- - Thursday, October 2, 2014

On the surface, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” smartly adapted from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn based on her best-selling novel, presents itself as a contemporary murder mystery: A beautiful young woman named Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. Her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) quickly becomes the prime suspect.

But the movie, a clever and near-perfect thriller, isn’t a murder mystery so much as a marriage mystery, and the question of what happened to Amy is in fact a question of what Amy and Nick have done with and to each other over the course of their relationship — the funny flirtations, the romantic evenings in New York, the seemingly perfect life, and its eventual decline in the midst of a recession, a move to the Midwest, and shared conflicts over parents and pocketbooks.

The story carefully and methodically traces and untangles each of these strands, the essential threads of family and finance and lifestyle decisions that bind all marriages, on its way to a shocking revelation, and eventually to an even more disturbing realization, about who Nick and Amy are, both to themselves and each other.

Like all mysteries, “Gone Girl” has its share of detectives and detecting, but the real story is not in the bloodstains or the broken tables. It’s in the battered emotional lives of its central couple, their shared and individual histories, and their complicated, ever-changing feelings for each other.

It’s a marital procedural, with Nick and Amy’s lives under microscopic investigation.

Directed with unnerving formal precision by David Fincher, the movie maintains a chilly emotional distance even as it digs through the details of the most intimate relationship two people can have.

Mr. Fincher, the man behind stylized ‘90s-era shockers like “Fight Club” and “Seven” as well as acclaimed recent films like “Zodiac,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network,” has mastered the thriller like no director since Alfred Hitchcock, and once again his choices are impeccable, as are those of his collaborators.

Mr. Fincher’s films often focus on physical objects, and here the catalog-perfect production design suggests the surface beauty and deeper emptiness of Nick and Amy’s lives.

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s sleek low-light photography, meanwhile, captures the gloomy, sunless dread of their slow marital descent.

The moody electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame is, like the lives of the movie’s protagonists, placid and deceptive.

Mr. Fincher is known primarily for his visual panache, but he often manages to coax intensely memorable turns from his actors as well.

Here, supporting cast members Tyler Perry as Nick Dunne’s high-profile lawyer, Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister, and Kim Dickens as the detective assigned to the case all turn in sly, subtle performances.

Ms. Pike, appearing in numerous flashbacks, does the best work of her career; slim and severe, she’s a porcelain ghost of a woman — beautiful and yet somehow unknowable.

But it’s Mr. Affleck, as the sullen oaf of a husband, who holds the movie together throughout much of its running time.

As an uninvolved jerk who is somehow just sympathetic enough, he’s perfectly cast: You come away from every scene thinking he might be in need of a good punch — but is he really a murderer?

The story’s whirlwind of plot points and revelations, doled out with masterful control by Ms. Flynn’s script, raise that question over and over again.

But in the end, the movie, with daring satirical wit, suggests that the true crime is what Nick and Amy did together in the years before she disappears.

The mystery of their marriage is in some sense the mystery all marriage: What really goes on between two people?

This brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed film provides a dark twist, and then another, but its real revelation, and its most chilling idea, is that no one ever really knows.

 

TITLE: “Gone Girl”

CREDITS: Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by Gillian Flynn

RATING: R for language, nudity, sexual situations, a scene of bloody violence

RUNNING TIME: 149 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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