In early 2011, when David Fincher was getting ready to shoot The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo while in the midst of Oscars promotion for The Social Network, the director made a revealing comment about how he separates his work into two categories: "movies" and "films." To his mind, Fight Club and Zodiac were films—serious and ambitious—while The Social Network was a movie, merely meant to entertain. "It's a little glib to be a film," he explained. "Let's hope we strove to get at something interesting, but Social Network is not earth-shattering. Zodiac was about murders that changed America ... No one died during the creation of Facebook."

Maybe you don't agree with Fincher's distinction, but it seems pretty clear that the projects he's pursued since The Social Network are (by his definition) movies. First, he adapted Dragon Tattoo, a popular, dark, sexy Swedish thriller from author Stieg Larsson. Now, he's made Gone Girl, an adaptation of a popular, dark, juicy American mystery from author Gillian Flynn. They're movies meant for the multiplex, meant to entertain. But I definitely wouldn't call Gone Girl glib. It's occasionally campy and preposterous, but the questions it raises—aided by the intensity of the performances and the cold assurance of the filmmaking—leave you disoriented and troubled. If this is merely a "movie," why can't studios make more of them?

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I haven't read Flynn's 2012 novel, for which I'm grateful. Knowing very little of the plot going in, I was fairly enveloped and blindsided by the story, which was adapted by the author. So if you'd rather not know much about Gone Girl, here is a slim outline. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home during the day to discover that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Signs of a violent struggle inside the house make the local police, led by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), think she's been kidnapped or worse, and they start to suspect Nick.

We do, too: Through flashbacks narrated by Amy from her journal, we see how a happy relationship went south thanks to the couple losing their jobs and Nick's mother getting sick. Born and raised in New York, Amy reluctantly agreed to move with her husband back to his small Missouri hometown to care for the dying woman, but she immediately felt out of place and unwanted. Nick is equally disenchanted with his marriage, as he tells his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) all the time. He's concerned that Amy is missing, but not overly so. Could he be behind her disappearance? Could he have killed her?

Early on, Nick jokes to the cops that he feels like he's in a Law & Order episode; the film's first half does play like a tense, chilly procedural, exhibiting the same methodical intelligence Fincher brought to bear in 2007's Zodiac. This movie (or film) is constantly teasing us with its mysteries, most of these involving the inner life of Nick, who simply doesn't act appropriately in the aftermath of Amy's kidnapping. With the whole world monitoring the case—Amy has been famous for years as the inspiration for a popular children's book—he's withdrawn, barely emotional. But his blasé manner makes it hard to know if he's merely putting on a brave face or trying to hide his relief that he might be finally free of her.

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This is one of Affleck's more demanding performances, and also one of his best. For years, his earnest, determined demeanor has made him a likable, occasionally bland onscreen presence—he was perfect for the luxurious widescreen moping of 2012's To the Wonder—but here, he twists that puppy-dog persona into something far more ambiguous, maybe even sinister. Nick's Midwestern niceness feels, in the flashbacks, like the mark of a gallant knight in shining armor. But in the present day, as he begins to act cagey once the investigation gets underway, the wholesomeness seems like a mask concealing uglier impulses. But we can't ever tell for sure, and Fincher and Affleck let that uncertainty hang heavy over the movie's first hour or so.

Those who have read the book know what happens from there. As the investigation closes in on Nick, and the evidence of his culpability grows stronger, Gone Girl goes in a very different direction, shifting our perspective as well as our location. The transition is jarring—and some of the explanation is ludicrous—but it sets the stage for a far nervier film that's anchored beautifully by Pike.

Like Affleck, the actress has been a reliable, somewhat one-dimensional presence in previous films, from An Education to Wrath of the Titans. Gorgeous but fragile and distant, Pike's characters have often felt almost inhuman, as if aliens or scientists decided to create the perfect life-size blonde human doll. And like Affleck, she turns her persona in on itself for Gone Girl. In the film's opening reels, Amy is lovely but also a bit sad, the sheltered upper-class girl who never truly feels comfortable in the world around her. (That only gets worse when she moves to Missouri, where people think she's aloof or stuck-up.) But as the film's full picture comes into view, we see how Amy was also wearing a mask, and Pike's preternatural beauty is used to disturbing, darkly comic effect. This is easily her finest performance, and Pike seems to relish the chance not only to show the range of her talent, but to embody the dichotomies within Amy, who is portrayed as a victim, the prototypical damsel in distress, until we learn more.

What that "more" is shouldn't be spoiled—and also makes it hard to delve too deeply into the film from here on out. But even when Gone Girl risks accusations of misogyny—a charge also leveled against The Social Network, but more legitimate here—and flirts with flat-out nuttiness, Fincher and Flynn keep churning our emotions, pushing us in ways that can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but are always honest and provocative. In its broad strokes, Gone Girl very much feels like A Movie for Our Times. (It's about love in the 21st century, domestic violence, the Great Recession, bottom-feeding cable television, and our tabloid-driven obsession with women in peril.) But in its minute-to-minute execution, the film mostly resists becoming an issue-driven story, filtering those topics through something weirder and more immediate.

The result is deadly serious but also kinda pulpy, getting a kick out of its own nasty, cynical view of the modern world. (Any movie that casts Tyler Perry in an important dramatic role as an attention-seeking, world-class defense attorney to the notorious is practically daring its audience not to laugh at its audacity.) (And by the way, he's damn good in the part.)

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Ever since Zodiac, Fincher's reputation as a major filmmaker has grown: He earned his first Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and received plenty of accolades for The Social Network. (It's easy to forget this now, but for a while that looked like a shoo-in for Best Picture until The King's Speech stole its thunder.) But while Gone Girl will be compared to Dragon Tattoo, as the film went on, I thought a lot about a divisive movie from Fincher's pre-"prestige" career: The Game. In certain ways, the two movies are spiritual cousins: stories about not being able to believe what we see made by filmmakers who are having a ball screwing with our heads. Gone Girl is the richer, deeper movie because it has more to say about The Way We Live Now, but it plays out so fiendishly that it's never thematically heavy. (There will be plenty of Oscar movies this fall that are more "important" or "earth-shattering," but precious few of them will be more fun.)

Not everything here works: Neil Patrick Harris is superb as a former lover of Amy's, but his section of the movie feels like an awkward tangent. But it's held together by its paranoia about all the ways that we don't know one another. Even if you know nothing about its twists, you've probably heard that the film (like the book) is a satire and critique of modern marriage. Maybe I'm lucky enough that my own marriage feels light-years away from the rot on display here, but nonetheless, that description of Gone Girl is just another deception in a film that's filled with them.

This movie is about more than relationships: It's about the assumptions we make about men and about women, but it's also about how we get angry and confused when our preconceived notions don't square with reality. It's about the monster sleeping in the bed next to you—but also about the monster you didn't even realize you were. And it's about a top-notch director who keeps insisting that he's making "movies," when he's actually getting a lot closer to making art.


Grade: A-

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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