Everything about Gone Girl, David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's enormously popular 2012 thriller about a deteriorating marriage and a wife gone missing, is precise and thoughtful — it's as well planned as the perfect murder, with its share of vicious, shivery delights.
But at the end of the perfect murder, all you're left with is a corpse, and that's about all Gone Girl leaves you with too. The story, as Flynn lays it out (both in her book and in the screenplay she adapted from it), is intended to be cold and perverse, a chilly bit of business exploring the ways in which men and women — or at least this particular man and woman — fail to communicate. The movie, while entertaining and extremely well crafted, is too self-conscious about its depravity to be either truly disturbing or disturbingly funny. Ticking along with metronome-like efficiency, it's more slick than sick.
Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a frustrated husband and former big-city magazine writer who has moved back to his Missouri hometown to care for his cancer-stricken mother. His mother has since died, and though he's forged a not-unsatisfying career running a local bar with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), the being-a-husband part has proven much harder. Nick just doesn't seem to like his wife very much, as he makes clear in the movie's opening voiceover, recited archly over a lingering shot of a woman's very blond tresses: "I imagine cracking open her head, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers."
Brrr, and then some. We soon meet this wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), one of those gleaming, casually graceful beauties for whom the adjective patrician was invented. When Amy and Nick first met, back in New York in 2005, they were blissfully happy; Amy recounts as much in a diary entry, written with a girly-girl pen topped with a furry tuft. Even the first few years of their marriage were joyful: In flashback, we see them making love amid the shelves of a Manhattan used bookstore. It's difficult to know if, in Fincher's hands, that's supposed to be funny, but no matter what, it's enough to make you think twice about picking up that sweet little volume of Leaves of Grass whose only flaw is a few stuck-together pages.
Now, though, as Nick and Amy hit their fifth anniversary, there's no glue between them beyond resentment. Even so, in keeping with a tradition she began early in their marriage, Amy has planned a treasure hunt for her once-dear hubby. But even before he finds the first clue, he stumbles upon a miserable surprise: His wife has disappeared, leaving behind an unironed anniversary-date dress, a living room in a shambles, and a kitchen floor that looks clean to the naked eye but really isn't. The cops pretend to help, but the detectives, played by Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit, treat him as a suspect. Before long, the whole town hates him, particularly its female denizens. "I'm so sick of being picked apart by women," Nick grouses, presumably a sample of the misogynist tomcat pee he's been spraying around his wife these past few years.
All is not as it appears — except it sort of is. If you've read the book, you'll probably want to know that Fincher has honored all of its significant plot points, including the ending (even if he's taken minor liberties with tone). If you're a Gone Girl virgin, you won't care about that stuff, but it's worth noting that Fincher — as you'd expect from the filmmaker behind Zodiac and the even better Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — braids the novel's Rapunzel-like strands into characteristically graceful plaits. You probably won't know what will happen next until it actually happens.
If you go to the movies to admire performances and craftsmanship, there's plenty to go around: Affleck's Nick struts through the movie like an Abercrombie & Fitch caveman — his shirts are all a bit too tight, as if they can barely contain his muscles or his pride. Pike may not be quite as well cast — she's so marble-smooth that her fellow actors don't so much interact with her as slide off that polished golden surface — but maybe her coolness works in her favor. We're not really supposed to know her, so her Sphinx-like anonymity doesn't matter so much.
But even though Gone Girl works hard to mess up our heads with all manner of he-said, she-said curlicues and features one grisly, blood-spraying murder sequence, it still doesn't feel as dangerous as it should. The problem lies with the source material. (And here's where you'll want to stop reading if you're not familiar with the novel.) Flynn's clever plotting makes the book engaging. But the noir femme fatale she's created leaves a lot — in fact, everything — to be desired. We hear this woman talk so much that we know exactly how and why she's as bad as she is. The great femmes fatales — the characters played by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and by Jane Greer in Out of the Past, to name just two — have been the creations of men, irresistible dream girls onto which men can project their fears and longing. That's what's great about them: They're bad for their own bad sake, and to watch them do their dirty work is at once thrilling and threatening and freeing. But Flynn's antiheroine is all motivation and not enough being. She's bad because she's angry, in that supposedly universal angry-woman way. And that can't hold a candle, or the flicker-flame of a gold-plated lighter, to being bad because it feels so damn good.