Gone Girl makes Seven look like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, though that isn't a commentary on the violence—outside of a shove, a punch, and a throat cutting, there’s nothing. It’s all from character and plot. What makes Gone Girl effective is the fact that it is the basis of all good fiction—ordinary people in extraordinary situations that reflect, in some way, the thoughts and concerns of the audience.

Gone Girl is based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, and will almost undoubtedly win an Oscar for this adaptation. Flynn’s gift of nuance and ear for dialogue imbues her characters with life, making them as flawed as they are likable. The energy of the film, despite its premise, is kinetic—a charge that arcs through the script to the director to the actors and finally to us—and it’s clear that everyone enjoyed making this film, dark though it may be.

The premise involves Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) disappearance and the effect it has on her town and her family. This horse has been beaten to death, and while the germ of the idea familiar, Amy’s disappearance is something wholly different. Gone Girl is an incisive exploration of marriage and media, of stresses from within and without a relationship. Through flashbacks brought about by Amy’s journal, we’re given the boy meets girl story of Amy and Nick (Ben Affleck). Her narrative greatly differs from Nick’s and it becomes clear that they are both unreliable narrators. They are both, too, fairly unlikable people. Nick is a Midwestern bro with an MFA. He loves reading and writing; he loves sweatpants. Amy is pure New York, so being stuck in Missouri is a fate worse than death. She’s smart yet has a tendency toward haut that makes her disinterested in her neigbors and vice versa.

We spend around an hour of the film’s long run watching Nick blunder through the disappearance of his wife. Nick isn’t media savvy. His clipped clarity and southern politeness is taken as aloofness, and the media quickly decides that he’s guilty—specifically Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), our Nancy Grace stand in. Nick’s given a trial by media, and it doesn’t help that every single clue points to Nick murdering his wife. Through Amy's journal we learn of Nick’s temper. Through his stupidity, we learn of his affair. He earns our ire around the same time as the media. On day 2 of his wife’s disappearance, he has sex with his mistress.

So much of Nick and Amy’s marriage was really quite an advertisement for long term relationships. They were clever people, charming, and by that point in their lives, experienced enough from past mistakes to not make them this time around. Amy wasn’t a nag and Nick wasn’t a jerk. She set up treasure hunts on their anniversaries, and after a few years they still hadn’t gotten tired of each other. External factors crept in, of course. The failing economy and Nick’s mother’s cancer were stressors affected their marriage so by the time we begin the film, Nick is ready to call it quits.

The truth behind Amy’s disappearance is clearly melodramatic, but the screenplay is careful and the actors are brilliant, so we buy it easily. While it’s clear this is Pike’s film (if she doesn’t win an Academy Award then there is no God), everyone in the cast is given the best type of material to become three dimensional. Affleck plays Nick in a two-sided way. On the first viewing you clearly suspect him; on the second viewing you see him for what he is: a poor schmo trying to make sense of everything. Affleck has always had a self-aware everyman charm that made some of his prior performances seem condescending. In his most recent roles—Hollywoodland, The Town and Argo specifically—we’ve seen Affleck turn that charm into something workable. What was condescending now feels organic. While most of us were shocked, appalled and terrified when Affleck was cast as Batman, Gone Girl (as well as the aforementioned films) provide ample evidence that the cowl is in good hands. It also should be noted that Affleck was working on Gone Girl when it was announced he’d play Batman; Flynn and director David Fincher added in a reference to Batman as a joke that presses against the fourth wall but doesn’t distract.

But this is Amy’s show, not Batman's. So much of the story is either about her or told from her point of view. We learn of Amy’s best and worst qualities (that zenith is a black hole). Her sadism is matched by her hurt, and it’s one of Flynn and Fincher’s best jokes in the movie. Amy’s a lousy person but whenever she’s in danger we want her to be okay. Pike ends up having to play several different versions of Amy, and transitions so seamlessly—her eyes moving between soft and sharp—that you buy in completely and totally. You fear, loath and admire her. Together, Flynn, Fincher and Pike have rendered the best film villainess since Summer Finn.

