Portrait of a Marriage: 'Gone Girl' Offers a Troubling Picture

David Fincher's film is a cold movie that offers a troubling picture of marriage in America today - an institution that has hit an impasse.

Gone Girl Directed by David Fincher; written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel; with Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry

The darkness that pervades the films of American director David Fincher made a particularly gruesome incursion into the family unit in his 1995 movie “Seven.” Almost two decades later, the same darkness now reenters the American home in “Gone Girl,” written by Gillian Flynn and based on her own best-seller. It’s hard to say anything about “Gone Girl,” because once you get past describing the initial situation, almost anything you add will count as a spoiler – even something as simple as discussing the plot structure of Fincher’s 149-minute film.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) left New York after they both lost their jobs as magazine writers. Plagued by money troubles, they moved back to Nick’s small Missouri hometown – which a few early shots suggest is also gripped by economic crisis – to care for his dying mother. Nick and his sharp-tongued twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), have opened a local bar, called “The Bar” – practically the only entity in their reality whose name accurately describes what it is. All the rest is far more murky.

Nick and Amy’s marriage has been on the rocks since they moved. Perhaps – and this we will have to figure out – it was never good. The movie begins one morning when Nick returns home to find his living room in disarray. The coffee table has been shattered, there are spatters of blood on the wall, and Amy has vanished. There have been some recent high-profile cases in America of wives disappearing, which obviously inspired Flynn; Nick, of course, immediately becomes the primary suspect.

Ben Affleck is the perfect choice for Nick; his all-American good looks have an oddly obtuse, uncommunicative quality. That is his main limitation as an actor, but in this movie it serves him well: We find it hard to believe he had anything to do with Amy’s disappearance – but did he? His face conveys little beyond confusion and blank goodwill. Suspicion against him only grows when he smiles at the press conference held by Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), psychologists who exploited their daughter’s persona when she was growing up, turning her into the heroine of the hit “Amazing Amy” series of children’s books.

The investigation into Amy’s disappearance is led by a witty, energetic police detective (Kim Dickens), the most endearing female cop we’ve seen on the screen since Frances McDormand in the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.” Finding himself in serious trouble, Nick hires a lawyer (Tyler Perry) who specializes in defending husbands like him. The story is interrupted by flashbacks to the early days of Nick and Amy’s relationship, as well as voice-over narration by Amy, reading from the diary that was discovered after her disappearance.

I will say nothing beyond that. Fincher, a director who has already demonstrated both his considerable skill and his grim worldview, does not offer much in the way of salvation in his pictures – including this one, directed with a virtuosity that borders on slickness. The movie works throughout, even when it verges (as Fincher’s previous movies also did) on the sensationalist and even trashy. Like all his pictures, this is a cold film, which might be described as a portrait of marriage in America today – a troubling portrait of an institution that has hit an impasse.

Since I cannot say more about the plot, I’ll add only that, like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” before it, “Gone Girl” has already generated a debate over the way men, women and their relationships are represented in popular culture. That is the movie’s most obvious level, and Fincher’s handling of it is efficient and disturbing without venturing beyond the boundaries of the popular discourse on the subject. David Fincher is an effective maker of popular movies, but because his efficiency comes hand in hand with intelligence, ability and even boldness, the result is a film experience one can respond to easily, with pleasure and interest.

“Gone Girl” is not a great picture or an important one, but it will become part of contemporary American film history, and as such, will continue to be discussed in the future.