These days it’s rare to find a novel that can truly surprise readers. We’re all too busy and too opinionated to be messed around by sneaky genre-bending narratives. Authors are encouraged to satisfy reader expectations and dance to the tune of stylistic conceits, in ‘literary’ works as much as in ‘commercial’ fiction. While Gone Girl sits firmly in the crime/psychological thriller category, the explosive success of the novel has much more to do with how well Gillian Flynn bends the rules than with how well she follows them.
The novel has far more reality than we usually expect from our crime fiction, and a bit too much character exploration for our ‘genre’ comfort-zones. Predictably, this means people either love it or hate it, and vehemently so, which is indicative of both the quality of writing and the intensely disturbing plot. One thing is guaranteed, though: the novel will surprise you.
Amy Dunne goes missing under suspicious circumstances on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and her husband Nick is caught in the headlights of the ensuing media frenzy. It unravels from there in alternate POV threads: the husband in present tense, and the wife’s diary entries leading up to the fateful day.
Surprise 1: Narrative
With twists coming in unexpected ways and at blindsiding intervals throughout the narrative, it’s very difficult to talk about the book without ruining it completely. Audiences love a good sting but this is one novel where you really will be guessing at the numerous red herrings (wondering if they even are red herrings) right up to each reveal, and sometimes beyond. And even if you do guess right, Flynn finds another way to slap you in the face.
Surprise 2: Characterisation
Flynn masterfully creates two distinct and intricate voices in Nick and Amy. Her painstakingly thorough character portraits feature some of the most insightful portrayals of human nature you can read. You find yourself squirming at the blatant honesty of these two flawed and complex people and you will think (more than once) they are repulsive; they are just like me. Add to that a well-pitched supporting cast, with some surprises of their own, and you realize you are dealing with an expert in emotional intelligence.
Surprise 3: Style
Overlaying all the narrative details and character complexity, Flynn weaves a beautiful and immensely readable style. She manages to circumvent all normal adjectival use by endlessly inventing new and brilliant ways to describe people, things, events and emotional reactions. Even though she kind of breaks Strunk & White’s Rule #17, you forgive her for the hyphenated adverbs because they are so darn clever.
One technical downfall that bears noting is that the structure seems a little out of balance. The first half of the book crescendos at a measured and excruciating pace and the following sections feel rushed in comparison. Pushing reader patience at 470 pages, Flynn could have paced with greater care.
Surprise 4: Themes
Binding all these elements together and making the novel truly uncomfortable to read is the stark interrogation of marriage and relationships in the 21st century, and therein lies the issue most people have with the story. Flynn has applied her twisted realism to the portrayal of all relationships in the book, but the interaction between Nick and Amy, with their fragile in-jokes, dangerous misunderstandings, and niggling frustrations, will make you question the tumultuous undertow of even the very best marriage. Highly disconcerting.
So, despite it’s brilliance I have to be honest and admit I didn’t actually enjoy reading the novel. It reads like witnessing a tragic disaster in slow motion, and if you’re angling for a nice generic who-dunnit, this is not your biscuit. The thematic surprises have pissed off more than one reviewer, proving that messing with our expectations is not always a popular angle. Though, considering the enormous hype borne of this controversy, one might be forgiven for suspecting that’s exactly what Flynn was going for. It doesn’t change the fact that I read the whole thing and would encourage you to do the same.
Apparently Gillian Flynn did what all Hollywood executives fear: demand to write her own screenplay. While many have lauded her screenwriting talent I suspect it’s largely on account of the brilliance of the story rather than the particular quality of the dialogue, detail, and pacing. Flynn did write the story and deserves to be commended for it, but I think a writing partnership would have drilled out those minor niggles that a lot of amateur movie reviewers are latching onto, such as the shortened-timeline issues (different in the book), perceived ‘holes’ in the narrative (there are none, they just aren’t well explained in the movie), and misrepresentation of certain character motives (again, more explicit in the book). She did well to pack all the relevant plot points into a two-hour movie, but those small inconsistencies were distracting and would have been ironed out by a fresh writing eye.
Nevertheless it is an impressive, entertaining, and affecting standalone movie. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) seems to specialise in mystery narratives with a twist. He was an ideal choice to direct a character-focused, deliberately paced thriller, and as expected his work is clever and visually beautiful. Under another hand the movie could well have been ruined through over-dramatisation or visual monotony. Yet his style can be distracting, as is the case with any unique director, and you find him at times being a little too clever for his own good.
Ben Affleck is slowly crawling back into public favour with his recent acting and directing credits and he is perfectly cast as Nick Dunne, more or less described (physically) as a guy whose face you’d want to punch (you could say Affleck was born for the role). While his coiled reserve was highly effective, I was disappointed he didn’t do more with the emotional fallout, particularly in the second half of the movie.
Rosamund Pike I’ve found generally underwhelming but she’s pleasantly surprising as Amy Dunne. Considering the other casting options (only Chastain could have brought the same wide-eyed distance) she was the obvious choice. Her portrayal is excellent, restrained and effective: just the right amount of everything. Can’t say more without spoilers.
The supporting roles were impressive, particularly Kim Dickens (Boney), Patrick Fugit (Gilpin) and Tyler Perry (Bolt). Sadly Amy’s parents were cast to emotional stereotypes, and Neil Patrick Harris, though perfect as Desi, could’ve tried harder. My one real bone was Margo. Many reviewers liked her but I don’t think she was the right fit. As I read the novel I kept picturing Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter as the confused but devoted sister. I suppose after her brilliant portrayal of Debra Morgan no other screen sister will impress me.
I won’t discuss the ending here but will explore the themes in the follow-up essay. I will say that people either love the movie for its clever plot or dislike it for the themes and implications. And both views are justified.
My final take on the movie, despite its obvious strengths and weaknesses, is that the director tried too hard to make it cool. It felt a bit like clever mumblecore with a plot. Literally there were moments when I couldn’t understand the dialogue because of the bad sound mastering, but jokes aside everything felt a little underdone. The performances were just a bit too unemotional; the editing just a bit too sharp and clever; the score just a little too smug and creepy. Ten years ago we reveled in the indie revolution of understated grit and moping characters, but for a movie like this it just feels contrived. Across the board, now, the subtlety for subtlety’s sake is getting tiresome.
It’s a brilliant story and worth a view, but not as perfect as all the hype would lead you to believe. The high scores it’s garnered are a result of the shock value of the plot, which is warranted, but after that wears off the movie loses a star or two under objective reflection.