Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The truth is, we’re joined at the hip.

The Two Faces of January
(2014)

(SPOILERS) From its solemn, haughty title down to its sun-drenched period trappings, The Two Faces of January has the veneer of a classy, classical, immaculately poised thriller. Patricia Highsmith’s novels have held lustre ever since Hitchcock made Strangers on a Train, but such a flawless and rewarding interpretation of her work has since been consistently elusive. Certainly, it wasn’t to be found in the vastly overrated – and probably best known of her novels – The Talented Mr Ripley. January feels like a picture arriving pre-prepared to be lauded – the word “elegant” will likely preface any given review – and there are many things about it that do deserve praise. Unfortunately, the one thing that doesn’t is the story itself; the expectation of a tense, twisty journey gradually way to the realisation that this slightest of tales has few surprises on the way to a rather inevitable destination.


A recurring feature of Highsmith’s work is the presence of non-traditional protagonists; often these are flawed, amoral anti-heroes and her particular skill is to encourage the reader to identify with their unbecoming behaviour. January is no exception, revolving around the uneasy tensions between three Americans in Greece. One, tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), has become a part of the landscape. Fluent in the language, he uses his edge to skim profits from those he intercedes for in deals (or even those who simply take him to dinner). We know he’s dodgy, if in a decidedly petty sense, from the first.


Less clearly motivated are well-presented couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst). The trio catches each other’s attention and before long Rydal is showing them around and skimming off them. When it becomes clear that Chester’s dubious activities put Rydal’s nickel-and-dime antics in the shade, events conspire and the latter becomes the couple’s only-partially witting aide and accomplice. They head for Crete, where Chester and Colette are due to take delivery of fake passports. This time together fosters the development of a highly fraught love triangle as Rydal and Colette become attracted to each other. Meanwhile the outwardly composed Chester reveals himself to be increasingly uncontrolled and excessive as he responds to the perceived threat of Rydal and the danger of losing his much younger wife.


The first half of Hussein Amini’s directorial debut is slippery and elusive. The simmering tensions and glowering looks keep the viewer guessing just where this will go. Unfortunately, Amini has no aces up his sleeve and there is insufficient plot to sustain the unsympathetic characters on their unravelling way. Part of the problem is that Mortensen has – as he frequently does – chosen well, but his is the only one of the three with sufficient substance. Chester is cool and calculated, with an innate knack for self-preservation, except when his “better” instincts fail him. He has Rydal made from their first meeting (“I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”), and is quite aware of Rydal taking his cut and having designs on his wife.


But Chester is no mastermind; his prior business affairs don’t sound as if he was engaging in an intentional scam (until he made off with the loot, that is) any more than killing the investigator was (he is clearly shocked by what he has done; taking life isn’t something he does everyday). Chester continually performs blunders, unable to keep a calm head and turning to the bottle when his world is threatened, yet he demands attention as he still manages to outwit others in desperate situations. He becomes a rounded character through the sum total of his flaws. We’re even unsure if he’s acting the tourist until we see him getting lost and increasingly ruffled by his inability to master his surroundings. Mortensen makes Chester’s shading consistently dangerous and intriguing; when we hear him casually invite Rydal to “come and have a drink and we’ll talk about it” we’re instantly struck by how he used the same words with the investigator. We can see and hear his cunning at work, yet all that befalls him could have been prevented if he was more cautious and considered.


Rydal, through no fault of Isaac, is more obscure. Initially it appears as if he will be the focus, and that we will see the McFarlands through his eyes (one of the most appealing aspects of the screenplay is the realisation that we’re being introduced to the couple in the middle of something; this tale doesn’t start with their meeting with Rydal), but Amini switches allegiance to Chester. Much is made of how the two are similar, but the ambiguity encouraged by the writer-director distances any insight into Rydal (he resists showing Rydal and Colette in flagrante or even in a clinch, so their rapport relies heavily on Chester’s point of view and his imaginings of what they are getting up to; even when Rydal tells him they had sex it could as easily be designed to extract an angry confession, more likely even).  Such diffidence can work to an extent, but we need to be engaged by why he is doing what he is doing, intrigued by his motivations. We’re unsure how deeply he cares about Colette, uncertain if he has limits to his potential for criminal behaviour (“I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a little larceny in your veins” says Chester), unclear if his entrapment of Chester is purely a result of being forced to co-operate with the police or a genuine desire to bring Chester to book. And we end up not much caring.


