Gone, Baby...

Just who is David Fincher? At a press conference for his latest film Gone Girl, his star Ben Affleck said that the directors he works with are typically either great technical minds or they're great writers who can work with actors well. Fincher is both the foremost expert on the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking and he can make actors feel at ease doing the most challenging work of their career. Or to put it simply: for what other director would Ben Affleck get fully naked on camera? Only a man who'd proven his bonafides directing modern cult classics like Zodiac, Seven and Fight Club could possibly make an event out of a book as inauspicious and ordinary as Gone Girl. Only a man who knows cinema like the rest of us know our own bad habits could work miracles like this. And make no mistake, Gone Girl is a miracle. A roaring, rollercoaster of a film with a terrible screenplay and a lot of ugly things to say about people, Gone Girl just might extend cinema's lifespan.

Back in the 1950s, the invention of TV threatened the livelihood of filmmakers everywhere. If viewers could be entertained at home, why would they breach the white picket fence? Movie directors decided to go big, producing one rollicking epic after another to get viewers out of their home for thrills the small screen wouldn't provide. David Fincher has been hitting the small screen hard and low these last few years. He created a TV series strictly for people who don't have cable and he's now adapted two runaway best sellers. The first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was a head-spinning exercise in forward momentum that bordered on futurism; airport fiction rebuilt as a Rube Goldberg machine. If you see network TV walking down the street putting pressure on a headwound, muttering "You should see the other guy," that's because David Fincher administered a beatdown that it won't soon forget. Gone Girl is a whole season of TV, complete with guest stars, in two and a half hours.  

At that same press conference, Affleck described Fincher's breakthrough, Seven, as a film that was built like a swiss watch. If that's true, then here he's twisted every gear tighter, perfecting a brusque narrative flow that seems to obfuscate curiousity. He moves faster than the human mind, exploring every possibility while opening the door for six or seven variations you hadn't even considered. Gone Girl is his most precise film, if not his best, and proves that he can best any source through sheer force of will and pure cinematics. A beautifully plastic sheen falls over the memories Nick and Amy share of their courtship, which can only be perverted by the cold, unromantic light of day during the investigation scenes. Meanwhile the music by frequent collaborators and Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross betrays everyone, creating an inch thick layer of uncertainty that grows on every move our hero makes in his own defense. Affleck's Dunne tries to get ahead of his own story, only to realize that his public persona in the wake of Amy's disappearance has a life of its own. Everyone has more than one life in Gone Girl. Fincher delights in watching characters watch themselves on the news, their identity sculpted by pundits and headlines, sewing seeds of doubt. The way we interact with our own image is a new phenomenon for the common man, but the characters in Gone Girl must master it like old pros because everyone's already watching them. The only hope lies in choosing what they see. Paranoia is the dark heart of the film, and the tabloid television cycle keeps its blood flowing.  

Gone Girl may be the most ugly indictment of TV's power to do evil since Spike Lee's Bamboozled, and both are heavily indebted to the ultimate statement on the politics of the small screen Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's Network. But there are older ghosts hanging from its family tree as well. In the mid-50s movies like It Should Happen To You and All That Heaven Allows cast a scathing light on what TV offers the American people. Fame and a false sense of comfort, both of which alienate you from the people you love. Other films went big, hoping to draw Americans out of their homes with thrills the glass teat couldn't offer them. Fincher wants this to be his North By Northwest, a country spanning twist-athon with images indelible and confident enough to make us believe in them. It puts the viewer in the role of judge and jury, playing with our sympathies and watching us squirm; parsing out red herrings through the jaundiced lens of broadcast news. Fincher makes Affleck throw himself on the mercy of the court of public appeal and banks on your liking or disliking him enough to stay rooted to the spot as the narrative turns darker and darker. Fincher has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Scandal, The Good Wife, New Girl, The Leftovers, How I Met Your Mother, True Detective and Mad Men and thrown one of his own. It's a blockbuster whodunnit with more twists than your DNA and flashy, stylized support from icons like Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris. The odds are great that when it's over you'll yell at the screen, begging to know what happens next week. That sound you hear is David Fincher having the last laugh. He always does.

Perfectly tuned as it is Gone Girl has a big problem. The more we learn about the girl of the title, the less we know her, the less certain we are that any outcome could be satisfying. Naturally the one we get leaves a bitter aftertaste. Which is itself a cruel inevitability. If the girl of the title could be anyone, doesn't it make sense that our hero'd get saddled with the worst possible iteration? I don't know if Fincher believes in that depressing outcome but Flynn definitely does. She pits her too-smart hero against one regressive cartoon after another and Fincher's only too happy to play her game, because it lets him change the game at regular intervals. The problem? If the film never has to make up its mind about who the girl is, then it never has to decide what it thinks about her. So ultimately what is Gone Girl? A thriller? A procedural? A horror film? A courtroom drama? It never decides. It's a film without a center. Without a soul. Good as it is, slick and entertaining and provocative, it can never transcend that absence. It will never be better than entertaining. Is that the future we're heading for? If movies don't aspire to much more than beating TV and paperback fiction at its own game, then the battle's already over. Without a beating heart, like the one in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Zodiac, entertainment is hardly compensation. Not when you can be so much more. 

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