What we’ve got here in Gone Girl is one of the fastest thrillers of the last few years. Details whiz off the page in the readers burning desire to consume everything at once and answer the question looming behind it all, and asked in the film’s trailer: did Nick Dunne kill his wife Amy?
It’s a herculean question. Marriages wither and dissolve just as quickly as they begin; what’s so special about the Dunne’s? The evidence, centered on an overturned ottoman and the unlikelihood of this, takes on a vacillating stance as the story unfolds. What was once the story of a lucid woman and her insufferable husband goes helter-skelter in the second half: all that we know becomes questionable, untrustworthy, meretricious.
Can Fincher succeed with such material? A more obvious question can perhaps be could he fail with it? Panic Room, the 2002 thriller about a break-in gone awry, introduced three men with differing agendas that eventually pirouette against each other. The story remained the same; the only thing that changed was the plan. Se7en, his sophomore, is his most memorable with its giddy rookie cop in Brad Pitt and his virgin naivety towards the worst person of all. The transformation that takes place is beautifully horrific and is etched into the recesses of pop-culture for at least the next few generations.
Zodiac is most likely the best comparison to make. (The Game is probably also a very sensible homogenous example however it has been some years since I last saw it.) Possibly the best film he will ever make, it unfolds like a detective story with only the uncultivated mind of a cartoonist moving it forward. The writer at the centre of the story is removed in the second half – the pursuit of an impossible truth has rendered him immobile, a slave to the drink and the nothing in between. The pursuit becomes cureless as the years roll by, the question “Who is the Zodiac?” becoming more and more a preposterous question to ask. No one cares any more takes the shape of general feeling after decades have gone by. I’m paraphrasing. The Zodiac killer is an illusion, something to occupy a life spent ignoring one’s parental duties – Graysmith even has his children playing detective, three child interns to his obsession.
Graysmith follows this illusion to the very end. “I want to see his face and know that it is him.” He gets his wish by the end but it’s of little recourse: type at the film’s end informs us that the biggest suspect suffers a fatal heart attack before justice can take place. Three decades have passed by this point. Graysmith has reached his end: his book is finally written and published. We the audience have finally been rewarded with a probable suspect to hang our misgivings onto. But Fincher has been the most patient of us all. He has made a film that unfolds at the same pace as the police getting new information. We watch them brainstorm and suggest alternatives over late night repugnant coffee at Denny’s and it is absolutely fascinating.
Gone Girl seeks to behave in a similar world. Nick Dunne and his wife are both liars – it’s up to the media and the crowds and us to work out what the truth is before Fincher can reveal it to us. But even then, this is a story that functions within the crowd and its bubbling hubbub of public opinion. Regardless of the outcome we will still possess some manner of dislike, maybe hatred, towards one or the other. Or both. It will be focused on the why of the question and there won’t be a clear answer for it.
But creating redeemable characters is Fincher’s thing. Consider Burnham in Panic Room, a man taking part for his skill set, not for any criminal loyalties or mercenaries. He is the peacemaker in this story: when Meg cries out for someone to inject the insulin into her diabetic daughter who is in the throes of entering a coma, he is the one that does it. He is thrown into this situation by force – the other man is not only resolutely intemperate but his hand has also been crushed – but accepts it with due care. Burnham is there for his share of the prize but also wants everyone to leave unscathed, including the good guys. And so he comes back to save their lives and to be caught by the police, declining the final chance to run away from this situation without being caught.
Neither Nick nor his wife Amy are innocent parties. But if anyone can explain their story, it’s Fincher.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire