Gone Girl—“I feel like I’m in a Law and Order episode,” says Nick Dunne, as detectives begin to question him about his missing wife Amy, early in David Fincher’s new thriller. We in the audience think so too. In a scene from earlier, happier days in Nick and Amy’s marriage, they give each other the same gift on their anniversary, and Amy says “We’re so cute, I want to punch us in the face.” Here, again, screenwriter Gillian Flynn, adapting her own 2012 novel, seems to be pre-empting the audience.
No need, as it turns out. Nick and Amy’s marriage goes south, both figuratively and literally. They both lose their magazine writing jobs, Nick drags Amy from her beloved New York to Missouri to help care for his dying mother, and their relationship goes from punch-in-the-face cute to deeply dysfunctional.
Then she disappears, amidst signs of a struggle in the house. Nick calls the cops, remains flippantly calm during the search, and, perhaps trying not to behave self-consciously like a panicked husband, comes across for all the world like a guy who murdered his wife. People start to exchange significant glances behind his back. Interrupting this strand from time to time are episodes from Amy’s diary, depicting the crumbling marriage.
These are just the beginning of Gone Girl’s twists. After awhile I stopped thinking that we were in Law and Order territory—the plot may possibly be too gothic and convoluted even for that show.
None of which is to say it’s not entertaining. Flynn’s dialogue has punch, and Fincher crafts the scenes elegantly, at a confident, steady pace. His work is broodingly atmospheric without the dreamlike stylization of Seven.
Fincher also gets excellent, witty work from an excellent cast. The revelation here is Rosamund Pike, always lovely but often stuck in conventionally sweet parts; here she makes the most of the unexpectedly ripe, varied role of Amy. But Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward and especially Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister also give enjoyable turns.
And then there’s Ben Affleck, handling this Hitchcockian leading man role with aplomb. The story hinges, in part, on Nick’s difficulties with public likability, something that Affleck, for reasons I’ve never entirely grasped, understands all too well. Gone Girl strikingly echoes Affleck’s life in the public eye, when you think about it—from the beginning of his ordeal, Nick’s every move makes him look like a smarmy creep. But the worse he looks, the more cameras get pointed at him.
What’s really remarkable about the film is the access that director Randy Murray got to Arpaio and his inner circle. Murray’s camera was present over what appears to have been years, including the 2012 election, and Arpaio and his gang eventually came to speak in front of it with startling cynical candor about their calculated showmanship in manipulating the media to their advantage. Simply on the basis of this footage, The Joe Show qualifies as an important document.
It’s also a slickly-made, wittily edited film about a satire-defying Arizona figure. I interviewed Murray for a Phoenix Magazine story last year, and he told me the same thing that my friend Barry Graham told me after he interviewed Arpaio for Harper’s years ago—that he liked Arpaio personally, a lot. The Sheriff’s almost childlike affability comes through in The Joe Show, and this quality sits uncomfortably with the facts the film presents—that he’s responsible for fatal brutality, banana-republic-style intimidation and the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. Murray’s film also gets across something that’s less widely understood: Not only has Arpaio been abusive, he’s also been shockingly derelict of his legitimate duties.
What Arpaio’s behavior here shows is that, for all his ignorance and incoherence and delusional bluster, he has an instinctive grasp of how to exploit people’s piggy bigotries and appetite for bullying cruelty. Even when his media flack Lisa Allen and other cronies cringe with embarrassment at something he plans to do, like his “Birther investigation,” he knows perfectly well that it will work with the segment of the electorate at whom he’s aiming.
Allen comes across, by the way, far more repulsively than anyone else in the film, Arpaio included, though there’s also pathos to the exaggerated bonhomie of her manner—you can sense her desperation to make her job and her boss and her department seem mischievous and cute, a misunderstood, well-intentioned part of the normal world of decent people. But Murray’s film shows that it’s not. Arpaio was a grandstanding media whore from the start of his tenure, and with Allen as his pimp, he’s gradually grown into a monster.