The film starts out with Nick Dunne, played to smug perfection by Ben Affleck, describing how when he thinks about his wife, he thinks about her head and cracking it open to try to understand what she's thinking. At this movie's core is a dark piece of relationship drama that anyone in a relationship can identify with: can you ever really know the person you are with? Think of all the trust it requires to lay your sleeping bones in bed with someone every night and believe that you know them and the love you share well enough to wake up okay the next day. Relationships often begin with each participant putting their best foot forward, living up to an image of the person they think they should be to keep the other happy. A lot of relationships end on a disastrous note due to this projection of falseness and the eventual discovery of who the person "really is."
(Warning: All the Spoilers)
What Gillian Flynn did so well in her novel was to delve into the darkest part of this fairly common relationship issue - she pushed this issue into the lives of a self obsessed man with anger suppression issues and a highly intelligent sociopath with psychopathic tendencies. It's reinventing a common scenario with the darkest denominators possible.
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne escapes his domestic prison and visits his twin sister Margo at "The Bar," their intentionally meta means of earning money in a small Missouri town as broken by the Great Recession as Amy and Nick's careers. It's clear that Nick is unhappy, a mopey trait that Affleck nails just by being who he is. I wonder how much he had to actually act in this movie, the role of Nick Dunne seemed vacuformed to fit him. I'd also like to give a shout out the Carrie Coon, who played Nick's twin sister Margo. My experience with her as an actress is strictly limited to her role on The Leftovers, so I was pleased with the tenacity of her character portrayal and the undeniablele sibling chemistry she achieves with Affleck.
After dropping off a game of Mastermind (nice prop usage) to his sister at The Bar, and playing a depressing game of L.I.F.E. with her (love the symbolism) he heads home after an urgent call from a nosy neighbor. Nick finds his home disheveled and his wife missing.
What happens next is a whirlwind of past narrative flashes and present unfolding suspense masterfully intermingled by Fincher to paint the picture of a marriage gone sour. What the audience gets is a tale of the Nick and Amy relationship from the voice-over passages of Amy's diary. Fincher is able to do a lot in a short span of time in relating the couple's past and eventual trajectory with some pretty memorable scenes (sugar cloud kiss) and great dialogue exchange. The audience follows Amy as a guide through the couple's meeting, their courting, their sensual relationship and the slow degradation of their marriage once, you know, real life interferes and puts their relationship to the test. All of these glimpses into the past are intercut with the ongoing investigation to find Amy Elliott-Dunne, and Nick is quickly turning into the lead suspect in her disappearance, a deduction based not only on clues, but on his obvious emotional detachment.
What's done really well here is that as Amy's diary passages shift in tone to reveal the emergence of a dark and
violent version of Nick, the real-time story of the investigation is heating up and the media is eating Nick alive. The parallel is spot on, just as it was in the book. In the movie, this is also expanded upon visually with an interesting color pallet of muted moody tones that emit a particular feeling that nothing is as clean as it appears to be, that beneath the cool lines of blue and beige lies something much darker.
The audience only knows Amy's version of their history as a couple, and any book reader knows how to spot an unreliable narrator, except that what Amy is describing in their disintegrating marriage is so plausible and backed by clues that are turning up in the case that her diary reads like a playbook. Nick is obviously someone who suppresses things and hides a lot, even from himself, so his slow revelation of the awfulness of the Amazing Amy is too late to matter, especially when his infidelity is revealed.
The clever twist in the story is that every anniversary Amy sends Nick on a scavenger hunt propelled by clues that he sometimes fails to understand because they are all based around things that Amy perceived to be meaningful in their relationship. And this is how she knows he has stopped trying, this is how she tests him to see if he is still as invested and plugged into upholding the beauty of their marriage as she is. Nick and the cops become determined to solve this year's hunt because they think it will lead to Amy, because as the investigation reveals - Amy's crime scene was undoubtedly staged.