Chester’s dying confession seems to come out of the blue; a man making amends why? It seems intended to connect the running themes of the doubling between the two conmen announced by the title. The Roman god Janus (a rather peculiar choice given there is no Greek equivalent), hence January, is the god of transitions and change, able to see into both the past and the future, but the bearing on Highsmith’s tale is really in the loosest sense. The two faced god, two men with two faces each, one for everyone else and one for what is really lurking beneath. Rydal initially tells rich heiress Lauren (Daisy Bevan, daughter of the film’s producer Tim and Joely Richardson – so she has an acting dynasty’s blood in her veins) that Chester reminds him of his father, the father whose funeral he didn’t attend and whom he resents. We don’t know (like so much with Rydal) if this is merely a deflection because he really was eyeing up Colette, but it ties into Chester informing him how much alike they are and how one day he will realise how much like the elder swindler he is; Chester is the Janus who encounters his own past seeing into Rydal’s future.


The object of both their desires is also a little too remote. Dunst is strong, but her character has little to do other aside from reacting to the men around her; her role is too undercooked to sense that she has any real control or power over her men. It would be interesting to see the young trophy wife actually made something of in a film, but filmmakers often fall into the trap of making the part exactly what it appears to be. I’d like to say I was surprised by Colette’s exit, but the picture was already tending in that interior direction; with no clear external trajectory, its characters had to implode or suffocate each other.


This is one of those films where it’s difficult to put a finger on quite where, finally, it disappoints; January’s a slow burn character-driven affair that never quite clicks. There are several well-executed sequences during the second half (the confrontation in the ruins, the customs queue at the airport and subsequent fooling of Rydal, the street café meeting place, the final chase) but I was insufficiently engaged by these characters’ fates and, rather than spiralling ever more out of control, Amini settles on a more restrained touchdown.


Hussein Amini read January at university, and had wanted to make a film of it ever since. The intrinsic appeal eludes me, although I admit I’ve found Highsmith material very hit and miss as far as adaptations go (the Malkovich Ripley’s Game was a hit). It has the tone and range of a minor piece, which may be why it isn’t so well known. Some of Amini’s more fanciful allusions don’t bear much interrogation either, Theseus and the Minotaur in particular. Okay, there are a number of representations of labyrinths, and Rydal, like Theseus has lost his father, but the broader references to Ariadne (Colette) and the Minotaur (Chester) are vague enough to resist a coherent reading.


Amini’s screenwriting career has been mixed; Drive received much acclaim, but a substantial part of that arguably relates to what the director did with it. He was Oscar nominated for The Wings of the Dove, and his first few screenplays were adaptations. Next up is a Le Carré, but on January’s evidence I’m more impressed with the sure-footed classical style he brings as a director than his scripting talents. There’s an assuredness at work, a willingness to let the picture unfold in its own good time, and a keen awareness of the tensions and space between the characters.


The Two Faces of January is gorgeous to behold (courtesy of cinematographer Marcel Zyskind), and just for the travelogue value it’s worth experiencing. Unfortunately the need to fall back on such a comment illustrates that it is also somehow lacking; the inner tensions between its trio are unable sustain the film for its entire length, and it’s left to peter out rather than end boldly or confidently. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing Amini’s sophomore effort and I’m certain it will be every bit as elegant as this is.


***


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Well, whoever took her is bound to bring her back.

Gone Girl
(2014)

(SPOILERS) A David Fincher film is always a seductive treat, even when the greater whole proves something of a misfire (The Game, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Gone Girl finds the director’s technique ever more refined, seamless and subtle, yet as with his previous picture he has chosen to unleash his virtuosity and microscopic attention to detail on subject matter that is overtly lurid and provocative. In contrast to Tattoo, Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her novel is at least imbued with multiple layers themes, adding substance – but let’s not overstate this – to what is at first sight just your a standard mystery yarn. This is a twisted take on marriage, media and our capacity for suggestibility. It’s also easy to hear Fincher’s mischievous chuckle over successive scenes, pleased with the way he has so calculatedly pushed the buttons of debate; is it misogynist, feminist, or is this just a director taking delight in causing those discussions? There have been comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut but the better yardstick, in terms of flagrantly manipulating the audience, is probably Alfred Hitchcock.


