David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) is at its best when it’s at its funniest. That may seem like a strange proposition for movie about murder, kidnapping and a manner of sexual assault, but it has at its center two characters so reviling in their own unique ways that the movie is best served when it’s playing its dirty rotten scoundrels for laughs. The movie is about the roles we play for others, the simple promises we make but can’t honor because of our complex needs and desires, and the movie could have been wonderful had it mirrored that idea, presenting itself as a psychological thriller while being a pitch-black comedy all along. In the end, it sells out both ideas, never really commits to anything and leaves half a dozen thrusts undeveloped, quaking along a tonal fault line like the disjointed communities perched on the New Madrid fault in eastern Missouri.
One of those communities is probably North Carthage, where our story takes place. The town, based on its riverside location, its community balanced between folksy and Deliverance and its preponderance towards St. Louis Cardinals gear, is probably a stand-in for Hannibal, Missouri (Carthage, Hannibal, get it?) and it is the home of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike), transferred Manhattanites, dragged back to Nick’s hometown when the recession leaves them jobless and his mother gets sick. Amy is the daughter of two famous children’s book authors, successful thanks to a series of books starring a girl just like Amy, but better. Within the coal, lead and meth milieu of her new surroundings, she becomes bored and listless and he becomes distant and negligent. On the day of their fifth anniversary, Nick arrives home to find a smashed coffee table and no Amy. The police discover some damning evidence that suggests Nick isn’t has innocent as he claims, and his casual and flippant behavior in the aftermath makes him a target for tabloid and talking head speculation. Eventually it is revealed that Nick was carrying on an affair and that Amy was pregnant when she went missing. Suggestions of his guilt push away his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), alienate him from Amy’s parents and has the local police, led by detective Boney (Kim Dickens), tightening what is quickly materializing as a noose around Nick’s neck.
Certainly, we do not doubt his guilt. Nick can hardly hide his relief that Amy is not around, he continues to engage with his mistress not even a week after Amy goes missing, and he is aloof and uncaring. The evidence that he has played a role in Amy’s disappearance is stacked to the sky and is ironclad with one exception: there is no body. The reason for that revolves around the fact that Amy is alive and well, physically anyway, having framed her husband for her murder after years of ennui and infidelity and is hiding out in rural Missouri gleefully watching the news that her philandering beau has become the most hated man in America.
It’s at this point that the movie shifts for the first time. Its first third sets up the crime with a grim, borderline dull, seriousness, using entries from Amy’s diary to reconstruct a marriage that goes south in a hurry and to highlight some of the cruel behavior husbands can engage in. Nick is violent to both Amy’s body and her soul, throwing her against staircases, using her for her body and shutting her out of his emotional life. Nick tells Margo how horrible Amy was to live with, but we are only treated to her diary entries and to the memories the media presents to us and our sympathy for Nick is nonexistent. However, when we join the living Amy in her life as a missing person, we start to understand what Nick was talking about.
Amy is a piece of work. A textbook psychopath, she has a history of framing men in the most unflattering lights as stalkers, as rapists and now as a murderer. She is a keen manipulator whose ability to ruthlessly bend and twist the truth is infuriating. When Nick discovers he’s been had, he hires Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a defense attorney who specializes in hopeless cases, and they go to work restoring his image but at no point, even when he tearfully says so on TV, do we believe seeing Amy alive again would give him much joy. In fact, when their reunion takes place, he looks like he’s swallowed a large, Rosamund Pike-shaped lemon.
Amy’s lust for revenge is predicated on the sweet lies we tell each other that most of us accept as figurative. When a man tells her he’ll always be there for her, he’d better mean it. She tells these lies too, however, transforming herself to whatever she thinks will make the man most pliable. Just as she eventually casts them as criminals, she is able to initially cast herself as the dutiful wife, the girl next door, or the sexual ingenue. The movie could be saying something about the way we all cast women into inflexible and simple categories–she’s a wife, she’s a business woman, she’s a whore–and she uses that sexist set of rules against the system, devilishly painting herself as another of the approved female roles, the victim. But the movie never decides if it wants to take on this idea, just as it oscillates on its skewering of Nancy Grace-type TV moralizing from laser pointed to more broad, and in its second half it forgoes saying something significant about women and says something specific about this woman, mainly that she’s nuts. That that is undeniably true takes us along for that shift (as does Pike’s chilling and savage performance), and the movie builds toward the level of farce as Amy goes increasingly off the rails, Nick learns to play her manipulative games with the aid of a very good Tyler Perry as the attorney, and the law enforcement team starts to see their murder evidence to be almost too perfect to be true.
At this point, it seemed that the movie was going to follow the trajectory of Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which pretended for a while to be about mental illness but instead decided that was just a backdrop for its gonzo characters and situations. Gone Girl could have done the same thing less broadly, but it pivots once again in its final act, away from any of its previous ideas and simply toward a resolution. When it hums, as it does for a good 40 minutes in its middle section, it has some of the dry, literate drollness of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), relishing in its sick sinners who have a certain righteous pride in their Machiavellian wickedness. Amy’s voiceovers are so matter-of-fact, so smugly vindicated that we are nearly forget the inconvenient truth that they are describing the ruination of a man’s life (another reason the movie never fully clicks as a thriller is that Amy’s motivations are vague at best; because we learn that her diary entries about his physical abuse are invented, the movie is dealing with a setup of shifting sand especially where Amy’s reasons are concerned). In this way, she becomes much less Scarlet O’Hara and much more Alex Forrest. She’s a monster but then, of course, so is he with his casual relationship with loyalty and emotional inclusion. The final punchline should be that they deserve each other, and the movie flirts with the idea of leaning that way, but that eventuality is played for tragedy, not the cosmic justice that wryness so often provides.
The movie’s indecision isn’t fatal, but it makes for a bumpy ride, one in which all the stretches of Missouri road don’t quite meet up (in that regard, it got the territory just right; in its variety of accents, not so much) but many of its sections are quite strong. But that’s just it; there’s only sections and no cohesive whole. If it feels we’re headed in the right direction, the movie will twist at the most unsatisfying moment. It’s like the title cards that mirror the concept of the plot by appearing and disappearing so quickly they are barely legible. Once you think they’ve got it—poof, gone.