'Gone Girl'

Gone Girl is wicked fun. As he has done repeatedly over the course of his career, director David Fincher succeeds in repackaging an exceedingly pulpy tale as high art. It's a sort of diet guilty pleasure -- all the great taste, very few of the harmful calories of guilt. Fincher's craftmanship and self-awareness elevates a story that otherwise could so easily fit in on Lifetime. It is an engrossing, twisting-and-turning mystery that feels like just a little bit more, and it is fair to assume that would not be the case without Fincher's talents.

Gone Girl starts with a quietly menacing voiceover delivered by one of its stars, Ben Affleck. Affleck plays Nick Dunne, one half of a dysfunctional marriage that gets darker and darker the more and more we know about it. He runs his fingers through his wife's golden blonde hair and almost whispers that he'd like to crack her skull open. Fincher lingers on those words for just long enough to unsettle his audience, a blurry, romantic image contrasted by what is actually a violent metaphor. And then Nick says he would just like to know what his wife is thinking, to understand what she is feeling, to know this person he has chosen just a little bit better.

The cool, methodical misdirection has begun. It will not stop for most of the next 140-plus minutes. You, the viewer, are powerless to resist, even as you realize that you are being taken in by the kind story that you normally wouldn't give a second thought were it an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Soon after Nick Dunne talks about cracking skulls, he returns home on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to find the door to his house wide open and signs of a struggle inside. A coffee table is overturned -- its glass shattered -- and his wife Amy is nowhere to be found. We know Nick has been to the bar that he co-owns with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) that day. He has had a stiff drink with the sun still shining brightly outside, almost like someone looking to calm his nerves. Margo even notes that he is acting strange and checks to make sure that he is OK.

So kickstarts the locomotive engine of speculation that Nick is responsible for her disappearance, maybe even her murder. It is slow to get rolling, but from the moment he takes that drink of whiskey with his sister, it has left the station. One of the detectives assigned to his case, played by Kim Dickens, is sympathetic even as mounting circumstantial evidence begins to look very bad for him. Amy's parents -- the authors of a children's book series based on their daughter -- are warm and comforting even as Nick seems to squirm uncomfortably under the spotlight (most memorably when he smiles awkwardly next to Amy's missing poster). Affleck is perfect for this kind of role. He is unnatural and doofy, no match for Pike's composure and refinement.

That engine is chugging along, always gaining speed and drawing closer. There is the other detective, played by Patrick Fugit, who fingers him as responsible almost from the start. There are suspicious neighbors. There is a media firestorm, stoked by a Nancy Grace-type anchor, played by Missi Pyle, who seems to draw her life force from this sort of schlocky sensationalism. There are mysterious phone calls Nick is scrambling to answer in private. Most damning of all are the flashbacks of their relationship and marriage, channeled through Amy's journal and Pike's haunting voiceover. They start innocently enough -- witty banter at a pretentious Manhattan party, a passionate kiss in a cloud of sugar outside a bakery -- but get progressively more grim as they both lose their jobs, decamp from New York to Missouri to care for Nick's ailing mother and confront each other hostilely, and ultimately physically, when discussion turns to starting a family.

Amy feels like a ghost already even though her body hasn't been found. Pike's wispy, soothing voice -- cool, detached, matter of fact as she establishes a raw, physical fear of her husband -- becomes the star witness in the de facto case Fincher seems to be building against Nick Dunne. Just as the case appears to be closed, it shifts stunningly. And then again. And then a time or two after that. Tyler Perry injects energy as the high-powered attorney Tanner Bolt who comes to the rescue. Desi Collings, a jilted ex-lover of Amy's played by Neil Patrick Harris, is a mirror image of Nick Dunne -- measured, stringy, humorless -- and he figures prominently in a jawdropping climax. Like light coming through a prism, the glow around Nick and Amy is constantly shifting, a contrast to the chilly blues and greens that suffuse every scene and the pulsing, hypnotic score supplied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The wry gallows humor running throughout the film hints at a joyful mischief being perpetrated by Fincher and Gillian Flynn, who wrote both the 2012 novel upon which the film is based and the screenplay. They dangle their audience on a string and toy with them, maybe just because they can. There's a total helplessness to watching Gone Girl.

I am watching, intently.

Why am I watching?

I can't stop watching.

I wouldn't want you to stop me from watching.

These four thoughts scramble together almost at once. The only clue as to why Fincher and Flynn might be doing this to us comes in the form of the diabolical Nancy Grace type. Don't be fooled by the lip service being paid to the complexity and responsibility of marriage. Gone Girl is really about our insatiable desire for a lurid, fantastical story -- for the deeply personal becoming nakedly and shamefully public. We are transfixed by the secrets Nick and Amy have. We love knowing them, even though we know better than to pry.