“Gone Girl”: out of his sight and out of her mind
October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Gone Girl”, to this mind at least, offers up a half dozen or so truths, confirmations or suggestions, however one chooses to see them. Mostly, though, it offers up a film that one might be afraid to heap plaudits upon lest repeat viewings prove it to be less than it initially seemed. But, for the current moment, let’s agree that this is one hell of a studio picture.
The news that Gillian Flynn’s blockbusting literary thriller had been optioned by some Hollywood movie factory and was bouncing around pre-production purgatory was already well known when these eyes first fixed gaze upon those fast-turning pages. On completion of the book, it felt evident that the act of translating this pop semi masterpiece from one medium to another would be an unstably tall order if not one destined to end up someplace between disaster and travesty. Even the eventual knowledge that the novelist and screenwriter were one and the same did little to abate whatever degree of trepidation existed. The fact that David Fincher would be at the creative helm did not either. With the shame of the wrongly sceptical unbeliever, it must thus be grudgingly acknowledged that Flynn, in distilling her own prose into an evidently well-oiled screenplay that makes for a damn slick picture, has clearly been paired with a director whose approach could not be more simpatico with her rhythm and tone as a writer, or at least the rhythm and tone of this particular novel of hers, the one after which the film in question takes its name. With “Gone Girl”, David Fincher, who over the last two decades has gained – whether consciously on his part or not – a reputation for being the polar opposite of loose and sloppy, remains the technically consummate filmmaker of near Kubrickian fastidiousness that both his devotees and decriers love to love and love to begrudge. Right from the montage of shots that open the film, establishing its sociogeographic context as GFC-era (presumably) Midwestern USA, namely Missouri, there is already a sense that a shrewd creative intelligence is at work, both behind the camera and in a diegetic sense. Sure, the techno-grunge leaning that seems to come through in many of Fincher’s touchstone pictures, so aggressive yet so sleek, is not necessarily employed in this his most recent work. The overall hue of the visuals is fairly neutral as opposed to icy or acidic, and the manner in which the never flatfooted camera moves is functional, daresay modest. As for the shot compositions, they are relatively straightforward, crisp and seemingly free of anything even nearing excessive subtext or visual thematics. All in all, there is something calculatedly, stylishly everyday about the way Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth choose to visualise the morbid soul of suburbia and heteronormative small town America, and with this choice the director proves – if he hasn’t already – that he is as beholden to his material as he is to his craft. More crucially though, had he not done so prior to this point – particularly with his perhaps over-lauded “The Social Network” – Fincher’s expository efficiency highlights the possibility that he may in fact be Hollywood’s prime teller of motion picture stories, despite his being known for style and atmospherics. Even with regards to the aforementioned 2010 Sorkin-scripted picture, the sense of it being a touch slight, of it being too much of a psychologically reductive summary, is inseparably tied to the unprecedented narrative precision for which it was understandably [over]praised. While other studio-based filmmakers may be unmatched in their iconoclasm or psycho-emotional power, Fincher may be the only of his industry contemporaries capable of adapting Gillian Flynn’s novel to the screen while retaining and placing front and centre the narrative puppetry responsible for the source material’s very potency. Money could be bet and won on the assertion that a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, Tarantino or the Coens would have fashioned a film with a personal vision stronger than that displayed in Fincher’s version, but the art in ‘Gone Girl’ is in its ability to manipulate the machinery of plot and story, and while Quentin and the Coens are themselves masters of fucking with time and audience expectations, their noticeable idiosyncrasies would have muddied the waters to detrimental effect in a way that Fincher’s invested but dispassionate approach does not. This leads to the next fact/confirmation. This film’s employment of voice-over debunks – as do some many films throughout cinema’s thus far short history – the rote declarations of followers of Syd Field and other self-proclaimed screenwriting aficionados who state that the technique is the refuge of the lazy wordsmith, lazy like Wilder at his best, Kaufmann, Kubrick, Godard, Malick, Truffaut, Schrader…and many other lazy, lazy idlers. What makes “Gone Girl” noteworthy is not just the persistent appearance of voice-over but the boldly matter-of-fact presence of Amy Dunne’s questionable stories and insinuations. So strong is Amy’s presence as an unreliable narrator in the novel that something would have been lost – perhaps everything – if Flynn did not retain this particular device in her screenplay in some shape or form, voice-over being her choice, and had it not been so effectively married to the visuals in the editing suite. It might not be chillingly earnest like Travis Bickle’s similar diary narration in “Taxi Driver” or bear the novelty of being from beyond the grave and thus fittingly, fatalistically omniscient like Joe Gillis’ narration in “Sunset Boulevard”, but if there is a screw loose in Fincher’s hyper-efficient picture, it’s not this. One sequence in particular displays the pure artistic balls the “Gone Girl” camp possesses. It is a prolonged stretch of pure exposition so exhilarating in its construction that it may very well wind the viewer simply because of its sheer commitment to filmmaking that may be considered counterintuitive and against ‘better judgement’. The sequence’s effectiveness is almost due precisely to the fact that it openly defies a film culture which stresses the avoidance of plainly provided narrative information, not only quite possibly committing a cinematic crime, but quite possibly getting away with it so deftly that one cannot help but be impressed. That being said, said sequence bears close similarities to others found in earlier Fincher efforts, namely “Fight Club”, so it seems that the director is simply putting to effective use one of his personal trade tricks.
Then there is Ben Affleck whose being cast as Nick Dunne is a bit – to quote Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney – ‘meta’ and whose performance is emblematic of a key element of the film’s success. Firstly, Affleck’s casting feels a touch knowing, if one considers his public persona as compared to buddy and co-Oscar-winner Matt Damon who, with his polite, socially responsible demeanour and his self-deprecating turns on shows like “Entourage” and “30 Rock” is kind of the widely-loved ‘good guy’ that Nick Dunne (and Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne) struggles to be and would benefit from being. Similarly, Affleck as a public figure has never quite seemed to receive the courteously warm reception that Damon seems to enjoy, which is not to say that he (Affleck) strikes people initially as a ‘douchebag’ in the way that Bradley Cooper might, but that it is only as a respected director that Ben Affleck’s star has risen again somewhat, though as an actor he still doesn’t inspire much of a wave of goodwill and presumptuous affection. Maybe there’s an element of glibness about him; almost as though he doesn’t do quite enough to earn his A-list status, which isn’t true. Whatever the reason, news of his casting in this film certainly failed to excite yours truly, yours truly must admit. However, the prudently loose-limbed performance that Affleck brings to the screen in “Gone Girl” counteracts and in doing so complements director Fincher’s coolly disciplined mise-en-scene, dispelling the whiff of anti-charisma that may have unfairly hung about the actor and mirroring the way in which his character in this film reinvents himself, or at least his public persona, to some extent. It’s not a bravura piece of acting necessarily, but the everyman ‘humanity’ (read: underwhelming ordinariness and resultant sense of disappointment) he manages to inject into so tight a narrative machine which in turn helps make this silver screen iteration both thrilling and affecting must be credited to him as well as his co-stars, particularly Carrie Coon whose role as Margo Dunne – though not as involved in the movie as in the book – is quite frankly vital, and Dickens as Boney, whose integrity and clearly strong values are only just kept in check by studied professionalism, not to mention Tyler Perry’s spot-on portrayal of (fictional) celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt. Which brings us to Rosamund Pike and the most thought-provoking quandary that bubbles to the mind’s surface once the credits have rolled on “Gone Girl.”
