Gone Girl was a match made in heaven for me: a book I loved and possibly my favorite director. But I was afraid David Fincher would make a good movie and not a great one, that Gillian Flynn would be unable to successfully translate her book for the screen, and that the cast (Ben Affleck? Neil Patrick Harris? Tyler Perry?!) would be unable to carry any of it. I was wrong on all three, but I don’t think my fears were unjustified.
Hands down, I was excited that Fincher was directing. But I find that he is almost literally hit and miss. His odd-numbered movies (Alien 3, The Game, Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) I’ve always liked less than his even-numbered (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network). That doesn’t mean they’re bad. Alien 3 gets a pass, Dragon Tattoo is based on a book I hated and thus never had a chance, and only Benjamin Button is truly awful (I used to joke that I liked Benjamin Button better the first time when it was called Forrest Gump, then I learned that the same screenwriter did both – go figure). But this was going to be an even-numbered film . . .
Superstition aside, the screenplay was going to be a challenge even for the book’s author. But Flynn does a great job streamlining her work. Weak plot strands are condensed or cut altogether, but somehow this strengthens the plot, tone, and themes overall. (As someone who occasionally pretends to try to write an adapted screenplay, this is what I am constantly unable to do.) One of the few things the book does better is keep the reader guessing as to Nick’s guilt in the first act, mainly through his very unreliable first person narration. I understand that this is much harder to do and much easier to screw up in a movie, which is probably why they didn’t even try – after four separate attempts to explain how they might have done it, I’ve given up.
My misgivings about the cast were probably my strongest, but again unfounded. Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris deliver strong performances, and Tyler Perry is surprisingly understated and engaging as Affleck’s high-profile attorney. In the end, I think I just pictured different people in the roles (Luis from Million Dollar Listing New York as Desi is still part of my dream cast). Amy, both the character and the actress playing her, was always going to be a hard sell. First, I was disappointed that so much of Amy’s filthier narration was cut from the screenplay, as it would have provided a jarring break between her first and second act personas. Second, while Rosamund Pike is perfectly competent (despite her incognito look bearing a distracting resemblance to Laura Linney), I actually think some stunt casting, or at least casting “against type,” may have supplied the missing shock for Amy. Reese Witherspoon was originally attached, although I agree with David Fincher that she would have been an imperfect choice. Mine? Taylor Swift. If you’ve read the book, imagine Amy’s monologue about Nick’s mistress delivered by Swift and tell me I’m wrong.
In the end, it wasn’t the solid screenplay or the talented cast that made Gone Girl a great, rather than good, Fincher movie. I think his two best movies, Fight Club and The Social Network (both adaptations, by the way), improve subtly but significantly on their sources and deliver a much more universal statement. He replaced Fight Club‘s theme of nihilism with one of liberation, and The Social Network‘s story of obnoxious young dot-com billionaires with a story of friendship, jealousy, and betrayal. In Gone Girl, he replaced the book’s decidedly bleak ending – Amy gets away with murder, manipulates her way back home to Nick, and then blackmails and threatens him into keeping her secret – with something even more twisted. The film implies not only that Amy returns to Nick because she’s impressed by his ability to lie (she sees him on on TV lying about how much he loves and misses her, even though she knows that he knows that she set him up) and the fact that he’s as manipulative as she is, but also that Nick is intrigued enough by this new development in their relationship to go along with it at present, much to everyone else’s dismay. Again, by turning a solid if depressing ending into a perverse rumination on marriage, Fincher takes Gone Girl from a good adaptation into a great interpretation.