Monday, January 5, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #7: "Gone Girl" is a Mystery That Actually Keeps You Guessing

This is the fifth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

Spoiler alert: as the poster suggests, in this film, a girl is gone.
Of all of the films on this list, I probably have the least to say about Gone Girl. And that’s because the film pretty much speaks for itself. It’s a film that takes a lot of twists and turns—it’s not predictable by any means, and it definitely does ask its audiences to consider and question the events that have unfolded. But despite this, it is a fairly straightforward film. And that might be the most impressive thing about Gone Girl—in less capable hands than those of director David Fincher, Gone Girl would have been a convoluted mess. But Fincher guides us through the story with ease and style, and gives us one of the most intriguing mystery films since…well…David Fincher’s Zodiac.

As with all of these little write-ups (or, I should say, long write-ups), I try to avoid spoilers. But, in this case, I really, really, really, really cannot do that. The twists and turns of Gone Girl and the way that they are handled and revealed are so masterful, that it's impossible to write an appreciation post without giving anything away. So, if you haven't seen the film yet, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend you do. You will be in for one of the most compelling murder mystery films of recent years--one that will keep you guessing and will never allow you to truly find your footing, meaning you must tumble forth and let Fincher guide you on the journey he has so expertly crafted. Now, go watch Gone Girl and come back to read this post later. If you have seen Gone Girl, then you know this is coming: it's time to talk about Amy Dunne. And how this isn't as much a murder mystery as it is a "murder" mystery.

Last chance to stop reading. Seriously, if you haven't seen the film, let Amy's completely innocent fuzzy pink pen which only writes the truth serve as your last warning.
Because, while all the characters are great, Amy Dunne is what makes Gone Girl great. She's the titular gone girl, she's the victim, she's the murderer, she is everything. Amy, portrayed masterfully by Rosamund Pike, runs her own course and the rest of the film just tries to keep up. She is the second psychopath to grace the films on this list, the first being Louis Bloom from my #8 pick. But Amy is portrayed very differently. While Lou is terrifying because it is clear something is so off about him, Amy is terrifying in how good of an actress she is. Unlike Lou, she does a better job of fitting in, which makes the ending-- where she gets away with it-- all the more believable. Pike was given a very difficult challenge here. The storytelling conventions of Gone Girl mean that she is, in essence, playing two roles. One is the Amy we first meet-- a sweet ingenue who plays the good girl, an almost bland depiction of this perfect, sympathetic character. The second is the Amy who becomes revealed to us-- an angry, vengeful, and calculating monster. The tough balance that Pike manages to find is that the first Amy cannot give away the second. If we can guess that Amy might be capable of what we discover, then the movie would be ruined. If we guess the main secret, the effect is lost. The filmmaking--through Fincher's camerawork and the noteworthy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (whose last collaboration with Fincher, for The Social Network, earned them an Oscar)--tells us that not all is as it seems, but the audience naturally assumes the one deceiving us is Nick (Ben Affleck). After all, it's natural to trust the diary of a dead woman as being truthful, but it's Pike's work, both in voiceover and on screen, as Amy in the first half of the film that really sells this lie. The other difficult balance Pike strikes is that, once our big twist is revealed (the line "I'm so much happier now that I'm dead" was one of the best this year) the Amy we know still makes sense. The twist seems feasible, as opposed to out of the blue. Suddenly, the bland Stepford-like woman we once met is reassessed in our minds. Of course this wasn't real. Pike makes Amy feel complete by, counterintuitively, never giving us the full picture of her. Even after her true nature is revealed, she continues to put on a show: for her neighbors, for Desi, for Nick, for the cameras. I would argue that there is exactly one moment in the entire film where we see the real Amy is after she kills Desi. In her underwear, covered in blood, she just flips the hair out of her eyes. That, right there, is the quintessential Amy in her purest element.

Pictured: pure evil

Pike rises to the challenge and becomes an instant breakout star. And this is in a large part due to her talent as an actress, but it is also due to her status in the public eye. Before Gone Girl, who really knew anything about Rosamund Pike? Before this, she was best known for playing a Bond girl, so while she wasn't exactly a complete unknown, she wasn't really a superstar, and certainly not someone we'd expect to see this performance from. This is a high profile film, and Fincher could have gotten anyone he wanted for this role. By casting someone the audience would not be as familiar with, Fincher furthered the enigmatic qualities of Amy.

