Want a nailbiting, edge-of-your-seat thriller perfect for those crisp autumn nights? David Fincher is your man. From Se7en to Zodiac he has proved he can crank up the tension to almost unbearable levels, and he knows exactly how to treat Gillian Flynn’s potboiler book. When the flaws and cracks start to appear it’s more Flynn’s fault than Fincher’s – she adapted her own screenplay so has no-one else to blame when the plot starts to develop holes bigger than a sponge. It’s been portrayed as the struggle between men and women, but actually it’s more subtle than that, and hits its stride when it is a look at the American class system.
After a set of shots over the opening credit which would not look out of place in the Met – pure Edward Hopper, of crumbling shop fronts, silent high streets and boarded up houses, we meet Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck). On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary he leaves his comfortable, large house to visit the bar he owns in the high street, run by his twin sister Margo (Dunn). He begins to tell her about his marriage problems with wife Amy (Pike), who has been distant, evasive and bored.
He returns home to find the door open, a table smashed, a chair overturned and no sign of Amy. He calls the police, and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens, excellent) begins an investigation. She finds the iron has been left on, and a tiny splatter of blood in the kitchen, and begins to suspect Nick of his wife’s murder. Her officer Jim (Patrick Fugit) is convinced Nick did it, a view which only becomes stronger the more erratically Nick starts to behave. He poses for selfies, smiles at the camera in a press conference and mumbles for help instead of pleading for it. He is taken apart by idiotic TV show hosts, one of whom even implies he is having an improper relationship with his sister. He isn’t – but he hasn’t exactly been the perfect husband either.
He also starts to tell his story to sister Margo, about his relationship with Amy. Here is where the film really gets going – in flashback we see a portrait of a nice but ‘mediocre’ guy utterly dazzled by Amy, a New Yorker who has everything – taste, wit, charm and apparently money. They are blissfully happy until it all starts to get harder. Amy’s parents dig into her trust fund, they both lose their job, they have to give up the bohemian life and move to the country to be near Nick’s ill mother. Amy clearly hates it, while Nick is perfectly happy to be running his bar and hanging out with his old pals. He is also apparently running up lots of bills buying toys on the internet, and Amy is keeping it all recorded in her increasingly angry diary.
Weirdly Nick also claims Amy has no friends, doesn’t know what she does all day and doesn’t even know her blood type. Detective Dickens smells plenty of rats, and Nick’s apparently apathetic attitude is not helping him. Has he murdered his wife, has she disappeared, or has someone else murdered her? In one hilarious line his sister Margo, not a big Amy fan, says “If she has been kidnapped they’ll soon bring her back”. There are other suspects, two men from Amy’s past who she left, both of them still pretty angry about it.
The film then takes several twists it would be inappropriate to reveal, but as the mystery is revealed the tension leaks out of the piece like a birthday balloon. The plot has to be resolved but it does so in a way that increasingly stretches credibility, and those holes start to become ever more obvious. There’s one absolute humdinger of a coincidence, just when the plot looks to have hit a brick wall, and a few dead ends. It’s a shame because for an hour this really is cracking stuff.
It asks uncomfortable questions – should people from different classes and backgrounds get together? Is it all dependent on money? What happens when the privileged fall for someone outside of their comfort zone? At one point Amy and Nick become ‘the sort of couple we would punch in the face’, so smug are they, and the next minute they are having sex in a bookstore. She is even referred to as ‘Amazing Amy’, a popular children’s character based on her young life which made a lot of cash, all now, apparently, spent. Nick is charming and handsome, yes, but has little else to offer her.
There’s also the question of violence against women – suffice to say, here the tone is very much a hyper-realised thriller so the violence, while definitely disturbing, isn’t to be taken very seriously, and by the end there is a bloodbath worth of a dime-store novel.
Success in thrillers such as this depend a lot on performances, and here they are first-rate. Fincher has got his casting spot-on, Dickens and Fugit as the cops are dogged, unconvinced and terrific, Perry as the hot-shot lawyer specializing in hopeless cases great, and David Clennon and Lisa Baines as Amy’s less than impressed parents note-perfect. Then there are the two big guns.
Affleck plays it down pretty much as he did in Argo, letting the odd cloud pass over his face, and slowly learning how to look in front of the cameras. It’s a subtle performance, that grows stronger. Pike is slightly more problematic, in the first hour of the film she is seen in flashback and it’s a strangely wooden stuttering performance. However as the film unfolds she comes into her own, and when we reach bunny-boiler territory she is in full flow and clearly relishing every second. It’s a shame the film can’t quite keep up with her.
Overall verdict: A cracking thriller, thoroughly enjoyable with lots to admire. The episodic nature of the plot means it might have worked better as a four-part mini-series rather than a film, but there are enough great moments of tension to keep it going through its two and a half hours. If Fincher is the modern-day Hitchcock this is more M for Murder than Vertigo.
Reviewer: Mike Martin