For all that Gone Girl has caused a lot of people to say a lot of about it, sometimes at odds with each other, its mechanics are essentially those of airport fiction. Fincher presents his fiction in an a luxuriant manner, suggesting it is expansively about something beyond it’s titillating plot devices. And it is, but whether it can actually fill the spaces it creates, thereby surmounting its genre, is questionable. I’m dubious the film has sufficiently deliberate content to carry the resonance of a Vertigo, or Fincher’s own Fight Club (with which it bears comparison in respect of eminent scope for interpretation and misinterpretation).


Which is worth considering because this is a rivetingly put together, resplendently executed piece of work. Fincher setting his sights on pulp elicits a not dissimilar response to those questioning why Kubrick would choose to adapt something clearly beneath him like The Shining. For a thriller with barely a standard cheap thrill in it, Gone Girl remains taut and compelling; Fincher has such confidence he doesn’t need to consciously put any pedal to any metal. Yet he also rides a succession of audacious twists and reveals, some of which threaten to implode the careful precision and exactness over which he presides. The daring, unusual narrative structure nurses many of the perils of the unreliable narrator device and serves to unbalance the dynamic of an ill-suited couple that proves to be all too suited to each other.


We’re introduced to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary; discovering his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing, with signs of violence in the house, he calls the police and a manhunt duly begins. Inevitably the media spotlight shifts to focus on him and his potential transgressiveness, a perspective underlined by relationship flashbacks narrated from Amy’s diary. Here the slow descent of their marriage is revealed in consort with a threatening side to an apparently ideal husband. And then, without warning, the rug is pulled as we cut to Amy alive-and-well, having plotted this morass of intrigue to frame Nick for his infidelities. What follows finds Amy’s plans not quite going according to plan, but as a consequence revealing a scrupulously inventive ability to turn almost any scenario to her advantage. Ultimately and most humorously and perversely, this leads to a gambit to win back Nick.


It’s actually the leftfield conclusion of Gone Girl that most sets it apart from being a standard glossy thriller along the lines of Jagged Edge or Basic Instinct. No one gets his or her comeuppance, perhaps because no one is an especially nice persona anyway and Fincher and Flynn are disinterested in token gestures. In that respect it forms a neat companion piece to another paean to the corrupted, disintegrating marriage, Danny De Vito’s The War of the Roses. That Nick should choose to remain with Amy, after the outlandish frame-up she has connived, is the blackest joke in a film of acrid mischief. It’s just a pity that Fincher and Flynn need to emphasise it with dialogue as one the nose as Amy’s response to Nick’s “Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We cause each other pain”; “That’s marriage”. We’ve got the jaundiced message. Even given the war she has waged, he succumbs to her manipulation; his eyes are open (unlike his somnambulant stumble into her first set up) but he can’t help himself this time. Weak as he is, he is carried along by her powers of persuasion and the fortune and fame their arrangement offers (her pregnancy is his voiced reason, but we see his subtle responses to her – amid his protestations – as she casts an irresistible spell on him).


In his heavy-on-plot-summary essay, Richard Kelly compares Gone Girl with Eyes Wide Shut. Fincher, with his cool formality and painstaking process, is no stranger to comparisons the late great, but I don’t really think this is much like Eyes, other than in the most obvious – rather than integral – terms. Both feature a male haplessly immersed in a world beyond his control, not nearly as bright as his partner, and out of his depth when challenged by the guiles of the woman in his life. He becomes the nominal sympathetic character, while through obliqueness and lack of texture Amy is merely the arch-siren who pulls his strings. It should be pointed out that I don’t think it’s the makers’ intent to draw such lines between the characters, certainly not in this manner (although Gone Girl is certainly clear in establishing the extremes of Amy’s cold-hearted intent); rather, it’s a function of a structure that has no choice but to unbalance the presentation of the female character.


