknowing family and friends.
Rope‘s nasty premise is served with an air of stagey formality that would stick out these days. This demonstrates how “Hitchcockian” is often misapplied: it is less about being representative of the late director’s style, which was partly a product of the times, than it is suggesting what that style might look and feel like in a contemporary context.
The first hour or so of Fincher’s latest film Gone Girl, based on a bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay) rests on a simple question: did a husband kill his wife?
On their fifth anniversary, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and Nick (Ben Affleck) is the only real suspect. When the media circus rolls into town Amy’s parents and Nick front the cameras. Something, however, seems to be amiss with Nick. Either his heart isn’t fully behind the search for Amy or his responses are unfairly interpreted as too cold to be genuine outpourings of grief.
The way the (perhaps) bereaved husband behaves — and moreso now his behaviour is interpreted — has an air of Lindy Chamberlain about it, or even Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, who was condemned for not crying at his mother’s funeral. The plot thickens when a new female supporting character arrives on the scene.
Affleck has never been better or more suited to a dramatic role. The actor has always had a hint of fakeness to his style, a show pony posturing he has chipped away at over time, like a pin-up model who has gradually learned how to act. Here Affleck’s self-conscious presence translates into a necessary part of his character: Nick must perform and pose for the cameras, which are hungry for a tear or an outburst.
Amy’s diary entries form Gone Girl‘s voice over narration. Matched with flashback sequences, Finchers fills out a backstory about a once lovesick romance that soured over time. Readers of the book will know a twist (or several) is coming. Like the film’s 145 minute running time, it’s a big one, even if it only marks the beginning of the second act.
There is a more important turning point somewhere else along the line, hinted at first through those before-it-went-to-hell reflections and later in confrontations so violent and horrific that (contrasted with an otherwise modest visual template) they feel shocking almost to the point of absurdity. This turning point is Gone Girl‘s transition from a crime thriller to a horror movie about marriage. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to say precisely where the former ends and the latter begins.
With the close-knit psychological ambiance of an early Roman Polanski film (particularly 1965’s Repulsion) Fincher paints American middle class as a blood-curdling emotional danger zone where financial assets, living arrangements and even children can be used as weapons, and marriage the detonation button capable of activating them.
Nick and Amy’s union is marked by mind games, power plays and sham exteriors; the view from the front lawn is a cruel chimera. When Fincher moves the story from a whodunit to a why – and to what extent things have gone wrong — the safety lock comes off. Gone Girl hits peak moments of impact as a bleak and brutal portrait of emotional imprisonment, George Orwell’s room 101 (where people are tortured by their deepest fears) in a ward exclusively for romances gone horribly awry.
Like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ creepy score, which at times comes close to drowning out the dialogue, Fincher comes on too strongly at times. Itchy emotional intensity devolves into more overt manifestations of menace.
But boy, Gone Girl packs a punch. It is a bold and daring art picture told unpretentiously, with plot reveals rather than abstractions at the heart of its mysteries. This, buoyed by Affleck’s performance, gives the film broad appeal for mainstream audiences. If it is a big hit like Flynn’s novel, it will be celebrated, derided and debated for decades.
This was first published at Daily Review.