Given its conceptual brilliance, Gone Girl would have been difficult for any director to spoil. Yet no one was better suited to helm Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling novel than David Fincher. 

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Given its conceptual brilliance, Gone Girl would have been difficult for any director to spoil. Yet no one was better suited to helm the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling novel than David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network), whose singularly murky aesthetic is the ideal companion to this intelligent, breathtaking and darkly comical adaptation. As the marriage of these two visions, Gone Girl proves to be one of the year’s most captivating artistic statements.

But as confident as the film is, it’s also a delicate work. There won’t be any revelations to those already familiar with the novel, yet those who are unaccustomed to its dynamic plot developments will have much to pore over. The film’s tone and premise are unveiled in its brooding opening, with a cryptic voiceover from central character Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, Argo) as he strokes the hair of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike, The World’s End), and ponders the complexities of their marriage and the sinister, malicious thoughts that consume it.

Amy’s disappearance is thus revealed succinctly, directly and without any idea of circumstance, while the rest of the movie follows a trail of clues regarding her whereabouts. Most are divulged in Amy’s personal journal, narrated by Amy herself, which details the nature of the couple’s fractured relationship. Their backstory is portrayed through a series of flashbacks (largely through Amy’s lens), intertwined with present-day developments in a way that unwraps both the past and its context within the present. But Fincher is too astute a director and Flynn too cunning a writer to ever allow for a firm diagnosis from their audience, and Gone Girl utilizes the art of suspense in a way that has you less interested in solving its mystery than watching it be solved.

At two and a half hours, there’s plenty of room for events to unfurl, several of which are so shocking in nature that they will leave you aghast. There are so many layers, so much intricacy and complexity to the story, that every stitch needed to be sewn with a delicate and precise hand. Yet Flynn’s script is remarkably lean; every scene is purposeful in advancing its fast-developing plot forward, and it never feels overstuffed or a minute overlong.

While Fincher and Flynn are the film’s visionary architects, its often exceptional performances prove just as pivotal. Affleck plays under-the-gun as well as anybody, and his character teeters on sympathetic and detestable from scene to scene. Likewise, Neil Patrick Harris (A Million Ways to Die in the West), Tyler Perry (The Single Moms Club) and Carrie Coon (TV’s The Leftovers) display a surprising range and depth as vital supporting characters. But Pike’s performance is simply astounding, cementing her as the early awards season’s first shoe-in Oscar nominee. The complexity of her character demanded a mix of subtlety and mystique, and she reciprocated with one of the most jarring portrayals in recent memory.

Thanks to some frequent Fincher collaborators, Gone Girl’s moody, unsettling atmosphere comes to life through a beguiling, tone-setting mix of music and imagery. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and composer Atticus Ross’ soundtrack is at the forefront of much of the film, offering a menacing ambiance atop Fincher and Flynn’s suspense, and their score is coupled seamlessly with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s dim, foreboding photography. While these are less glamorous and often unheralded components to a moviegoing experience, they are nonetheless two of the driving forces behind Fincher’s reputation as one of the great auteurs in modern cinema — a reputation that will only be enhanced with Gone Girl.

Adapting a novel — especially one as beloved as Flynn’s — for the big screen is rarely an enviable task for a director. But as he had already proven with Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, few are as equipped to do so as Fincher. Gone Girl is expertly written and exquisitely conceptualized — both as a novel and film — and in less capable hands, it still would have been a remarkable achievement. But it’s Fincher who immerses us in this dynamic mystery with a cerebral and visual clarity that few — if any — possess, resulting in arguably the most enthralling cinematic statement of his still-burgeoning career.

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