Rosamund Pike’s turn as Amy Dunne may be considered – on the one hand – perfect, or it may be appraised as being terribly misguided on the parts of the actor and her director. The difficulty in determining which is the more accurate assessment is probably due to the fact that both iterations of “Gone Girl” may be viewed – perhaps even simultaneously – as (a) a work of realism narrated by a fanciful and quite possibly psychotic individual (psychotic in the clinical sense, not the generally misunderstood sense), (b) a satirical social commentary of sorts – or at the very least a dark comedy – whose outright garishness and absurdity ratchets upwards as the narrative progresses, with melodramatic intent, or (c) a largely literary exercise in which the medium becomes aware of itself i.e. the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, the two married writers, morphing into or revealing itself to be a story about writing, narrative and character. From the first moment Rosamund Pike appears on-screen as Amy Dunne, she has a calculated look about her, something self-consciously performative in the way that she carries herself. This sense is not eased by the very knowing voice-over narration Amy provides, which seems to carry through diegetically as she interacts with Nick and the people around her, the manner of her speech that is, not the voice-over. David Fincher’s pictures admittedly tend not to contain deeply naturalistic, mumbly performances. Rather, there always seems to be just a hint of theatricality, almost as if to remind viewers that they are not partaking of a slice of reality but a slice of a cinematic interpretation of reality. So, while the acting in “Gone Girl” is very much director appropriate, Pike’s is slightly more heightened; her speech and behaviour slightly more mannered. It could be that Amy as a person is simply like this. She is the daughter of two writers who created a series of children’s books about an exceptional, multi-talented girl called Amy whose real-life counterpart could not help but compete with, or at least try to. It’s not too difficult to imagine how this would mindfuck any child into personality disorder territory, and there is a strong implication that Amy at some point ceased seeing herself as anything other than a character and her life a narrative. Now, whether this would twist someone to the point that they, after years of matrimonial disappointment (to put it lightly), would conspire to do what Amy ultimately does is hard to know for sure. But considering that the human brain is itself a largely misunderstood, twisted mass of neuronal jelly, it probably is capable of anything as long as anything adheres to the laws of physics; so in this sense Amy Dunne’s actions are not wholly implausible. The thing about Rosamund Pike’s performance is this: was portraying Amy as an icy, outwardly crafty braniac uptown mannequin who is supremely aware of her actions a superior creative choice to – say – playing Amy as a victim of her own psychological hang-ups, which is to say on a plane of realism more in-keeping with most of the other characters in the film? Well, the more one thinks about the overall feel of the film, where it begins and where it ends up, Pike as Amy Dunne is the one consistent element, the one thing that would work to convince audiences that the insanity which eventuates is not out of the blue; she is the foreshadowing of darkness at the film’s outset and the promise of darkness to come as the movie closes out with a shot of her ‘crazy’, rested head.
But before the word ‘crazy’ is bandied about any further in reference to the character of Amy, perhaps the wrath she feels towards Nick is somewhat justified. Well, maybe not the way it manifests but the feeling in itself. The rage that is evident in both the novel and the film is one that seems to be directed at complacency; the complacency of a culture in which it is perfectly fine to douse oneself in cologne and fine-tune one’s storytelling skills prior to a hot date while it is equally acceptable to smell like sweat while lazing about at home after having convinced aforementioned hot date that you’re…extraordinary. It seems as though Gillian Flynn, in writing the novel and scripting the film, has found a way to explore how important or at least how pervasive narrative and character are in ‘everyday’ life and especially in relationships; how even the dullest marital union is a creation of sorts and how, as a result, it is everybody’s responsibility to maintain the image, to keep the plot rolling along and prevent the storyline from stagnating. Maybe it’s a total coincidence on Flynn’s part that Amy and Nick are both writers, and that their initial meeting and flirtation involves them flexing their wit, assessing each other’s smarts and revelling in their presumed perceptive abilities, but what better way to dramatise the narrative of a relationship that to have both parties be writers, and laid off ones at that? If Amy’s diary entries are to be trusted in the slightest, one would have to admit that the trajectory of their courtship and eventual engagement is very written; the kind of story many people would love to script for themselves, complete with a cloud of frosting sugar in a dark alleyway as the setting for the classic first kiss. If Amy’s memory of this event, and their romance in general, were to be confirmed by an objective, omniscient entity, it would have to be said that both Nick and Amy were very aware of the story of their romance. To side with Amy, if Nick has it in him to dazzle her, why is it that when they pack their bags and move to Missouri he goes from being “Tender is the Night” to TV guide, especially considering how much of an effort she apparently makes to remain ‘literary?’ It’s enough to make anyone do what Amy ends up doing, right? The point in saying this is that David Fincher, on the basis of the film he has directed, on account of his opting to have Amy reach into the audience and attempt to wrench clumps of sympathy from viewers hearts by way of her very direct narration and her knowing presence, may very well be siding with Amy, not that he has anything against Ben/Nick, but that Amy’s grand plot, deranged as it may be, has more than a lick of honesty about it. Plus, Fincher has long been known to entertain the plights of the sick and the perverted (the media machine included, though an analysis of “Gone Girl”s take on the politics of press and public image should be sought elsewhere), like a psychiatrist who is comfortable delving deep into dangerously complex minds because they have the thick, safe rope of professionalism and clinical judgement tied tightly around their waist. They have their medicine; Fincher has his cinema.
