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In Gone Girl Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne who is the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife.

Photo: Merrick Morton

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Gillian Flynn
Directed by
David Fincher
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck

Isn't that smart? A New England kind of word, of sensible, harmonious things like matching appliances, button-down shirts and A-line skirts. It's also the take-away word from David Fincher's new film, Gone Girl, a chic and perverse take on modern marriage in the guise of a thriller. The premise of the film, adapted for the screen by Gillian Flynn from her own hit novel, resembles most episodes of the current-affairs show 48 Hours: There's a happy couple that seems to have it all – then the wife mysteriously disappears. Next come the revelations of marital alienation, financial problems, erratic behaviour, the troubling forensic report and … uh-oh.

Here's another word for Gone Girl: "meta." It's a word Flynn uses, which means it's a thriller about thrillers, and a narrative about narratives, especially the form of domestic violence relished by current-affairs television shows. (To quote Elvis Costello's The Long Honeymoon: "All the movies and the papers feature the murders of lonely women.")

While this persistent cleverness keeps Gone Girl at a simmer instead of a boil, fans of Flynn's 2012 novel will not be one tiny bit disappointed. Rumours of substantial changes are untrue. The author has adroitly adapted her own screenplay, cutting out the padding and maintaining the book's time-shifting he-said/she-said structure and brittle wit.

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For the Fincher cult, Gone Girl offers the usual grisly absurdism under a domestic guise. Though not as psychologically dark as Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, the movie has more bite than his other mainstream efforts (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Netflix series House of Cards). Gone Girl's closest ally in Fincher's oeuvre is the Howard Hawksian screwball comedy The Social Network, which is similarly funny and cuttingly sharp in its examination of everyday sociopathology.

The story is supercontemporary. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is a laid-off New York movie magazine writer (as was Flynn, who used to write for Entertainment Weekly) while his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), loses her hobby job writing quizzes in women's magazines, and their perfect Manhattan life becomes unsustainable. They move back to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Mo., a heartland community with a dwindling pulse, and the Dunnes, as a couple, are done-for, inhabiting a beige monster home in an underpopulated, post-crash subdivision.

Along with his twin sister and soulmate, Margo (Carrie Coon), Nick opens a bar called "the Bar," a name that they think of as "meta." Nick is the kind of disenchanted husband who would call his wife "the Wife" and his relationship "the Marriage." Behind the glossy magazine cover of the once-perfect couple, there's a cracked plaster wall over a bulging sewage pipe of resentments.

Amy, a New York trust-fund princess of a wife (her parents made a fortune writing a series of children's books entitled Amazing Amy), is traumatized by her Cinderella-in-reverse transition. Throughout, the electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross grinds, squawks and groans, communicating the rising panic beneath the placid surface.

The Dunnes' marital dissonance is, no doubt, a metaphor of America's post-2008 economic disillusionment, which is not to say Gone Girl is exactly social realism. This is very much a movie to be considered, to be admired, like the elegant complexity of the gear train of a vintage watch.

The story shifts between the rich-hued, romance-novel past of New York and the washed-out present of Missouri, between Nick's and Amy's points of view. There is also a series of handwritten clues that Amy leaves as part of her anniversary treasure hunt, serving as a mystery within the mystery. As well, there are recognizable tropes from film-noir classics (Laura, Double Indemnity) that movie journalist Nick should pick up on.

The action begins on Nick and Amy's fifth wedding anniversary, in somewhat unorthodox fashion. Nick comes home from an afternoon visit to the Bar, where he has dropped in to see his sister and slosh down some bourbon. The cat is on the step. His front door is open, his wife gone and the coffee table smashed. A couple of small-town cops arrive: Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), who find blood smears. They are chatty and helpful. They recommend a news conference the next morning, attended by Amy's parents, but Nick, hungover and awkward, offers a creepily inappropriate smile for the cameras. The initial wave of sympathy that engulfs Nick soon begins to wane. A Nancy Grace-style TV poisonality (Missi Pyle) gets on his case. Nick's evasive behaviour raises suspicions and then Amy's diary is discovered.

Even audiences who haven't read Flynn's bestseller will be primed for a twist, which comes quickly – at the one-hour mark in this 145-minute film. There's not much more that can be revealed except that a pivotal role is played by someone from Amy's past, a rich, fastidious, sexually ambiguous former private-school boyfriend who turned into a stalker, named Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). The character of Desi is cartoonish, but then the entire movie grows increasingly heightened, tipping into a Pedro Almodovar level of camp melodrama.

Melodrama, thriller, comedy and social commentary: Yes, this is one ingenious contraption of a movie. If there's one area where Gone Girl is brilliant, it's in its casting. Affleck and Pike, who superficially seem as blandly pretty as the Dunnes' McMansion, are full of surprises. Affleck's handsome mug and shifty, uneasy manner have never been better suited to a role. Nick wavers somewhere between emotional foundering and soullessness. The pretty English actress Pike, whose range has extended from the decorative (Barney's Version) to slyly amusing (An Education), is a revelation (though the details can't be revealed here) as a character of near-mythic self-absorption. The exceptional casting choices go right down the line. Coon, a Broadway actress (she's married to playwright Tracy Letts), is another strong candidate for MVP here as Nick's wry, compulsively honest, tomboy sister, with a bit of a crush on her brother. (There's something of Barbara Bel Geddes's character Midge, in Vertigo, in her performance.) The biggest surprise? Tyler Perry as an ebulliently mischievous, amoral celebrity defence attorney. Not to forget Dickens as a folksy, smart cop and Fugit as her skeptical partner, whose performances are so precisely understated that the humour is only fully appreciated in retrospect.

Indeed, the attention to casting is the best argument against charges of misanthropy and misogyny in Gone Girl. With the exception of the ridiculous Desi, no one in the story is simply a reductive type. Every character in the film, starting with Nick and Amy, suggests an entire hidden world: capacious, complicated and unnervingly unpredictable.

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