When one of the great directors of a generation announces their next project, the film world listens. It is rare, however, for said announcement to be puzzling. Martin Scorsese is creating his treatise on faith in Silence? Of course he is. Kathryn Bigelow is making the true story of the Detroit riots? Sure, why not? Paul Thomas Anderson’s next untitled film starring Daniel Day Lewis is about a dressmaker for the Royal Family? Sounds award worthy. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. And then there’s David Fincher.

As most know, Fincher certainly got off to a rough start as a director. After cutting his teeth on music videos, he was tapped to direct Alien 3. The tales of his struggles on that particular film are legendary at this point, and he has basically disowned the movie and refuses to speak about it. After a three-year hiatus, he returned with Se7en. This success helped launch his career to the next level. He is now seen as one of the best directors available, easily on par with the others previously mentioned. But unlike most top directors, Fincher does not seem to always reach for the brass ring. Instead, he seems to vacillate between premier projects, like The Social Network or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, to more eccentric choices, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Gone Girl.

Gone Girl may be Fincher’s oddest choice to date. The film, based on the best selling novel by Gillian Flynn, is nowhere near an awards contender or at least not at first glance. Any number of pseudo-negative descriptions have been used to chronicle the details of the book; trashy, over-the-top, a beach read, the list goes on and on. Given the stunning sales of Gone Girl, a film adaptation was inevitable. But to be directed by the creator of two films that arguably were the best of their respective years, in Zodiac and The Social Network? Very unlikely.

Gone Girl has no business being as good as it is. This is the difference a truly great director makes. Fincher saw a deeper, more interesting message than most directors or readers would have. He, along with screenwriter Gillian Flynn, transformed her novel into something deeper, almost meditative. Yes, on the surface, the film loses none of the pulp, the sex, the violence, or the twists and turns. However, any cinephile misgivings disappear with the opening scene. A truly haunting voiceover, tinged with the threat of violence, and even hatred, paired with the back of a woman’s head, serves to set the stage perfectly. The decision to open and close on the same exact scene is a stroke of genius. It serves to turn the accusing eye of his camera on the audience and make us reexamine what we think of our two main characters, the ideals of right and wrong, and even the institution of marriage.

These main characters can be viewed as protagonists, antagonists, or some twisted combination of both. The audience, regardless of who they root for, will not escape unsullied by the journeys of Nick and Amazing Amy. The stunning difference between the courting period, almost magical and softly lit, and the troubled marriage, stark and all too real, will make even the happiest of partners deeply uncomfortable. This may be one of the worst choices for a date movie in film history. It is as if Fincher and Flynn cracked open the heads of a real couple and found their darkest thoughts and desires. The performances here, from Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, are stunning to watch. Affleck, possibly depending on the baggage brought on by his celebrity romances, comes off as charming and affable initially, but becomes rage-inducing as his infidelity and disgusting behavior is revealed. Pike delivers a performance for the ages, making us connect with a character that is violent, sociopathic, and seemingly devoid of pity. However, she is also wounded, psychologically stunted due to her upbringing, and intensely intelligent. This layered performance helps Gone Girl travel to unexpected levels of emotional depth.

Gone Girl is structured in an unexpected fashion. It is essentially divided into two distinct halves. The first half follows Nick, as well as Amy’s fonder memories of their marriage, and the police officers assigned to Amy’s apparent murder. Essentially, it is a high quality police procedural. Without warning, the film turns on a dime and, devoid of fanfare, reveals Amy to be very much alive. This second half is where all of the salacious violence and tawdry sexual scenes come in. As Amy’s true, and sometimes hideous nature, slowly rises to the surface, we are allowed to view her transition from “cool girl” to wife scorned to something else entirely. Although her actions are clearly reprehensible, at a certain, lizard brain level, we get it. Every action brings a woman who has been controlled at every level, by her parents, societal pressures, and the men in her life, closer to her own special type of freedom. This freedom is first used to no longer fit into patriarchal boxes. She acts how she pleases and eats the food she has always wanted to eat without fear of judgment. Despite many unforeseen obstacles, this new freedom enables her to re-enter her marriage, and a new life, in the ultimate position of power.

Fincher never lets up. Even the introduction of minor characters, such as Nick’s sister, Go (Carrie Coon), defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), and Amy’s ex Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), serve a specific purpose. That is, they vilify at least one of the main characters. Go, in her seething hatred towards Amy reveals part of her truth without knowing the details. She also mirrors our disappointment in Nick as his infidelity comes to light. Perry, who steals nearly every scene he is in, shows us not only how intensely terrifying Amy is but also how the two of them, in their damage, belong to one another. Desi, of course, pays the ultimate price for underestimating and believing Amy, but he also shines a light on how disturbed Nick appears to the general public. These connections are important, not only because it makes Nick and Amy real, but also because it will not allow us to truly focus on supporting characters. Gone Girl is about Amy and Nick, and by extension the lies we tell ourselves in relationships. We must face them and look them directly in the eye, as Amy does Nick when the credits roll.

Moving forward, David Fincher is attached to direct World War Z 2, starring megastar Brad Pitt. At first glance, despite the star power, this seems like a great director signing on to assumed subpar material. But before you write this off as just another average sequel, or worse, yet another disappointing zombie movie, remember Gone Girl. If any director has the talent to bring a new twist on the stale genre, it is David Fincher. In Fincher I trust.

Featured Image: 20th Century Fox