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.