Review: Gone Girl (2014)

Director: David Fincher

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Upon its initial release, Gillian Flynn’s crime novel Gone Girl guaranteed discussion. Is it a piece of nonsensical pulp, or a cutting satire of many a sacred cow? Is it misogynistic or empowering? Is protagonist Nick Dunne an idiot or a scapegoat? Or an antagonist? Whatever the stance, it’s a marketer’s wet dream. The film will not provide answers. If nothing else, David Fincher’s film of Flynn’s adaptation of the novel (At which point does the author give way to the auteur? Layers upon layers, like marriage itself.) is the best advertisement for pre-nuptial agreements since Anna-Nicole Smith said ‘I do’.

As Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, all soft-in-the-middle American charm) reflects on his five years of marriage, so David Fincher reflects on his filmography to date. He’s a distinctive director, but Gone Girl may be his biggest reach for auteur status yet. He’s adapting another public transport stalwart after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, one that combines the twists of The Game with the breakneck pacing of Fight Club and the monied, elegant aesthetic of The Social Network. Still, we’re not navel-gazing here. Fincher’s dealing with some spiky material, and the resulting film is shorn of respite or pity, either for its characters or its audience. Much like the central figure of Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike), Gone Girl is a dangerous, enigmatic tease.

If there is a reason that Gone Girl doesn’t reach the heights of Se7en or Zodiac, it’s that the film is much like the life Nick and Amy appear to have built for themselves; it’s just a little too polished, at least at the start. Smart, wealthy trust-funded New Yorkers relocate to leafy Missouri? It’s all too perfect.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears from their home after an apparent struggle? It’s all too perfect.

After initial investigations, all police and media attention begins to turn on quiet academic Nick? It’s beyond perfect.

The marriage looks less like a genuine union than a series of picture postcards, like those people you see in picture frames in shops, grinning as if their lives depended on it. On the surface, Fincher’s film boasts a similar artifice. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography is a less sepia-tinged varietal of his work on The Social Network. Flynn’s dialogue is ripe with sarcasm and delicious bon-mots. There’s an elegant superficiality to proceedings that belies something much more sinister underneath. Nothing new here; Soderbergh gave us a similarly handsome potboiler with last year’s Side Effects. What makes Gone Girl stand out is the bitterness and bite at the heart of it all. Media, manipulation, marriage: all are under Fincher’s dissecting gaze.

The first act narrative flips back and forth between the days after Amy’s disappearance and the courtship & early days of her and Nick’s marriage. Initial cutesy flirtations are drowned out by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, which coolly recalls Howard Shore’s works for Cronenberg and Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks. Right from the start, mystery surrounds them like the sugar dust that surrounds the pair to frame their first kiss. It scarcely matters what they say, because as Gone Girl goes on, the less and less we feel we can trust anything the pair say, least of all to each other.

Then again, how can Amy have any say when she’s disappeared? As hotshot defence lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry, smooth) informs Nick, the police have no hope of a conviction without a body. She’s gone, but is she dead? Either way, Rosamund Pike brings her to life. Initially alluring, Amy proves an enigma wrapped in velour wrapped in a brittle shield of self-importance. A talented writer and successful New York columnist (before financial pressures and family illness forced her and Nick back to Nick’s home town), Amy turns her skills to beautifully verbose diary entries. Pike has the beauty and wit of a girl-next-door, but also the intellectual poise and coolness to keep the other characters and the audience guessing. She doesn’t seem to hate her husband so much as the whole world; she harbours resentment of her parents for the series of children’s books based on her life. Saying she has chemistry with Affleck is moot; after all, this is doomed to end badly. Rather, let us say they make able sparring partners, with Affleck switching nimbly between collected and exasperated as the evidence against him mounts.

Flynn’s novel could be accused of being simple pulpy noir, and the film has its fair share of salty dialogue and bloodshed. However, there are many critical potshots taken in the book that the film is keen to uphold. There’s a certain class element and an urban-rural divide at work that feeds into the paranoia of the piece. Two New York writers breezing into rural Missouri are doomed to stick out (Her parents, a pair of boo-hiss stuck-ups, are even more conspicuous). Even local boy Nick seems a world away from his twin sister Margo, who comes to be his most loyal supporter as the case builds. As Margo, The Leftovers actress Carrie Coon delivers the best performance. Warm and earthy, she takes no prisoners. It’s a tricky role when she’s one of the few characters who isn’t constantly lying. One of the joys of this script is the fact that it has no room for red herrings; every side character and moment feels important. As Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) sort through the evidence, characters like Amy’s ex Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) or Nick’s student Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) appear early on, only to bring down the house of cards when they resurface later. Trust no-one.