Nick’s a cheat who has dragged his wife to the back of beyond and drained her resources, an impassive ungiving boor who has fallen into self-indulgence after losing his job (they are, or were, both writers). Fincher uses the slightly smug, stolid inscrutability of Affleck to good effect during the first section of the film, creating enough of a “Maybe he did it” to allow the accumulating forces to build a case against him. And there is most definitely an intent here to mark Nick out as, in some ways, just as unnerving as Amy. As noted, there is the choice he makes at to stay with her, which no person of sound mind would make, but this also serves to bookend our opening insight into his thought processes (as I recall this is the only voice over we hear from Nick in the film) where he talks about fantasising stoving Amy’s head in. The obvious purpose is to sow the seeds of doubt that grow over the next hour, but there’s a dual mechanism; if he didn’t murder his wife, maybe he could, maybe he has it in him. Roused to anger after their repatriation, he pins her by the throat; suddenly the Nick Amy has imagined in her diary entries is crystallised (although the real Amy is fiercely unafraid of him). After the dust has settled and they have reconciled we can only conclude they fit like peas in a pod, all-too deserving of each other.


Before Nick goes on TV for a talk show interview he announces, “I can do this”, and he unveils the same master-manipulation at which Amy excels. Appropriately, she tells him the reason she came back was seeing him on TV; his engagement in his performance is the quality that attracted her to him in the first place. While this is clearly a ploy, we can also believe it happens to be true. The irony is, he is only her equal when she has provoked and cornered him; his choice to stay with her is a submissive, passive one.


Nick ends up coming across as weak and morally degenerate. At least Amy is relentless in her psychopathy. If Nick has such leanings they are less evident and less honed; for all his ability to lie and put on a show, he still has tells and failings (getting caught smiling in photos, trying to please others; suggestive of genuine feelings, but they aren’t “normal” feelings, such as those his sister expresses). As shocking and instructive as Nick’s about face is, the extremes of Amy’s behaviour nevertheless serve to overwhelm his distinct brand of malfeasance.


It’s been said that Amy in the film isn’t nearly as developed a character as in the novel, and this wouldn’t surprise me (I haven’t read it, I hasten to add). The first half of the picture unspools her deceit. So after we’ve been presented with a fake Amy we are introduced to cool-as-a-cucumber revenger Amy, complete with perfidious schemes and unconvincing plans to top herself. The trailer trash girl who ultimately robs her hits the nail on the head when she calls Amy a spoilt rich girl (the TV Amy, that is). So it is that, when robbed, she opts for the easy life. If easy is murdering your obsessive ex-boyfriend (Desi, Neil Patrick Harris) with a box cutter, rather than toughing things out.  It might be argued the lack of insight into Amy is an intentional deceit; Nick doesn’t know real Amy, but real Amy knows real Nick. That doesn’t really fly, however; the trick with Amy would have been to make us identify – or at least understand – with her in spite of her actions. Fincher is unable to do this.


When we meet “real” Amy (so too with Desi) she arrives as a movie world character (or villain) than one with any semblance of verisimilitude. This contrasts with the environment of the first half of the picture, and the relationship between Nick and his sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Amy’s is a plane of heightened deceit, impenetrable because there is nothing within which to relate. When she delivers a discourse on how the “Guys want cool girls”, it’s an over-written and studied pieces of dialogues, maybe because this is a sociopath’s rehearsed justification but maybe because Amy is really just another two-dimensional Hollywood dastard. This doesn’t need to be so; the less nuanced Jagged Edge managed to create a relatable character from its bad guy. So the blame for Gone Girl’s girl leads to the door of the seductive structure and Fincher and Flynn’s resultant choices.


After all, during the course of the picture we learn of far worse sins (as in hot button topics) that Amy has committed beyond merely framing her husband for murder; she faked a rape charge against a former classmate (a blink and you’ll miss him Scoot McNairy) and she subsequently gets pregnant just to keep her man. There can be little doubt Fincher and Flynn are consciously drawing on deep male fears of the culpability and capability of women, but to what end? Well, it must surely be that this capacity is an end in itself; Nick gets the women he deserves, the marriage he deserves. They aren’t together for the sake of the baby alone, they’re together because they’re bad seeds, and a marriage where they hate each other is at least a form of simpatico. 


