“Gone Girl” may be a twisty and fast-paced thriller, but the film’s defining characteristic is how surprising it is.

Gone Girl

Rave and Quality 16
20th Century Fox

At first glance, the story seems familiar. Down-on-his-luck husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, “Argo”) comes home from a day at work to find his darling wife Amy (Rosamund Pike, “An Education”) missing. He’s not as distraught as he should be; evasive and glib, he flashes his sickening dead-eyed smile at the most inopportune of moments. Even Nick’s square jaw and “villainous” chin recall other wife-killers and smooth criminals (particularly Scott Peterson, whose parallel situation and physical resemblance to Nick cannot be coincidental). Affleck’s tabloid celebrity makes for a perfect casting choice. It’s a role built for a recognizable face, and a perfect vehicle for Affleck to showcase the finest acting of his career.

Even the most confusing casting choices make sense upon seeing the film. Pike, who’s mostly known for playing a Bond Girl and the sister of Jane Austen heroines, is flawless as a girl who’s bitter at being side-stepped and underestimated. Tyler Perry (“Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too”) is astoundingly subtle in a dramatic role, playing attorney Tanner Bolt with some slick dark humor that never veers into silly Madea territory. Emily Ratajkowski (the brunette from the “Blurred Lines” music video) plays a needy young temptress, and Ratajkowski proves she’s an adept actress even when she’s not teasing Robin Thicke. Neil Patrick Harris, famous for playing womanizing Barney Stinson on “How I Met Your Mother,” is a natural choice for calculating lover Desi Collings. The film winks at viewers’ expectations when it comes to Harris, with even his creepiest lines eliciting giggles. His series of increasingly predatory comments are funny until, suddenly, no one’s laughing anymore. The reversal is jarring and one of the most startling moments of the film (I wouldn’t dare spoil anything more specific).

“Gone Girl” also plays on its recognizability as a David Fincher film. The director’s name comes with certain assumptions, and viewers walking into the theater expect to see cinematography tinted yellow, naturalistic acting and a slow and deliberate unfurling of mystery. Fincher is an auteur for the modern era, where half of the fun of watching his films come from the comparison to the rest of his body of work. While Fincher’s Missouri is doused in maize and Affleck often delivers his lines in a Jesse Eisenberg-esque mumble, “Gone Girl” is more than another Fincher vehicle. A lot of the nuance of the story is owed to screenwriter (and the original novel’s author) Gillian Flynn. She adapts her source material with an eye for the screen, and isn’t afraid to excise elements that don’t translate as well to film. (Namely, a lot of detail with Nick’s father and elaboration on their struggles in New York.) The book’s breathless 432 pages are cut into a lean 149 minutes with just a few regrettable omissions. The only one worth lamenting is the famous “Cool Girl” passage, which has much less impact when delivered in voice-over and placed in a completely different part of the story.

The plot twists unfold effortlessly as viewers are afforded little omniscience. You only glimpse Nick and Amy’s relationship from their unreliable narration, which is often peppered with misleading evidence and, sometimes, blatant lies. Insight into the investigation comes from the endearing, sometimes incompetent detectives Boney (Kim Dickens, “Deadwood”) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, “Almost Famous”). Their leads are flawed, formed as much by the media’s perception of Nick and Amy as the calculated versions of themselves that the couple present. Nick might seem like an eager-to-please mama’s boy gone psychopathic, but even this blundering open book is capable of keeping some killer secrets. The extent of Amy’s manipulation is rarely clear, and the flashbacks as seen through her diary are mediated through Nick’s perceptions of her (though they are technically written down by Amy). As the caricatures of the Dunnes denature into chaos, it’s impossible to discern who’s trustworthy and who’s putting on a show.

“Gone Girl” is the type of film that can still provide thrills several rewatches later, and manages to be equally stunning for fans of the book and newbies to Nick and Amy’s fucked-up, power play love. It’s not just a film, but an experience — thanks in part to masterful acting, excellent direction and the eerie score provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. “Gone Girl” is often emotional, darkly comic, terrifying and always, always surprising.

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