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Twisty 'Gone Girl' preys on audience sympathies

Screw-turning thriller shows director David Fincher to be a worthy heir to Hitchcock

As a famous cinematic perfectionist, Fight Club and Zodiac filmmaker David Fincher would probably disagree with the old adage that casting is 90 percent of directing. Ironically, Fincher's choice of Ben Affleck as the lead in the screw-turning thriller Gone Girl goes a long way to confirm the saying.

As suspicious husband Nick Dunne, Affleck is so right for the role that he risks overshadowing the rest of the story. You can almost watch Gone Girl as a referendum on Affleck and miss its ingenuity as a domestic suspense story and sharp commentary on modern media.

An early title announces "July 5th — The Day Of" and Nick, an unhappy husband on his fifth wedding anniversary, soon discovers that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has gone missing under ominous circumstances. Their Middle-American McMansion is a crime scene, and Nick has no alibi for his whereabouts. Worse, Amy's annual treasure hunt, an anniversary tradition, leads to increasingly damning circumstantial evidence that Nick was responsible for her disappearance.

The film crosscuts between the missing person investigation and entries from Amy's diary that trace the history of their relationship. We see them meet as a cute pair of New York magazine writers: "I'm so crazy stupid happy!" Amy enthuses in voice-over. We discover that the character's parents used her as the model for a beloved children's book character called "Amazing Amy," with whom grown Amy feels a form of sibling rivalry.

The Great Recession and parental illness force them to trade romantic New York for dreary, small-town Missouri. Adapting her own bestselling novel, screenwriter Gillian Flynn shows merciless insights into marital pressures and resentments, particularly when one spouse fails to live up to the other's expectations. Pike's performance makes Amy an enigma, with remote, porcelain-skinned beauty that conceals as much as it gives away.

As days pass, the case draws national media attention, and Nick not only must contend with a dogged police detective (Kim Dickens), he finds himself tried in the court of public opinion. The chief prosecutor is a hilariously indignant Nancy Grace-like TV host (Missi Pyle). Nick hires a too-slick celebrity defense attorney (Tyler Perry in his best performance wearing men's clothes, by far), and must not only find his wife but also change public's perception — particularly that of the women.

Plot points hinge on Nick's likability (or lack thereof), and Amy even tells him after they meet, "Your chin — it's quite villainous." When Nick bemoans the fact that he's in the spotlight, with strangers projecting ideas on him, you can't help but reflect on the shifts in Affleck's fame, from its Gigli lows to its Argo highs. When Nick's hounded by paparazzi and angry bystanders, you expect to hear someone shout, "You can't be Batman!"

Whether he's weak at playing sincerity or great at playing insincerity, Affleck's performance makes an ideal central figure for Gone Girl's agenda of shifting the viewer's allegiances. Audience sympathies take so many 180-degree turns that you scarcely know which way to face. Fincher's controlled style and paranoia-related themes follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, and Gone Girl offers ingenious variations on a "wrong man" scenario. Fincher brings a combination of detachment and attentiveness that can highlight a subtle joke just as easily as a revealing detail.

At times, Flynn's screenplay suggests that she's new to the form, as characters are too direct in stating their names and relationships, as if they're reciting dialogue rather than having natural conversations. The film's final revelations could put Gone Girl on the wrong side of a current conversation about feminism and misogyny in media, but it helps that Flynn wrote the source material, which has such strong supporting characters as Dickens' Detective Boney and Nick's protective twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon).

Only a cad would spoil the secrets of Gone Girl, the kind of film that gives twists a good name. Fincher and Flynn rely not on gimmicks but on revelations that complicate the characters and their relationships. Viewers should try to see it with an unspoiled, attentive audience, because those reactions will be priceless, no matter how viewers feel about Ben Affleck.

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