Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The curious case of a buttoned-down movie”

Posted on November 14, 2014


Thoughts on the ho-hum film version of a book that I found a knockout (made by a director who’s usually a knockout).

It’s hard to say why an eagerly anticipated movie – like David Fincher’s Gone Girl – doesn’t work for you. Part of the problem may be the eager anticipation itself. A book you really enjoyed reading + a director you really admire = a movie that can never really deliver what you want from it.

Then there are the peripheral factors – rather, the peripheral people. I’ll be the first to admit that few are likely to follow my monastic rules of movie-watching – don’t talk; don’t crinkle wrappers; don’t switch on your phone; don’t tell the person next to you how nice the star looks – but that doesn’t stop me from getting annoyed when someone does any or all of these things and yanks me out of a movie. Gone Girl is all hushed voices, hushed filmmaking – it’s the kind of movie that requires that you lean forward and listen. I was trying to do just that when a girl nearby went “Yay!” when a photograph of the Neil Patrick Harris character appeared. Another chap, one who presumably reads out the names of the films on the certificate when the trailers appear (don’t you hate it when that happens? Yes, yes, we know you’re literate, now just shut up!), went, “Barney Stinson.”

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And then, or maybe earlier (I forget the sequence), the Ben Affleck character’s father showed up and began to swear – and a lot of people laughed. What is it about swearing that our audiences find so funny? I’ve seen this with Hindi films too. A character utters a cuss word, and that’s the cue for a laugh. Maybe comedy writers can stop trying to think up situations and simply have people swear at each other. The problem with laughter is that it takes a while to die down, and by this time you’ve missed the next hushed line reading. (I know. You’re thinking, “I never want to be sitting next to this guy during a movie,” and that’s fine by me.) This sort of thing really kills the mood carefully being built up, and Gone Girl is all about mood. And tone. And texture. These are delicate qualities in a movie, and an audience needs to respect that. Otherwise, they’re killing it for others. Gone Movie.

But the bigger problem, for me, was that I couldn’t unread the book, which, with its sensational midway twist, isn’t one that’s easily forgotten. The knots in my stomach while reading the book didn’t resurface while the watching the movie. The shock twist, now, wasn’t shocking enough. Is it this knowing that dampened my enjoyment of Gone Girl? I doubt it, because there have been films I’ve enjoyed, even been gripped by, despite reading the books they were based on. As an example, consider Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, whose Heathcliff was played by a black actor. This single change makes the movie a fairly different story from the one in the book. But maybe twist-laden books are a tough experience to top – the first time, really, is the charm. (Fincher’s own Fight Club comes to mind. Would I have slapped my head at the end had I read the book?)

Even so, Fincher doesn’t do nearly enough to movie-ise the book. This is a pretty faithful adaptation, and while that’s understandable – rabid fans may be left unhappy; studio execs may balk – it doesn’t help while you’re watching the movie. The book’s format is present day (from the Ben Affleck character’s point of view) followed by the past (a diary entry from the Rosamund Pike character’s point of view), and this is how the movie is structured. The start is sensational. We see the back of a woman’s head as a man says, “When I think of my wife, I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains. Trying to get answers: What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” He doesn’t just want to look into her head and read her thoughts; he wants crack her skull and unspool her brains. That’s some nasty stuff right there. And we want this nastiness to continue – this is, after all, a David Fincher film.

But at least one opportunity for nastiness is kept at arm’s length, maybe because even Hollywood’s leading men cannot be seen as too… unlovable. In the book, Affleck’s father is a pretty major character, a horrible, invective-spewing misogynist who may have passed on some of these genes to his son. Part of what stacks the odds against Affleck – as he’s accused of murdering Pike – is that he isn’t this dream husband. At least one part of him is the stuff of nightmares – he worries that he may become his father. By jettisoning this subplot, the story may have become more mainstream, the Affleck character may have become more likeable, but the film becomes less Fincheresque. Affleck’s alcoholism, too, is only lightly touched on, and when he says to his sister (Carrie Coon, who’s so good that her non-nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category is practically a given) that he used to dread coming home, that his stomach would be in knots anticipating his wife’s disapproval, it’s just a line. We don’t sense this inner life.

The parts that allow Fincher to be Fincher – that is, the parts that require his services as a director, and not merely as a traffic cop ensuring the smooth passage of scenes – aren’t many. I liked the scenes after the twist, the scenes where nothing happens. I liked the offhand visual of random people crammed into a random car on a random highway. I liked the scene with the hammer. (Now, that’s nasty.) I liked the scene outside a bar, set amidst a light snowfall. I liked the scene where a character screams into a pillow. And I liked the background score, which is either silent (allowing for the odd police siren to take over) or a low thrum, so the handful of instances where the score is amplified, as if a foghorn had parked itself in the seat next to you, are sensationally effective. For all the problems I had with Gone Girl, it is the work of a real filmmaker. It’s just that, this time, he’s decided that the author wins over the auteur.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.