In fact, all of the casting was excellent. It has been said that directing is 90% of casting (and said, and said, and said again-- the quote has been attributed to Robert Altman, John Ford, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, William Wyler, and more) and Gone Girl is a fantastic example of why. Ben Affleck, for example, is far from the best actor working today, but was the absolute perfect choice to play Nick. I mentioned before that it's clear at the very beginning of the film that something is amiss. We assume that Nick is hiding something for a few reasons-- for one, by Amy's design, the clues do seem to point to him. But also, the fact that he's played by Ben Affleck means a lot. He is by far the most high profile actor in the film--the next highest profile actors after Affleck are Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, after all. So we immediately are drawn to him. A shining spotlight is directed on Nick-- PAY ATTENTION TO HIM. It's all by both Amy's, and David Fincher's, design.

Carrie Coon gives one of the more underrated performances of the year as Margo "Go" Dunne.
Meanwhile, Nick is surrounded by a cast of unknown supporting actors. And they do some great work. I have been shocked that no one is mentioning Carrie Coon in the best supporting actress race. Coon, who plays Nick's sister Margo, has been acting for a while-- and I have heard she's great on The Leftovers, but this is undoubtedly her largest film role. She keeps the film grounded, maintaining a level head, and acting as a true audience surrogate. Nick is someone we don't want to trust, and Amy is someone we cannot trust, so Margo is pivotal as our own trustworthy surrogate. When Nick seems guiltiest, Margo starts to not trust him. When Nick pieces together Amy's plan, Margo too immediately finds out. There's an inherent importance to Margo. When Nick's attorney (Perry) tells Nick that the media will go after Margo, we feel an immediate sense of injustice. When Margo is arrested, we are just as surprised as Nick. Without Margo, the film would be chaos, and Coon's performance is pitch perfect. Again, a more high-profile actress would not have been able to play this role so expertly. 
Kim Dickens as the all-business Rhonda Boney.
Another great supporting performance comes from Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. If there's a flaw to point out in the film, it's in how Detective Boney's character is resolved. Dickens does great work in painting her as a smart and experienced detective, but doesn't get a chance to change throughout the film-- we never see her get truly emotional, and she's stuck in a one-note role. On top of that, I didn't believe for one second that the character we had gotten to know throughout the film would have given up so easily and let Amy go free. But, this is all in the writing and no fault should be laid on Dickens, who does really great work and creates a crafty foil--you truly believe that Boney has the skill to unwrap Amy's puzzle and bring her to justice, which creates for an exciting cat and mouse game (in a rare instance where the mouse is the more dangerous of the two).

Another great bit of casting comes in the form of Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, a celebrity attorney. Perry is one of the most interesting figures in film today (and when I say interesting, that's not necessarily a compliment). His films are divisive, and have gained a huge audience popularity while doing progressively worse by critical standards. But,  that on its own wouldn't be all that noteworthy. What's noteworthy is that Perry puts his name on everything. It's not just that he makes bad films, it's that he is so proud of them-- so willing to sell out his own name and commercialize it. He has become more than just an actor, he has become a brand. And that's what makes his performance here so perfect-- when we see him on screen, we immediately have a reaction to him that we should have. We are supposed to have doubts about the celebrity attorney, and we are supposed to be skeptical of his talent. When he meets with Nick and we see how good he is at his job, there is meant to be a certain level of surprise. Perry gives a restrained performance, letting his very persona do the heavy-lifting, but backing it up with a calm charisma that is unique to this character.

Tyler Perry Presents Medea and the Psychopathic Spouse

Every actor plays their part perfectly. And the filmmaking itself is executed perfectly. What else can I say, really? It's quality filmmaking and everything is exceedingly well done, as one would expect from Fincher. But, frankly, Fincher can churn out a good film in his sleep. What elevates this film from being just good to being great is that Fincher does not settle for complacency. He keeps his visual style artistic enough for the film to exist outside the realm of our comfortable reality. Mysteries are no fun if you can immediately figure out the end. Gone Girl makes sure that, even if we think we know what's going on, we can never be too comfortable that that is true. It's a film that plays with your mind, one which challenges you as you become engrossed in it-- sucked into the story that Amy, and that David Fincher, both so masterfully tell.

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