Which might lead to the more general reading that one gets the marriage one deserves. I wouldn’t go this far; Fincher’s overriding intent is to create a reaction even, if it’s at the expense of rounded storytelling. He might want the viewer to mull the point, but he’s too slippery to let it stick. He and Flynn are shining a light on fears within marriage, disembowelling its core, discarding the innards, and suggesting, with a half-cocked smirk, that all that remains after the first bloom has abated is discontent, escalating loathing and contempt. This is not a thesis, a diatribe or a polemic. Fincher and Flynn aim to raise such doubts and expose such fears in similar fashion to a horror movie engineering effective scares; in its way Gone Girl is as calculated and callous as Amy herself.


This goes to some of the charges being thrown the way of Fincher and Flynn (in particular the latter). There’s a great deal of difference between titillation or provocation and endorsement. If artists are to be held responsible for those who embrace the views of their characters, there will never be anything but anaemic art. Similarly, there are commentators who wish to throw dispositions at artists because they’re too lazy to differentiate between a character and its creator. Of course, there are objectionable sorts who espouse objectionable views in the field of culture, but the media never tires of taking a continuingly broke-backed approach in which the blame is placed on those who comment on society rather the ones who perpetuate its ills. 


The debate about the possible misogyny of Gone Girl is inevitable (and as suggested, quite probably intentional on Fincher’s part) but spurious; so too, the concern that it might further justify those holding such views is about as deserving of an audience as arguing any movie or TV show that someone, somewhere, could latch onto unhealthily should be banned (let’s say Taxi Driver, or Dexter; whatever the latest example may be where someone sees themselves in a fictional character).  It remains a perennial headline maker, however, and so the need to present the counter-view – that exploring objectionable or undesirable values or views doesn’t represent an endorsement of those values or views – also remains ever necessary.


One area the picture doesn’t put a foot wrong is in the astute, caustic and very funny presentation of the media circus that swarms across the case like locusts. At one point Kim Dickens’ Detective Boney refers to Nick’s bar being called The Bar as very meta, and the self-awareness of Gone Girl is nothing if not that.


The media want to believe the script they want to believe at the time they want to believe it, and everyone involved is informed either by established case book lore (it’s usually someone the missing person knows) or television shows (Nick notably invokes this when interviewed by the police). The fiction of the film is aware of the fiction that permeates its reality. Amy knows how to plant evidence of wrongdoing from the numerous cop shows and CSIs she has seen; the plot itself reeks of the sort of thing Columbo would investigate. Except of course there’s no murder and the chief suspect didn’t do it. Yet the meticulous construction with significant holes in it has that kind of vibe; it’s just waiting for a guy in a crumpled mac to tear Amy’s story apart.


In the world of Gone Girl, and the media generally, suspicion falls on the husband and so the trial by opinion begins (it might be argued this is a fallacy; all it takes is for an Amanda Knox case and the fascination and assumptions are equally as coordinated and relentless). Everyone involved wants a piece of Nick’s pie, and most prove to be inveterate manipulators. There’s the girl who takes a selfie with Nick. There’s cable TV host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), shamelessly vilifying Nick only to do a 180° turn when it’s the “happy” couple agree to appear on her show. Tyler Perry’s suitably implausibly named Tanner Bolt is not only a lawyer specialising in Nick’s brand of predicament, but one who is highly media savvy. And, like everyone apart from Margo, Nick catches on quick.


And everyone’s at it, almost. Amy’s parents Marybeth (Lisa Banes) and Rand (David Clennon) are past masters; their daughter’s vanishing act becomes not a heartfelt plea for her safe recovery but the latest publicity tour for Amazing Amy (the series of books about her younger self that have blighted Amy’s subsequent development; I’m sure if Psycho’s shrink was on hand he could point to exactly where it was she went wrong).


As presented by Fincher and Flynn, the veneer of make-believe and opinion is more real and desirable than flimsy truth. No one’s immune. Certainly not the police and FBI, who swallow Amy’s tall tale hook, line and box cutter. As Patrick Fugit’s Officer Gilpin – who had it in for Nick as the perpetrator – comments to him, “Can't you just be happy your wife’s home?” She has manufactured a happy ending that everyone else would much rather believe, and so pervasive is it that Nick also succumbs.


The sway of media, and the innate need for self-promotion go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of money. Filthy lucre and its lack is a recurrent underlying theme of the film, It’s somewhere lurking in every corner, from the homeless hidden away from upstanding folk in a derelict mall (the former symbol of every town’s success and boom) to Marybeth and Rand, the starkly manipulative parents (they even broke into her trust fund). The backdrop of recession has affected everyone except maybe Tanner.


