Quick hits: Gone Girl & Dublin Murder Squad

Well, ignore the order in that post subject because I’m going to talk about the Dublin Murder Squad first.

Tana French’s latest, The Secret Place, came out a few weeks ago, FINALLY. This time, the detective is Stephen Moran, who was such a thorn in Frank Mackey’s side two books back. It took me longer to get through this than any of French’s others; more a lack of free time than anything to do with the story or the writing, which is as tight as ever. French is absolutely a master of psychological suspense—both in the telling of the central murder mystery, and in the building out of complex and banal interpersonal relations. Some of the teenager-centered narrative and characterization can ring a bit false at times (though unlike other reviewers I have seen (and used!) phrases such as “totes amazeballs” and so had far fewer quibbles with the slang), but in a way that seems naturally unnatural for these individual characters. French goes deeper into some of the class and gender themes she’s explored in past books, class especially much more overtly than in any other aside from Faithful Place, but in tone and theme I found it much closer to The Likeness. Over on Goodreads, Elise made a great observation in her review: the central relationship between Moran and Conway is a mirror of sorts to In the Woods, “a making rather than a sundering“. It’s delightful to watch their initial wariness dissolve as their understanding of the case they’re investigating coalesces into a more coherent whole. Another great entry to the series. I highly recommend.

As for Gone Girl, my non-spoilery review is simply: GET YOURSELF TO A THEATER. If Rosamund Pike isn’t nominated for and awarded the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, then it had better be because another actress transcended the limits of the physical realm and actually became a digital element in some other film. I will accept no other possible reason. And Affleck is at the absolute top of his meathead, lunky, variously charming and off-putting form. He oozes casual misogyny and poor-me entitlement as naturally as breathing, something I don’t recall ever being as effective an element in his performances. If his Batman/Bruce Wayne is even half as interesting, I might actually see the new Snyder film.

Now then, a more long-winded review follows. Spoilers ahoy!

If you’ve read Gillian Flynn’s novel, then you probably already know that she adapted it for the screen as well—and it shows. No essential parts of the book are left out, and those pieces that were jettisoned are revealed to be, if not unnecessary, then perhaps simply not as effective as they should have been in print. Flynn takes full advantage of her opportunity to tighten the screws on Nick and the audience in the ratcheting up of tension in the first half of the film. And the twist (which book readers should eagerly anticipate with the kind of glee normally reserved for watching the uninitiated experience the penultimate episode of a Game of Thrones season) is as terrifically rendered here as it was on the page. The bleak and frustrating ending of the book is intact as well. It felt almost like a physical blow to cap two and half hours of rising horror and absolutely delightful (from a distance) sociopathy.

Amy’s fury and intricately constructed entrapment scheme leaps off the screen, out of the dull Missourian landscapes where she nurtured them. Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth, who reaches nearly Deakinsian heights in framing and juxtaposition here, don’t quite make the decay of North Carthage or the steady and inexorable Mississippi as haunting as they are in the novel, but the pervading sense of doom and despair still come through. Nick’s selfish unwillingness to jeopardize his wants are as cogent an indictment of a generation conditioned to expect success without hardship as they are a specific reaction to his circumstances and to the relationship he willingly rededicates himself to at the end, no matter his protestations to Go.

Over on Modernities, Sam delves much deeper into the construction and meaning of Amy as a character and as the avatar of Flynn’s deconstruction of the roles women play.

Her clear sight into her own life makes her conscious of the stringent differences between men and woman, but how both, in the age of media still twisted by long existing gender norms, are apt to play parts rather than act as real, authentic human beings.

Pike gives such venomous voice to the “Cool Girl” passage from the novel, and to her pre- and mid-coital interactions with Desi, that you forget for some time that she was ever the smiling illusion she held up to Nick in New York. Temporary physical transformation aside (itself a remarkable example of Pike throwing herself wholly into a role that it’s hard to imagine another actress pulling off), she seems to be inhabiting a different body with each incarnation of Amy she tries on and discards. But they are all still intrinsically and transparently Amy to the core: sociopathic, manipulative, calculating, and ruthless. I felt like we finally see her truest form not when she goes blankly threatening, but when she works herself to sexual completion atop Desi’s dead body, bathed in his blood. It is as shocking and horrifying and compelling as anything else she does in the entire movie. It feels the most honest, if Amy can ever really be honest.

I think it nearly a perfect movie after my first viewing, though the unraveling of Amy’s plans didn’t have quite the same impact as it did in the book. There, we are snaked so deeply inside her warped rationalizations and scheming and her unassailable trust in her inevitable victory that the betrayal by her new Ozark buddies felt like a physical blow. In the film, we don’t get that quite as much, though Amy’s cool and sometimes unemotional voice-overs go a long way toward conveying that mindset. But the turn by Greta seems clumsier than it should, broadcast well in advance in a way that’s so much more obvious when we see it from outside Amy’s point of view. I don’t know that there is a more elegant way to do it, but the casual menace and violence that finally put a crack in Amy’s confidence made up for any quibbles I had with it.

(An aside on the interlude with Greta and Jeff: the way the camera continually lingers on Greta’s exposed and voluptuous body while Amy falls farther into Frito-induced bloat and cheap clothing-swaddled disguise was a treat. It was hard to keep from giggling with giddy joy at the way Pike let the calculation show on her face whenever either of these characters looked away from her, and at the two moments of celebration where we see her fully inhabit the facade: one for an audience and one not.)

The very last scene of the movie—Amy resting her head on Nick, then turning to look back at him and directly at the audience with a blankness that feels menacing—brings us back around to the way the novel opens. The first time I read it, I thought Flynn was stacking the deck a little too heavily with Nick-killed-Amy foreshadowing.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.

Seeing the way Fincher chose to render this specific passage onscreen, by putting us—who have seen all of Amy that there is to see, who know better even than Nick and Boney what she is capable of and that there is no outwitting her—in Nick’s place, I’m back to believing Nick is likely her murderer. He hasn’t done it yet, but he will.

If she’ll ever let him.

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