The Affleck smirk — the way Ben Affleck, without even trying, looks like a high school halfback who just hooked up with one of the new cheerleaders beneath the bleachers — is put to spectacular use in “Gone Girl.”
In David Fincher’s first-rate adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark suspense novel, Affleck plays a handsome husband suspected of killing his beautiful wife, who has inexplicably gone missing. Here’s a poor jerk who, despite his best efforts to appear sympathetic in front of the cops, the cameras and the court of public opinion, can’t help coming off as insincere and smug.
Damn that Affleck smirk!
Or, rather, all hail the Affleck smirk, imbued as it is with ambivalence and leaving us uncertain about whether we should be cheering or booing the film’s protagonist.
That indecision could be problematic (moviegoers like being told what to think and feel), but “Gone Girl” nevertheless sucks us into the bitter, and bitterly funny, world fashioned by Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own book for the screen — and in many respects actually improved upon the novel).
It’s a thoroughly satisfying mystery and suspense tale, sure, but “Gone Girl” also is one of cinema’s most supremely cynical statements about the institution of marriage. It makes “The War of the Roses” seem warm and fuzzy.
And as if that weren’t cake enough, we get for icing a hugely perceptive and bleakly comic depiction of the tabloid media, Internet opinion-making and the astoundingly shallow fickleness of the American public.
There’s enough great stuff in here for three or four movies. That Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Zodiac,” “Fight Club”) and Kansas City-reared Flynn keep it all in perfect balance is some sort of miracle.
The problem is that there’s relatively little one can say about the film’s gnarly plot without giving away major surprises, if you aren’t among the 6 million or so who read the book. Let us tread carefully.
On the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to Amy (Rosamund Pike), Nick Dunne (Affleck) returns to their McMansion in a small Missouri town along the Mississippi to find signs of a struggle and his wife missing.
The cops are called, and the search gains national attention when the media realize that Amy is the former Amy Elliott, the inspiration for her parents’ best-selling series of children’s books.
But the more the cops investigate, the worse it looks for Nick. The crime scene appears a bit too arranged. There are traces of Amy’s blood in the kitchen. Before vanishing, she apparently was so in fear for her life that she tried to purchase a handgun.
The noose is slowly tightening around Nick, who it turns out is harboring a few secrets of his own.
As with the novel, the story unfolds through two distinctive voices.
First there’s Nick, who in Affleck’s opening narration tells us that he’d like to crack open his wife’s pretty skull — not to kill her, mind, but to see what mysterious stuff is rattling around in there. Still, an unfortunate choice of words.
Then there are excerpts from Amy’s diary (read by Pike), which depict a once-idyllic marriage now drifting toward the dark and violent.
In the early stages of the yarn we get flashbacks of the couple’s courtship and early life together, the slow erosion of their relationship through job loss (which precipitated a move from glamorous NYC to podunk Missouri), dwindling resources and a growing coolness that has mutated into contempt.
Then “Gone Girl” does a 180 and heads off in an entirely new direction. Fans of the novel know all about this marvelous plot twist. On the big screen it feels like a quick pat on the head followed by a punch in the jaw. Your head spins.
The acting from the two leads is sensational. Affleck has the tougher job, having to keep our interest in Nick just when we’re ready to throw him to the wolves. But he makes the character compelling even when we’re not sure whether to trust him.
Pike, a British actress (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Jack Reacher”) whom I’ve never been able to get a clear take on, here uses her cool exterior to mask a seething lump of volatility. It’s an intoxicating blend of slow burn and volcanic flash. Wish I could say more, but that’d ruin the watching.
Don’t be surprised if Oscar nominations are in both actors’ near futures.
But even the minor roles are exquisitely rendered: Tyler Perry as a slick Johnnie Cochran-ish trial lawyer who specializes in guilty husbands, Kim Dickens as a local detective who wants to believe Nick but can no longer ignore the evidence, Missi Pyle as a tabloid TV personality combining the worst of Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, and Neil Patrick Harris as a St. Louis socialite whose longstanding obsession with Amy is just plain creepy.
In fact, there is only one genuinely admirable character on display. Carrie Coon (of HBO’s “The Leftovers”) plays Margo, Nick’s twin sister, and her depiction of sibling devotion mixed with a hot temper and withering putdowns offers blessed relief from the film’s otherwise grim view of human nature. (What did Sartre say: “Hell is other people”?)
Fincher orchestrates all this beautifully, providing the film with a steady, unhurried pace that proves perversely effective as it starts to shred the audience’s abraded nerves.
Suspense, social commentary, great performances and a seriously twisted outlook — “Gone Girl” is one killer movie.
You can read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 2:25