Brief impression: “Force Majeure”
November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s just a ‘simple’, straightforward rear tracking shot of a seemingly archetypal upper-middle class Western European family – mother, father, daughter, son – skiing steadily down an iridescent, perfectly manicured white slope at the Les Arcs ski resort in the Alps, but it’s a moment of magic, visual, technical, thematic…all of it. One by one, the four Swedish holidayers cruise into frame in gentle swoops and dips until they, as a group, have established themselves as the focus of interest, which can’t be that hard in so bland – though prettily so – an environment. As if floating on the arm of a Steadicam attached to an operator firmly strapped to a snowmobile with the most exquisite suspension system, the camera then calmly follows them for what seems like several minutes of tracking perfection: not a jiggle, not a blur. At first there may be the slight anticipation of something dramatic happening to disrupt this very sedate picture, but it becomes clear that this won’t be the case and the eyes are suddenly drawn to the way in which the skiers weave in and out of each other’s paths, at times threatening to drift apart but always remaining comfortably in reach. There’s something hypnotic, something reassuringly monotonous about the whole thing, and one can only assume that this sense is shared by the people on screen. But at the same time there is something oppressive about the way Ebba, Tomas, Vera and Harry seem to orbit each other, or maybe disrupt each other’s trajectories, as though their adherence to a certain cultural concept of what a functional family unit looks and feels like ultimately limits each member’s individual potential. They’re like electrons circling some unseen nucleus, moving according to their own intrinsic energies but unable to escape altogether, the result being an internally discordant but externally cohesive whole. In fact, only a few minutes of film time prior to this scene, the classic foursome is being coached by a resort photographer on how to appear happily familial and natural about it. Needless to say, the results are awkward, which only works to inform the dynamic that will be suggested in the tracking shot to come.
In a wonderfully astute interview of writer-director Ruben Ӧstlund by Film Comment magazine’s Violet Lucca, the Swedish filmmaker makes mention of the mid-twentieth-century concept of the ‘nuclear family’ and how it may have been – may still be – a sad evolutionary step in Western humankind’s move towards a more individualised (narcissistic?) approach to living, and with this particular shot it’s as though director of cinematography Fredrik Wenzel has enabled Ӧstlund to craft a pretty direct visual pun with regards to the ‘nuclear family’, one which smartly and succinctly forestalls what may very well be the core concern of “Force Majeure.” But it’s the film’s showstopper scene – the one which sets the dramatic ball rolling and the one everybody simply can’t not talk about – that highlights the fact that this movie is interested in exploring the inherently unstable human tendency to try to find a harmonious sweetspot where the primal and the aspirational can meet, or at least collide under controlled conditions.
Ebba, Tomas and their two prepubescent children are on a five-day skiing trip which – Ebba explains to a fellow holidaying Swede that she meets on day one – is a rare opportunity for busy breadwinner Tomas to focus his full attention on the family for whom he apparently works his ass off to win bread. The interesting thing about this particular ski resort is that ‘controlled’ avalanches are a regular part of maintaining the generous snow cover that makes for a comfortable, gentrified skiing experience – as well as doubling as some sort of sideshow spectacle. So while lunching outside, one of these ‘controlled’ avalanches occurs and the diners and onlookers all turn to watch or raise whatever video-capable device they own, Tomas included. Something then occurs which anyone who has seen Julia Loktev’s marvellous “The Loneliest Planet” might be able to guess. The beauty of this scene – apart from its purposefully spare composition and thrillingly detached execution, proof that restless filmmaking is not the only way to preserve and present the visceral power of a moment – is that it is a near literal face-off between two examples of mankind’s desire to somehow exercise a degree of dominion over forces of nature that often prove to be more difficult to subjugate or manage than expected: instincts of self-preservation, maternal drive, the basic physics of a tumbling mass of snow, and fear, amongst others. It’s the perfect point from which to launch into what is a fairly on-point examination of a particular type of western lifestyle (heteronormative but gender-progressive, monogamous, nuclear) and how the social structure supporting this mode of living is almost a kind of containment chamber which keeps certain elemental but undesirable human tendencies in check, albeit tenuously. In a way, “Force Majeure” has a certain kinship