Surprises are earned in twisty, turny ‘Gone Girl’

Of all the books I’ve never read, I’m perhaps most glad to have avoided Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.”

Well, that and “Touch Me: The Poems of Suzanne Somers.”

That’s not a knock against Flynn’s wildly popular novel. Plenty of people I know, respect and love swear by it. But having even an inkling of its plot would have robbed the film adaptation of its legitimately eye-bulging, slack-jawed surprises.

In the hands of novelist/screenwriter Flynn and director David Fincher, “Gone Girl” is so full of first-rate shockers, the fact that its oft-maligned co-star Tyler Perry is actually quite good as a celebrity defense attorney barely cracks the top five.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) spends the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary at The Bar, the watering hole he runs with his twin sister, Margot (Carrie Coon). They drink, they play board games, and she listens while he complains about his troubled marriage. Then, when he can’t put it off any longer, Nick returns home to find a smashed coffee table, an overturned ottoman and no sign of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike).

The downward spiral of their relationship is brought to life through her journal entries. They meet at a party and share jokes about Nick’s “villainous chin” and his belief that quinoa is a fish. They are, as Amy says, “so cute, I wanna punch us in the face.”

But over the span of a few years, she tells us, they’ve gone from passionately making love in a bookstore to a bout of selfish sex up against a dresser that ends with Nick suggesting dinner at Outback.

Having been laid off from a magazine and uprooted from New York City to North Carthage, Mo., to take care of his dying mother, Nick has become a broken man. He bristles at their prenup and the fact that Amy controls all the money, a gift from the parents who appropriated and embellished her childhood for their series of “Amazing Amy” books.

“My husband,” Amy writes, “has come undone.”

Once the police are called, the lead detective (Kim Dickens, “Deadwood”) and her partner (Patrick Fugit, “Almost Famous”) soon realize Nick doesn’t know all that much about his wife, including how she spends her days or with whom. He doesn’t seem terribly distraught by her disappearance, but he comes across as more aloof than guilty. Still, it doesn’t take long for him to come under serious suspicion.

Then things get interesting.

Then they get wait-a-minute, oh-no-they-didn’t nuts.

“Gone Girl’s” twisty, turny, topsy-turvy mystery will stick with you for years to come. But Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Social Network”) and Flynn seem just as interested, if not more so, in skewering the reckless sensationalism of cable news’ Missing White Lady Syndrome.

When word of Amy’s disappearance spreads, an attractive stranger takes a selfie with Nick and tries to tempt him with her “world famous chicken Frito pie.” Young ladies at Amy’s candlelight vigil debate Nick’s hotness. And he’s vilified on a nightly basis by a TV muckraker (Missi Pyle) whose name might as well be “Grancy Nace.”

Even Fugit’s detective pesters his partner about when they’re finally going to arrest Nick, because his wife, Tiffany, is totally convinced he’s guilty.

Neil Patrick Harris is impressively smarmy as Amy’s wealthy, Proust-quoting ex. And Coon (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) continues her breakthrough year as the wry Margot, aka Go, who always has her brother’s back, even when he’s being an insufferable jackhole.

But most of the heavy lifting is reserved for Affleck and Pike. They’re terrific, together and apart, and they’ll run you through a decathlon of emotions as they peel back the layers of Nick and Amy.

If your marriage doesn’t look like a fairy tale compared to theirs, you and your spouse need to head straight to the airport without even stopping to pack a bag and flee to opposite sides of the globe.

I had every intention of reading the novel to prepare for the movie. Then, after it had spent the better part of a year collecting dust on my nightstand, I decided to put it off to preserve its whispered-about surprises.

Unlike the twists in many movies, the ones in “Gone Girl” come across as organic and well-earned.

They’re the reason not reading has rarely felt so good.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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