In order to solve Amy's hunt before the cops, Nick must delve into the mind of his wife and unravel her twisted thinking. Once he does, he realizes that Amy is the one setting him up for murder; the perfect murder in a state with the death penalty, and all because he became lazy in their marriage and chose an easy escape through an affair with a young and uncomplicated woman. Once Nick figures out what his brilliant and manipulative wife has done, he becomes obsessed with finding her. "Come home Amy. So I can fucking kill you," as his internal dialogue from the book goes. It becomes his mantra. It drives every thing he does from that moment on.
Now here is where the book had the time to expand upon Nick and Amy's inner dialogue to make readers understand that these two very messed up individuals had a psychological chess match going on. Nick really has to rediscover his wife; reviving a dead relationship in order to lure her back and save himself. Flynn brilliantly brought in the media as a means for the two to communicate even though the viewing masses hated Nick and loved Amazing Amy. Nick manipulates the media and he manipulates Amy, feeding her exactly what she wants, because he now understands what he did wrong (from her perspective).
I feel like the involvement of the media and characters like Ellen Abbott and Shraron Schieber speak a lot to our current culture where a high profile missing persons case for the inspiration of a famous children's literature character becomes a war of public opinion. The two must play the media like a tennis match. The media is a constant and unceasing presence in the movie and in the book. Even when we are reunited with the real Amy, she is glued to the media aftermath of all she has staged.
This is all handled so well in film format that the small differences from the text and omission of some details don't matter. Everything that is needed to make the story come together is there and I feel like that is a Flynn-Fincher collaborative win.
The score, which pulses beneath the rising action of the movie implies that something's building and that something is fucked up. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross really played with the subtle darkness and random bursts of tension exhuming from Nick's perspective, hinting at a rage boiling beneath his detached exterior. And Amy's big scene with Desi would not have been nearly as disturbing without that distorted electronic throb.
Rosamund Pike was phenomenal. I didn't know what to think of her casting initially, I'd seen her in one other movie playing shy but pretty Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. The thought of her as the killer manipulative Amy seemed so far fetched - and yet, she nailed it. I think their is an heir about her which may come from her British-ness that plays well to Amy's stuck-up, New York born and bred, trust-fund baby persona. It served her in this film, and she captured Amy so completely from the text, and mostly through those eyes.
Apparently, Fincher is not huge on close ups. There are some very extreme close-ups of Amy's face in this
|What are you thinking, Amy?|
The murder of Desi was by far one of the more disturbing scenes I've seen of late. Amy's calculation followed by her manipulation, her savage kill, and the way she mounts him soaked in his blood - its monstrous. I loved it. It's not described like that in the book, and I loved what Fincher did with the scene. Amy's bloody return to Nick, her reformulation of the story to the FBI and local detectives, and her admission of everything to Nick is all done covered in the sacrificial lamb's blood. And even though the shower scene was in the book, the blood was a Fincher decision, because when Amy washes Desi's blood off her body in front of him, it's a visual and subtextual reminder that she has killed for this man. She is making him watch how easily she disposes of the murder as it is cleansed from her porcelain skin.
Now, I had problems with the end of the book. I also had problems with the end of the movie. I felt this was the area where Affleck's acting suffered most. I never got from him the anger that seethed through the Nick Dunne in the book, until he shoves Amy against the wall. It's the only moment when you think he might snap. It's obvious he's confused and terrified of her, but I wish there had been a deeper exploration of Nick's psychological state, he still just seems too aloof. This was an issue in the book and it persisted into the movie. If the final scenes seemed to go by in a hurry, that can also be attributed to the source material and Flynn's hand in the screenwriting.
Something never connected for me, in either the book or the movie, pertaining to why Nick and Amy stay together. There's a bit of talk about how they were both at their best when they were trying to be the best versions of themselves together, but then there is this other suggestion that Nick and Amy now know each other and recognize each other for who they really are, and how could they ever settle for anyone else after what they'd been through? Oh, I don't know, but staying together seems wrong.
Besides my issues with the ending, I thought this was a great adaptation. Things left out like Amy's other childhood friend that she manipulated and psychologically tortured, the staged antifreeze poisoning, Tanner Bolt's wife, the extra needy version of Andie, more escapes by Nick's dad, and Amy's drummed up fear of blood - it just wasn't needed. The story got told, and all the essentials were there to make this a damn good movie.