Anyone attempting to say the green stuff is not important is rudely awakened. Nick and Amy (in her filtered flashbacks admittedly) claim it cannot buy happiness, and that they will survive with just each other. But when Nick loses his job and becomes a slob camping out in the living room playing computer games, and Amy is forced into moving to Carthage, Missouri to be with Nick’s dying mother, it becomes clear that theirs is but a cheap veneer. Without it, they the edifice crumbles. Very tellingly, their relationship only recovers when they have money again at the end; they may not be happy, but at least their existence was founded on a lack of hardship.


Elsewhere its money that leads Amy back to worrisome arms of Desi when she is robbed by trailer trash Jeff (Boyd Holbrook) and Greta (Lola Kirke). The super rich and very alone Desi hasn’t been hit by the recession, but he has been corrupted by his luxurious surroundings, seeing people as mere possessions. It’s only the picture’s rock Margo who is unpersuaded by the press and unimpressed by wealth. True, her livelihood is propped up by a loan from her sister-in-law, but she offers her brother her savings without hesitation when it comes to trial. It isn’t that Margo is holier than thou or some kind of philanthropic saint. It’s that she’s the only normal person in a catalogue of grotesques.


Part of Gone Girl’s appeal, even if it cannot finally transcend its genre trappings to become something more profound, is the manner in which it successfully confounds expectation as to the type of story it is telling. That it does so several times is even more impressive and unusual. Even with of Amy’s body in absentia, the are-they-aren’t they prime suspect plot is one to which we’re well used (although the last really quality one I can recall might be as far back as Presumed Innocent). So when Flynn pulls a switcheroo and the focus transfers to the believed victim, it’s an audacious and risky moment. As I’ve said, I don’t think the picture entirely succeeds in its portrait of Amy but it’s nevertheless amusing to hear her detail her scheme, suddenly appearing midway through the yarn as if to steal Hercule Poirot’s thunder.


That’s one of the wittier aspects of the telling, that the act itself is consciously built upon a lifetime’s consumption of detective fiction. Flynn seems to be almost daring the audience to call her out on Amy’s embrace of the artifice of overblown and unlikely plans, the sort that always come undone within moments of (yes) Columbo clapping eyes on the perpetrator. So the clues she leaves, both literal (the envelopes) and implicating (the diary, the shed full of man-goodies), are fanciful and reliant on predicting a certain sequence of events, which have multiple possible alternatives. Later, this slight incredulity seems to be at least part of the point. We’re surely supposed to wonder at the waving away of holes in Amy’s story because at least three of the characters do too; the overall impact of her reappearance is so overpowering.  


So it is that viewers have taken issue, in particular with Desi’s 24/7 surveillance pad not spilling its secrets, why no one did a search of his/her phone records, or why the police are so utterly incompetent when it comes to the important stuff (aside from Boney, who was formerly all-but convinced of Nick’s guilt). But the point is, facts are an encumbrance once opinion is on your side. We are as floored as anyone by the sudden appearance of a blood-soaked Amy in Nick’s driveway, even given that she just opened up Doogie Howser’s throat mid-coitus. Because these are the kind of gaudy developments that seemed to have stepped in from a much more innately trashy spectacle like Basic Instinct (one similarly resistant to logic and good policing). Yet Fincher makes these transitions with underplayed flourish, and deceptive ease.


The areas Fincher is playing with, Hitchcock has been to before him. Then, there’s little in this genre that Hitch hasn’t explored in some shape or form. He came particularly unstuck when he pushed the unreliable narrator too far in Stage Fright (not one of his finest, although it features Alistair Sim, which should be recommendation enough). Fincher gets away with it, just about, because there’s a “real” story playing out concurrently and there’s a lot more real story to be told after the flashbacks have concluded. The other aspect that likely appealed to Fincher from a basic structural perspective – and he likes his curveballs and tricksy narratives as evidenced by Seven and Fight Club, even if they sometimes hoist him by his own petard (The Game) – was the opportunity to turn the story on its head, not with some final reel twist but barely halfway through. This is a director who dared audiences to watch a serial killer procedural where the murderer is never determined (Zodiac), so one should never doubt his affinity for some bright dangling jewel of plotting that could potentially overpower his better instincts; can he get away with it? Will the audience be turned off? All the more reason to try it.