Throughout Gone Girl, the only presence more keenly felt than Amy’s is that of the media. Reporters of all methods and makes (Sela Ward’s professional precision, Missy Pyle’s shrieking tabloid) burst in, cameras flashing. The media’s role in Gone Girl flits between judge, jury and salvation. As a former J-Lo accessory, Affleck knows what it’s like to feel intimidated by every press call and clamour. His casting is but one sly stroke in what may be Fincher’s funniest film. Whether it’s the sharp wits on display or the oft-preposterousness of the plot machinations, Gone Girl is rife with black humour. It’s needed when the plot continues to wrong-foot the viewer up to the final reel, with an ending of such simultaneous possibility and hopelessness that it will doubtlessly leave some people exasperated. Flynn has altered her ending, albeit not to an extent that her fans will feel alienated. Thanks to David Fincher, Gone Girl will provoke reactions of all shades all over again.

Review: Maps To The Stars (2014)

Director: David Cronenberg

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

It seems to be a rite of passage for every major filmmaker to cast their eye back on the industry that birthed them/spat them out. Hollywood is a venal and vain town; even in its more laid-back and hearty depictions (think of TV’s Entourage), it’s laddish and emotionally limp. As you can probably guess, this writer has never been. After David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, a visit seems less likely, at least not before someone’s gone to town on the place with a damp cloth and disinfectant.

Even when dealing with something as rote as the industry within which he works, Cronenberg has to play the outsider. Indeed, Maps To The Stars is the first film he’s shot in the United States (and even then, it was only for five days of the 29-day shoot). The Canadian auteur brings his trademark style to Tinseltown; like so much of his oeuvre, Maps To The Stars is clinical, odd and a little gooey. The script must have appealed to Cronenberg; it’s filled with physically and mentally scarred oddballs obsessed with the unobtainable. It’s nothing new to the director of The Fly and Dead Ringers but, as evidenced in his verbose-but-dry adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s in full-on satirical mode after the relatively straight-laced likes of Eastern Promises. Granted, he’s always got something to say, but his new plunge into the dark heart of Hollywood must be his most biting piece of commentary since Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

It’s typical Cronenberg: the withering old flesh giving way to the new. Washed-up actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is lobbying for the lead role in a remake of the film that made her mother Clarice famous. Meanwhile, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is aiming to get back to tween stardom following a stint in rehab. Between Moore channeling the breakdown of fellow redhead LiLo and Benjie nodding to Drew Barrymore, Maps To The Stars sounds like it’s taking some easy potshots. Hollywood’s a big target, but Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner put a darker twist on things via the arrival in Tinseltown of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Scarred after a fire, this awkward mite gets a job as Havana’s assistant via their mutual friend Carrie Fisher. Playing herself, Fisher is the only big name cameo in the film. The Player’s game of celebrity bingo may have given it a certain gravitas and comforting cushion, but Maps To The Stars isn’t interested in molly-coddling. The sunshiny sterility of the design and cinematography give the film a coldness that can’t be offset by endorsements or familiarity, which in turn feeds into the script’s screwed-up screw turns.

As is the way of such blow-ins, Agatha comes with secrets. Being hired by Havana brings her back into the orbit of her estranged family, led by her father (and Havana’s therapist-cum-masseur) Stafford (John Cusack). Agatha’s ultimate aim is to get back to little brother Benjie, with whom she has a quasi-incestuous infatuation. Here we arrive at the crux of Maps To The Stars’ message. It’s not enough to say Hollywood is shallow, or even soulless. It’s deviant and perverted, with everyone wearing Freudian slip-ons and choking on Xanax. Havana is haunted by the ghost of the late Clarice (Sarah Gadon) to the point her sexual encounters turn into Ghost, sponsored by relapse. Of course, when she’s pinning a comeback on playing her mother’s role, she’ll never allow herself an escape from this spectre. (At one point, Havana says “I wanna be free, Clarice.” All us Hannibal survivors will grimace through a smile.) Meanwhile, Agatha drifts into Havana’s life, which springboards into the life of Agatha’s estranged clan (Cusack, Bird and the icily effective Olivia Williams as Momma Stafford). This gloved spectre is initially driven about by Robert Pattinson’s chauffeur, proving less wooden in the front seat than when reclining in the back of his limo in Cosmopolis.

Early on, we see that the houseAgatha grew up in stood literally in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Cronenberg signposts his themes like a stealth bomber taking aim, with the walking piece of collateral damage that is Agatha coming back to highlight sins and taunt the sinners. Wasikowska has played awkward naifs before, but she’s adept enough to turn that role into something more threatening and unhinged. Cusack’s slimily reassuring, but the star turns here are the movie stars. Havana’s dark, medicated eyes could smile or weep at any turn, with Moore keeping us on our toes with a fragile turn that rarely needs to turn shrill. The Cannes prizewinner forgoes vanity, a clear Cronenberg prerequisite. Meanwhile, Bird grabs the chance to play a little shit with both hands, not least because the script allows him some depth as time goes by. Like Moore, delusion segues to malaise as the wheels turn and the effects of Agatha’s arrival begin to take hold.

With Maps To The Stars, Cronenberg isn’t necessarily saying anything new (and what it does say comes with occasionally choppy CGI). However, the old lessons of incestuous carelessness and vanity are taken towards their  limits, as only Cronenberg could. You’d have to go all the way back to Mommie Dearest to find a similarly screwed-up take on Tinseltown’s family ties, but at least Maps To The Stars is memorable for all the right reasons.