with a novel-film duo like Lionel Shriver/Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin” which dares to skewer, or at the very least question, the generally held expectation that all mothers embrace motherhood without there being any room for feelings of resentment, self-loss and frustration. Likewise, “Force Majeure” takes to task the expectations placed upon certain roles within a tightknit social structure and, in doing so, insidiously disassembles the illusions upon which a very pervasive mode of western living seems to be founded. Are Tomas’s actions during the avalanche unnatural or are they just undesirable within the social construct of which he has chosen to be a part? When Ebba is chatting up an acquaintance in the hotel restaurant only to learn of this acquaintance’s open marriage and consequently killer sex life, does her indignation stem from a sincere belief that marriage should be strictly monogamous, or is she desperate to defend the conventional marital approach that she has (presumably) adhered to in spite of her actual attraction to and desire for the alternative that this lady has offered up? It’s interesting to note that the tension between Tomas and Ebba only truly escalates as a result of his denial of his actions/lack thereof. Does this imply that somewhere, deep down within her, Ebba believes that her husband is simply a ‘normal selfish white alpha male’, and that she is okay with this? Or does Tomas’s shocking behaviour simply concur with her already held impression of him lacking dedication to his family? Perhaps this shattering of Tomas’s image enables Ebba to momentarily acknowledge (in her own mind) that she may in fact be tired of him sexually/emotionally, and that she craves some kind of respite even if in the shape of a Brady Corbet toy boy, which she will of course never permit herself to enjoy. Either way, it’s only after Tomas’s sadly humorous catharsis on the hotel room floor that he and Ebba decide to resuscitate the marital image that they came so close to losing. As is the case in “Gone Girl” in which Mr and Mrs Dunne – after Amy Dunne’s Machiavellian viciousness is made evident to Nick and Nick Dunne concedes his douchebaggery to Amy – conspire to continue their toxic marriage in the interest of who knows what (image? Security?!), in “Force Majeure” it’s only after Ebba bears witness to the true wretched confusion residing within her husband’s soul that she can presumably forgive him and allows him to reprise his role as Protector and Provider, the role he has to-date so poorly played, if only for the sake of their children and their enormous superegos.
With his 2011 film “Play” and this 2014 follow-up, Ruben Ӧstlund seems to be working his way towards a place amongst a select group of filmmakers who in one way or another utilise cinema as some sort of hypothetical social laboratory or model, constructing situations with specific stresses and specific parameters and then tossing in a bunch of human characters in order to observe how they behave. Accordingly, the director takes a steadily observational approach that favours longer takes, fewer cuts, spare camera moves and dialogue that oscillates between the incisive and the evasive. One filmmaker that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of cinematic social experiments is Luis Bunuel (“The Exterminating Angel”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ”) with Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos and maybe even Lars von Trier being more contemporary examples. This assertion, as much as it is a way of praising Ӧstlund’s directorial chops and his socially relevant approach to cinema, also brings with it the burden of disapproving audiences who are wont to decry any film that they consider cruel to its characters, mean-spirited or unsettlingly distanced. The image of a misanthropic creative intelligence needlessly and gleefully ‘torturing’ fictional humans, which has often been attached to both Haneke and von Trier (though certainly not Leigh), may not haunt Ӧstlund just yet, at least not on the basis of his filmography to date. While “Force Majeure” is all too aware of the painful hilarity of its proceedings (as evidenced – for example – by the belly-tickling use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer”, a piece which would be instantly recognisable to fans of HBO’s Larry David vehicle “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and while it indulges in this very comedy for both its entertainment value as well as for its social commentary potential, it never does so inconsequentially and certainly not haphazardly. It’s all very…controlled. But if, for whatever reason, Ruben Ӧstlund’s directorial career does not take flight and soar in the way that a work as consummate as “Force Majeure” would suggest, he should consider finding work at an alpine ski resort like Les Arcs, sending snow a-tumbling down mountainsides with perfectly-timed explosions in order to terrify, thrill, and occasionally tip a nice, well-off, heteronormative family into a necessary state of crisis, the crisis that they simply need to have.