Gone Girl’s twist can’t compare with Psycho’s but it has a similar shredding effect on what we have seen before. In both films there is a seismic shift after the murder/not murder has taken place. The Nick and Margo world of naturalistic interactions, and the suspicion, interrogation and growing media spotlight has a particular relative realism, all the stronger due to the over-emphasis of the skewed flashbacks (all chocolate box romance or lurid threats). So to, Marion Crane’s petty theft and flight from perceived justice represent a very different movie than the gothic fizz and raining knife blows that follow. This opening section is – relatively, as it’s heightened as only Hitch can make things – is a realistic small-time crime movie, but morphs into Grand Guignol horror once Norman Bates makes his presence felt. The rest of the picture is a much more cartoonish affair, with the most indelible of big screen serial killers and a couple of Scooby Doo investigators. Gone Girl’s Amy is a much broader characterisation than Nick also; difficult perhaps to write a sociopath without a tendency to bold strokes, but the incidents that stack up only serve to complement this take. The picture becomes more of a caricature, and would become giddy or delirious if it weren’t for Fincher’s firm, steely grip.


Amy’s sojourn at a cheap motel (just like Psycho, and just like Psycho she has a bag full of money and threatening neighbours) is frequently very funny, from her superiority complex to her indecisiveness about killing herself today everyday. And her creeping addiction to the TV coverage of her disappearance makes for some of the few moments in her storyline that reveal a glimpse of her true self; here at least, there’s a sense of the deflation and mundanity that follow the success of her implausible stunt. The ever after isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, particularly when the exit plan of suicide was never going to happen. So I wasn’t all that impressed by the decision for her to rock up at Desi’s. It felt that, whatever the choices being made by Flynn, they had become self-limiting. Even more so when Desi – a near-parody of a repressed nutter of the first order, who only serves to underline that we are now firmly in the world of full-on sordid pulp – make his obsessive feelings felt. Fortunately, the box cutter incident sucked me back in and kept my attention until the denouement. But much like Psycho, while the fireworks and over-enunciated commentary seize the attention in the second half the picture, and get the instant responses, the less forward, more considered, first section is probably the better judged and more immersive.


Fincher tends to cast his pictures well. There’s the odd exception. Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac never wholly sold me, and Justin Timberlake’s turn in The Social Network is off because Timberlake as an actor is off. Here, I groaned when I heard he’d cast Affleck. Ben may be enjoying a career renaissance, but I don’t find him per se an appealing or persuasive performer (the only exception is his early career bluster in Shakespeare in Love; perhaps he should work more at being fun, rather than existing in monotone). That works to his favour here, his aging jock looks and ambiguous, indifferent, presence serving the character.


Despite the failings in the depiction of Amy, Pike probably hasn’t had a character this juicy in her career to date. She embraces the opportunity with gusto, whether she’s discarding all make-up to hide out or adjusting her performance and tone in a heartbeat. Yet in spite of the showiness of the character, this isn’t one to marvel at. Amy’s on the Lector scale of screen psychos, simply because we see her predominately as a faker; she’s a perpetrator of monstrous deeds and unflinching deceptions. In fact, for all the attention-seeking of Fincher’s last two major female protagonists, they are both really rather short-changed where it counts; Lisbeth is a look and attitude in search of any real substance (not that anyone in the Dragon really has any) while Amy is murky in a different way to Nick. We may not be able to see their inner lives, but Amy is quick, sharp and precise while Nick is slovenly and slow. There’s no complexity to her, just a string of colourful charades (Fincher’s most successful female protagonist might be Jodie Foster in Panic Room, even though that picture tends to get dismissed as a rudimentary exercise in box-ticking thriller tropes).


