Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
There is a lot of discussion taking place regarding this film right now (trailer here). Here are my thoughts:
If the American Dream is predicated on the search for achieving and plateauing out on a steady, static state– marriage, children, home ownership, the indefinitely extending job, and the rest– then David Fincher's Gone Girl is a meditation on the collapse of such structures in a world too complex for such simple stability, by forces outside the protagonists' understanding.
On the surface, the story opens with Nick Dunne (Affleck) waking up on his five-year anniversary to discover his wife missing, and subsequently having the darndest time proving he didn't kill her. Although the plotting is intricate (please, please see it before your friends spoil the twists), Fincher has more in his sights than merely a competent genre exercise. This is his Scenes From a Marriage, and though it is not as painful or direct as Bergman's masterpiece, it probes the notion of marriage with a disciplined eye rarely seen in contemporary mainstream film work.
He perfectly captures the "how did we get to this" trajectory of a downward-spiraling union, sketching quickly in broad but carefully observed strokes. More than one audience member may find themselves nodding in rueful understanding. How do we get to that mysterious and disappointing place of bringing out the worst in ourselves with those we love? How did we stray so far from the person we really did think we were? In the film we see and hear thoughts from both husband and wife, and the dual– shall I say dueling– perspectives are sobering. The concept of the unreliable narrator is taken to new extremes here, and this makes the viewpoints expressed even more thought-provoking.
There is the truth of what happened and what didn't, and then there are the deeper truths that are not about who killed who, but rather with the gradual undoing of love and time, the narrowing of who we are, until finally we're trapped in a prison we willfully stepped in. More than once the notion is propagated that marriage is a state of living people take on for show, or to fulfill concepts they wish to live up to, rather than out of love for another.
If Fincher's Fight Club (1999) was about the disillusionment of males in a society that no longer has a place for them, Gone Girl is about marriage in a culture obsessed with facades. Both films are about myths; Gone Girl doesn't set out to decry marriage, but rather to offer a more clear picture. The myth of the perfect couple is peeled away, to no great surprise; but let us remember that the "battle of the sexes" concept is also a myth. What lies beneath manages to be more disturbing than the ramifications of either– the gradual subjugation of one's identity in the name of preserving something which only makes sense when seen from the outside, from a distance.*** Who do we choose to present to those we wish to seduce?
Such questions might easily serve as the meat of an entire film, but Finch has even more on his mind; there is the matter of the media's gaze and our obsession with its version of the truth, the lower class's rejection of the middle class, the middle class's of the upper, the fact that certain bonds may run deeper than that of marriage– I'd like to reveal more, but doing so would be an injustice. The pleasures of the story's tortuous path are not for me to give away.
Suffice it to say that this is a film, like all of the director's work, to be savored more than once. Some films are about finding out what happens next; for those interested in only that, Gone Girl will satisfy. But others in the audience will be having a richer experience. The film is about people, not just event sequences. Consider the opening titles. Only later do we learn what Dunne was thinking at the time, but what an eloquent series of images to convey that state of mind. Elsewhere, asides and juxtapositions have us pondering the tough questions, even as we're thrown from side to side by the thrill of the whodunit aspects.
Whereas Scorsese likes to play with subjectivity and objectivity in the frame, Fincher prefers compositions that stray as far into an objective portrait as possible in the medium. Editor Kirk Baxter notes that Fincher likes to remove the human element from camerawork, shooting wider than necessary and cropping in during post to stabilize the image. The locked camera also allows for split-framing to maximize different takes of performances.** His gaze is clinical and dispassionate. Some have written that he watches the proceedings as an alien would consider the strange human race, and although that stretches a point in order to make one, I'd argue that the camera is still very much attached to the psychology of the characters. The camera doesn't wave around for flash, or to liven up the proceedings; Fincher might be the only filmmaker today making films without any handheld work. Gone Girl contains one handheld shot, and the lack of any others highlight its impact all the more.
Like Kubrick, there'll be a reason the shot is from over here, and the decision to put a figure at the far edge of the frame will be a conscious one. The super-wide frame is locked down and composed with intention. When the camera does move, it'll be because Finch feels he can communicate something by doing so. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth describes him as a 'constructionist,' who has the film already edited in his mind by the time he arrives on set, with very clear ideas about what he wants and how shots will fit together.* He also tries to avoid closeups as much as possible, using them only when their impact is most necessary. The pace is kept up not with flash but rather through editing, with a large quantity of very short scenes. Both Fincher and Baxter come from the tradition of commercials and music videos, wherein packing a lot of information into a few seconds while still maintaining clarity is critical (notes Baxter: "we've always been about trying to get the most information across in the least amount of time.").
The great pleasure of watching the work of such a precise filmmaker– Fincher famously did ninety takes of The Social Network's opening scene– is that you can take in all the details, knowing everything is there for a reason. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score is equally exemplary, an unsettling series of ambient tones and instrumental cues which never tell us how we're supposed to feel (witness a particularly effective series of bass tones during a climactic scene, timed with repeating fades to black).
At the end of the day, Gone Girl is an experience that engages on many levels and appeals to a wide variety of conceptions of what a movie can be. It manages to be a pulpy paperback thriller, provocative think-piece, and a work of consummate technique without apparent contradiction. And what to make of that ending? I'll be intentionally vague: it can be seen as inspiring in the sense that it functions as a call to action, a wake-up call asking us to confront our own issues. Nick and Amy Dunne's dilemmas are ours, and I daresay that the "we" in the film's final words are intended to include us, the audience.
*Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth on the camerawork.
**Editor Kirk Baxter on the editing (video, 31 mins).
***In Fincher's own words, as told to Film Comment (full interview here):
"But, look, it’s not healthy to have an idea in your head of who your mate should be. Who your mate is should be revealed to you through interaction, the quality of the person’s character, the behavior they exhibit. But I certainly know that early on in my life, I had ideas that I could fix someone. But then the thing you realize, if you’re remotely sane, is that I can’t fix anything about anybody else, and I need to look at that part of myself that thinks this is who I need to see myself with, and also, what length did I go to, how much did I betray who I really am in order to seduce that person and lead them to believe that I was a suitable mate for them. Forget how much I was lying to you, how much was I lying to me? There are all kinds of narcissism that a modern cultural intersection needs to address, but this book was on a frequency or a channel that I hadn’t seen before."