Speaking of villainesses, Missi Pyle’s Ellen Abbott needs a special look as well. As stated, she’s a clear pastiche of Nancy Grace—who herself is a parody—and though Pyle is recalling the same strategies and manipulations as Grace, the fact that she isn’t as shrill is actually scarier. It becomes clear by the end of the film that Ellen Abbott doesn’t really care if Nick was innocent or not. She cares about her ratings, she cares about telling a story; she feeds on fear not truth. Fincher and Flynn take care in addressing the media—using Nick as an example—to show that the news isn’t the news anymore. It’s cheap and tabloid. If it bleeds it leads has never been truer as it is now. As with anyone else who has been found guilty by the media only to be absolved by the police, news organizations do not cover their retractions with the same zeal that they made their accusations; they’re usually just a blurb in the back. Likewise, when Nick finally meets Ellen Abbott, she greets him as an old friend. When he confronts her, she merely shrugs. Though Rosamund Pike steals the show, Missi Pyle gives her a run for her money, which is saying something considering everyone in the cast is excellent.

One of the main themes at play is the elusiveness of truth—how lies infect our relationships through the ones we tell each other and ourselves, and the media is revealed for its own sins, as are Nick and Amy for theirs. Marriage, as defined by Gone Girl, is not about the truth shared by two people, but the lies that keep the other in check. As Nick and Amy learn about themselves and each other, you can never truly know another person. This is not a first date movie.

I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but Tyler Perry played defense attorney Tanner Bolt with muted calm and class. It would have been easy for Perry to play to his own cartoonishness and give Bolt a Johnny Cochrane flare or Dominic Barbera grease, but instead makes Bolt one of the few islands of sanity that the world of Nick and Amy needs.

Carrie Coon plays Nick’s twin Margo who is a mouthpiece for the audience. She didn’t like Amy from Jump Street, and she’s deeply loyal to her brother. That doesn’t keep her from calling Nick out on his lies or being somewhat doubting of him as things escalate. She still stands by him, of course, but it’s measured in reality. Margo is too smart not to point out the logical flaws or the dumb mistakes, and she makes Nick smarter for it. Her support is the strength Nick draws on, and when she’s endangered, we feel the pangs of fear Nick does as well.

Rounding out the cast is Kim Dickens, the experienced local detective Rhonda Boney. She’s like Margo in the way that she’s too smart not to notice how well everything is being manipulated, and Dickens balances the hard-nosed, weathered detective with the with an empathy and clarity not often attributed to fictional police officers, especially in a small town setting. Her own showdown with Amy is unfortunately brief but incredibly tense as they emote through eyes and throw subtle daggers. Rhonda Boney is someone I wouldn’t mind seeing a spinoff for the detective, or at the very least have Dickens play another on TV.

Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) and Tommy (Scoot McNairy) play small roles in the film, and exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. If the themes present in Gone Girl are truth, lies and failure, then these two are the perfect example. Desi is a psychotic ex-boyfriend of Amy’s. Controlling, abusive, dangerous, elegant and manipulative—he’s Amy with the volume turned up.Tommy is another one of Amy’s ex-boyfriends. The story we’re given is that he raped her. In actuality, when he broke up with her, she made it seem like he did. His life now is hell. He can’t get a good job despite his education, he can’t hold on to a relationship because of the stigma. Here, Desi and Tommy exist as failures of authority. Desi is what happens when we fail to identify and deal with abusers; Tommy is what happens when lies aren’t seen through, when good people’s lives get destroyed. It’s very rare in fiction—or in reality, frankly—to acknowledge that sometimes allegations are false, and sometimes we never really know who the threat is. Between the snappy, darkly comic jokes, these facts are presented and it’s terrifying.

Almost as terrifying is the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have collaborated with Fincher in the past. As always, no two of their soundtracks are remotely similar; in Gone Girl, which explores the grime beneath the veneer of suburban domesticity, their music is thematically linked. The soundtrack is elevator music with underpinning dread, so clearly exemplified in that final shot, Amy and the cat (the true star of the film) staring back at Nick and the audience, a dreadful reminder of an inescapable future that is Kubrickian in its final artful pull away.

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