As for the rest of the cast, Perry is a rambunctious delight as the unscrupulous Bolt. I haven’t seen any of his Madea-fuelled one-man franchise house and I avoided Alex Cross expressly, but on this evidence he has a rich potential outside of his self-created movie universe. It takes Fincher’s distorted lens to see that, like Affleck, he has a role beyond established limitations. Missi Pyle provides the alter-glitz, and you can tell she’s loving every moment of her horrifically plausible cable show host. Harris is always strong, he just isn’t very well catered for here. Dickens is solid in a role that demands solid, while Fugit ekes dry laughs as not the most discerning of law enforcement types. This summer’s big small screen discovery, Carrie Coon, yet again delivers an outstanding performance as the sober, considered voice of reason while all are losing their heads. Hers is the barometer of the madness of the movie, but reactive as Margo is Coon makes her memorable.


Fincher brings his regular collaborators to the party; Jeff Cronenwerth is cinematographer again, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide the soundtrack. Theirs is a disenchanted yet upbeat aural hue, the tinkly sound of marital bliss stretched to the point of nightmares. The imagery of Gone Girl doesn’t leap up and shout “Look at me!”  compared to some of Fincher’s work; he appears to be consciously adopting a more measured less ostentatious style. There are no zooms through kettle handles here or browsing of Ikea catalogues. But then shots percolate in the mind afterwards. The romantic kiss amid powdered sugar made me think only of that lousy CGI breath in The Social Network, to be honest, but other images are most arresting; Nick’s cat in almost any shot, but especially sitting at the door as reporters frenzy outside; the torch light search party at dusk, with cyclists, all but hearkens to E.T.; Amy’s performance for the closed-circuit cameras, struggling bloodied (wine-ied) at the glass doors of Dezi’s abode; and her exit from her car, breaking onto Nick’s drive as the media are rouse from their slumber, suddenly aware of the scoop that has deposited itself in their laps.


One can imagine Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven attacking Gone Girl with gleeful abandon and enthusiasm for its sensationalist excesses. It’s that kind of picture. If there’s some commentary (Verhoeven would have gone to town wth the media show) or depth too, so much the better. But, perhaps in response to Tattoo, Fincher needs the respectability of theme to induce him, even if it’s something of a bauble itself. There’s a reticence to truly soak himself in the bloody remains; for all Tattoo’s censor-bating, it was never less than rigidly controlled and schematic (which ultimately worked against it; old wine in new skins) In some ways this recent streak for Fincher hearkens to De Palma’s intricate psychosexual thrillers of the ‘80s, and one recalls that director boasting of how he would push the envelope as far as he could with Body Double. Fincher, more clinically perhaps, seems to be experimenting with something of the same. De Palma was frequently lambasted for his visual indiscretions (and labelled a misogynist) so Fincher, something of a coolly respected darling, has the ground on him there. But this lustre sometimes seems like emperor’s new clothes, breathing an intellectual sheen on material to disguise the fact it only has a couple of  good ideas.


Verhoeven and De Palma might not have inflamed the same talking points if they’d made the film (although certainly others would have arisen), but their results might have been more honest in a curious way (conversely, give it to a director with just the right lack of flair and you get the next Double Jeopardy). There’s a strange feeling of prudery here and in Tattoo whereby Fincher focuses on sexual congress, often in an unsettling or violent context, but remains wholly impassive.  This creates a sense that he has no interest in such sordid material other than as a challenge of depiction he has set himself. Verhoeven would revel in such scenes while Kubrick, for all his reputation as a clinician, was clearly fascinated by and ready to explore matters sexual and erotic.


In interviews Fincher has expressed his wish to provoke, and he’s certainly succeeded here. That at least means he’s made a zeitgeist movie for the first time in fifteen years. Gone Girl isn’t as densely packed and intricately formed as Fight Club, and it may be that Fincher’s restraint here allows the film’s shortcomings too much time to percolate. Like Fight Club, it looks as if this will be the subject of ready misinterpretation as commonly as it will be a popular conversation piece. Gone Girl is a superior mishmash of genre tropes and seditious treatise on the broken back of marriage, while taking in the monstrous twin manipulators of media and money. Yet this is really just glossy popular fiction along the lines of Fatal Attraction. Fincher and Flynn embrace fears regarding the marital unit and shower them with narrative hyperbole, albeit delivered with considerably more class than Adrian Lynne’s movie. Yet you only have to look at the way the trailers finish with Amy's fantasy of her corpse plunging into the depths; it's an overtly calculated misdirection that tells you this picture is really all about sleight of hand.  Which means this is the wrong place to look if you want a genuinely insightful interrogation or meaningful discourse on the subject.


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