David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s popular novel feels like Jim Thompson trance-channeled from his dark thriller grave. Thompson, who wrote still-underrated hardboiled masterpieces like The Grifters and The Getaway, lovingly created immoral little worlds peopled with self-serving monsters that could pass as useful members of society. When you reach the end of his self-constricting books, you realize that society itself is corrupted and the little world has become a tiny hell. Ditto here in Flynn-land. In other words, this is a movie that stanches the milk of human kindness.
But it sure is fun. Fincher makes a sprawling downward spiral seem compellingly watchable. In it, Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a laid-off writer who returns home on his fifth anniversary to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing under strange circumstances. Thrown into a spotlight of suspicion, Nick’s apparent unease is contrasted with courtship backstory and strange interludes of Amy reading from a diary. Then things get interesting.
The star of the show is Pike, long overdue for a film of her own. It’s her kabuki-mask face that makes her so watchable, though we see her in every kind of distress and joy, including a sleazy subplot in an anonymous motel that’s pure Thompson. Affleck is stolid; you could hang any kind of movie on him at this point. But Fincher’s triumph is setting his story with an almost surreal perfection. It isn’t flashy style like the Coen brothers, but it glows like a dream. It’s a mistake to call this noir; this is a perverse comedy.
There are lots of smug jokes about television news media, calling up Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, but Flynn worked for Entertainment Weekly, and that might be the source of the biting satire. The thrills certainly derive from her book. In his lifetime, Thompson wrote 30 novels. He would have envied this book. And if Flynn writes another as good, she’ll be Girl Arrived.