Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue

Odd Lot

The pattern with David Fincher has been that only his even-numbered films are truly great. The odd-numbered ones are usually worth seeing, always technically proficient, but ultimately a little messier, or a little slighter, or a little more disposable.

This rule goes back to the 1990s, when Fincher’s first feature, the third “Alien” movie, was a chopped-up disappointment, and then his second, the Thomist serial-killer drama Se7en, was brilliant and career-making. Since then, the even-numbered Fincher movies have been Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network, all near-masterpieces; the odd-numbered have been The Game (sleek, twisty, slight), Panic Room (gripping, even slighter), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (interminable, Oscar bait, a dud), and 2011’s just-okay gun-for-hire effort, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Happily, Fincher’s latest movie, Gone Girl, is an even number on his curriculum vitae; unfortunately, it’s the even number that finally breaks the pattern, because by the director’s standards the film is, well, just okay. Bear in mind that a just-okay movie from Fincher is still a cut above 95 percent of contemporary cinema, which is why it’s not surprising that Gone Girl has earned its share of rave reviews, picked up early Oscar buzz, and prompted various (mostly tedious) conversations about what the movie says about marriage, feminism, cable news, misogyny and/or misandry, and other potent issues of our age. This is a good movie, a skillful movie, an entirely unboring movie. It’s just not one of its director’s best.

The trouble starts with the source material, Gillian Flynn’s savage, wonderfully implausible post-financial-crisis noir, which sold a gazillion copies in part because of the cleverness of its internal architecture. The novel’s story, seemingly a conventional missing-wife mystery, unfolds from two perspectives and along two separate timelines: The husband’s point of view starts with the disappearance/kidnapping (murder?), while his wife’s perspective takes the form of a diary that doubles as a flashback to their courtship and only gradually catches up to the present. And then, just when the reader has grown used to the two voices and the two timelines have almost converged, the story twists completely and a good chunk of what you’ve read turns out to be . . . well, let’s just say conveniently incomplete.

That kind of complex architecture is hard to adapt for the screen without being either overly literal or overly confusing. Fincher, relying on a script that Flynn herself wrote, opts for fidelity to the book’s structure, and it works well enough — you can follow what’s happening, the necessary beats are there — without ever feeling quite inspired: The kick, the thrill, the shock that the book’s twist delivers feels somehow muted here, just another plot point rather than a hinge on which the story turns.

But the reason it feels muted isn’t just structural; it’s that the person called upon to execute that turn is ultimately all wrong for the task.

This is Rosamund Pike, a fine actress and to date an underappreciated one. She plays Amy Dunne, the wife to Nick (Ben Affleck), a laid-off journalist who’s brought her from New York City back to his faded hometown of North Carthage, Mo., where they live in McMansion’d splendor as their marriage falls apart. Amy is a failed writer, too (alas, two-journalist couples!), one who lives in the shadow of her successful literary parents in more ways than one: She’s the basis for their bestselling series of “Amazing Amy” novels, in which a girl just like her has a childhood, teenage-hood, and finally adulthood that are just a notch more perfectly high-achieving than her own.

That’s just some of the baggage she brings to the marriage, it turns out. Nick’s baggage is more conventional: He’s a midwestern guy who played at New York cool until the money ran out, and now he’s gone back to his roots — tending bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon, great), having an affair with a dizzy local girl, and resenting the way the cool girl he married has turned into a princess he has no idea how to keep happy or support.

Whether that resentment curdled into something more murderous is the question of the first half of the movie, in which Affleck — well cast, making the most of the hint of thuggish dishonesty that’s always lurked behind his handsomeness — behaves like a guy with something big to hide, the local cops (Patrick Fugit and a marvelous Kim Dickens) circle and then close in on him, and the infotainment-industrial complex works itself into a full Nancy Grace–style lather.

It isn’t until the second half that we finally get a sense of what makes Amy tick, the depths beneath her cool-girl surface . . . and that’s when it becomes clear that Pike can’t quite deliver the variations that the part and the movie need to really work. Amy is supposed to have a relaxed and fun-loving side (the kind of side that, say, Rachel McAdams could play in her sleep), a disappointed-princess side, and a third side that’s slightly, well, stranger than the others. Pike, though, is always basically the slightly disappointed princess: Her icy surface needs to sometimes thaw and sometimes boil, and instead it’s always frosty, cool, aristocratic, in ways that keep the film from attaining the full gonzo glory of the book.

Which, again, does not take away from the adaptation’s many pleasures: The mood, the score, the rest of the players (I haven’t mentioned Tyler Perry as Nick’s defense attorney), Fincher’s usual control over pace and tone and setting — it all works, it all entertains. But this is an even-numbered Fincher, so I hold it to a higher standard: This Gone Girl could, and should, have been even better.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Joys of Vaping

Second chances at happiness do not come along every day. But for this former cigarette slave, who once enjoyed every single moment of breathing in a cool, mentholated hit of ...
Politics & Policy

A Senate to Come

Don’t expect the results of the Senate elections to change the policies of the federal government very much over the next two years. Overthrowing Harry Reid isn’t going to yield ...
Politics & Policy

Two Iraq Choices

Just as George W. Bush’s foreign-policy legacy will be defined by his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Barack Obama’s is rapidly being defined by his decision to abandon Iraq ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Mythmaker

America needs a good history of the Republican party; unfortunately, this isn’t it. A good history would, for example, look to explain the amazing reemergence of the GOP from World War ...
Politics & Policy

Odd Lot

The pattern with David Fincher has been that only his even-numbered films are truly great. The odd-numbered ones are usually worth seeing, always technically proficient, but ultimately a little messier, ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Heroic Drudgery Regarding the otherwise excellent article by Charles C. W. Cooke in the September 8 issue (“A Gruesome Drudgery”), I must take exception in one matter. Cooke asserts that in ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The Secret Service let a crazy man be alone with President Obama for an hour. Luckily Tom Friedman isn’t due for another interview for a while. ‐ Leon Panetta’s memoir, ...
Athwart

Keep Calm and Conspire On

‘UFO Refuels in Jet Chemtrail over Amsterdam,” said the headline on the website. Given the location, you could translate that as “Pothead Sees Things in the Sky, and, Whoa, Man,” ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

A REVERIE Some days in August there’s a summer hum Of distant outboard motors, or a plane Relentlessly pursuing a puffed cloud, Echoes of past revelers, and then some More silent moments, full of what’s ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Right-Wing Halloween

‘The world is not a dark and evil place,” insists an exasperated woman played by Judy Greer in Halloween. “It’s full of love and understanding!” I put the question to the class: Is she right? In the new film (not a reboot but a sequel that occurs 40 years after the events in the 1978 original and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Blackface Party

I must have missed something: Was there some kind of all-hands white-people meeting at which we voted to kick the Democrats out? Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, Beto O’Rourke — what’s up with all the ethnic play-acting? Isn’t cultural appropriation supposed to be a bad thing among progressives? Isn’t ... Read More
Elections

The State of the Race for the House

Way back in January, I went through the then-34 seats where a Republican incumbent was retiring and concluded that most were in deeply red districts and not likely to flip to Democrats. Pollsters and media organizations are less inclined to conduct surveys of House races, both because there’s less public ... Read More