Gone Girl looks very much like a David Fincher film, with its washed out colour palette, earthy hues and now-obligatory Reznor/Ross soundtrack, but it sure doesn’t play like one.

Fincher has always been deeply rooted in genre cinema. Some of his offerings – Seven, The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac – are lauded as some of the finest such examples of recent years. He’s shown an ability to capture the zeitgeist in Fight Club and The Social Network, and even when he’s off his game – Dragon Tattoo/Benjamin Button – he still displays a technical competency that keeps most fans on board. In fact the only film we don’t really talk about anymore is Alien3, and even that has its fans.

His latest is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, and manages to fall somewhere between these three stalls. On the one hand this is a star-driven police procedural as interested with ambiguous characterisation as with plot, but on the other it asks its audience to ride a writhing narrative that takes some pretty bonkers twists. In between all that the film also takes a hefty swing at media-hyped witch hunts and how sensationalist journalism can be more important than judiciary process.

The balancing act of Gone Girl strives to succeed on many levels. Firstly, we have our fluctuating sympathies for Ben Affleck’s struggling writer husband Nick, who is thrown to the dogs when his wife suddenly goes missing. On the other hand we have trustafarian Amy (Rosamund Pike), presented at first as a graceful muse, then a frustrated housewife, only to be unveiled as something else entirely. Secondly, the film wants to be a trashy, pulpy thriller, riddled with deception, double-cross and duplicity, yet is handled with the dour, deadpan delivery of Fincher’s more recent offerings. In execution, the performances work, but the tone is completely off.

Rosamund Pike is admittedly rather impressive here in a chameleonic performance that asks her to go from glamorous to dowdy to seductive with a flick of her hair – something she pulls off to perfection. Affleck too manages to walk the razor’s edge between reluctant victim and non-committal villain so we never know whether he’s telling the truth or not. Fincher grounds his multi-faceted leads with a raft of strong secondary roles for Carrie Coone, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry and a somewhat underused Neil Patrick Harris. These are quite literally supporting performers, giving the audience stability while the central duo spin untethered.

The problem with the film, and sadly it’s a big one, is that Fincher doesn’t seem to realise what kind of story he is telling. Gone Girl, on the page at least, best resembles a couple of other recent dalliances in lowbrow pulp by A-list directors: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects and Danny Boyle’s Trance. In both those cases, the filmmakers understood that they were telling implausible, frankly ludicrous stories purely for entertainment’s sake – and treated the material accordingly. Fincher doesn’t seem to notice how utterly absurd Gone Girl gets, and continues to present the spiralling machinations of two very screwed up individuals as if it was a straight-laced drama.

I haven’t read Flynn’s novel of Gone Girl, and I understand she has made some changes to the story in her adaptation, but the way things come together in the final act of Fincher’s film feels like a too-too-clever attempt to satirise the institution of marriage. The film shoots for a pitch black comedic assessment of the sacrifices we all make in order to keep our unit together. Under Fincher’s guidance, however, it rings totally hollow, the satire is lost, and what we are left with is a dumbfounded parade of preposterous contrivances that would make a Spanish telenovella seem profound and nuanced.

At 149 minutes, Gone Girl is paced far too deliberately too. Understandably, Flynn was reluctant to remove too much from her novel, but the baggy screenplay also works against the film. Had it shed 40 minutes or so and played up the craziness of the second half, Fincher would have successfully delivered another Panic Room and most people would be satisfied. Instead, he seems convinced the material is more intelligent than it actually is, that it can be played straight and taken as revelatory, rather than ridiculous. While it won’t damage anyone’s career, and Pike should rightly win a fistful of plaudits for her excellent villainess, the truth is that Gone Girl is just pretty dumb, and not much fun.

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