Gone Girl: a dark parable for anyone in a relationship

Why are you reading this?

Do you trust my opinion, or is it simply passing the time?

Do you want to find out what’s going on in my head, or is it a way of helping you form your own opinion?

That’s a glimpse inside the world of Gone Girl. It’s a parable of contemporary relationships that consistently destabilises the narrative direction; that portrays intimate relationships as minefields of (dis)trust and self-justification; in which there’s scarcely a single sympathetic character but still has the gall to ask you where your sympathies lie … and why.

Directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) and adapted from her own novel by Gillian Flynn it’s best understood as a neo-Gothic melodrama/thriller. Yes, really. The film opens on the morning of Nick and Amy’s 5th wedding anniversary; Amy goes missing in suspicious, possibly violent circumstances. The finger of public and police suspicion starts to turn on Nick, and we see the truth unfold in parallel with the flashback story of Nick and Amy’s relationship from the day they first met.

It’s hard to say much more than that without spoilers. So though I’ve tried to avoid any, proceed in the rest of this post with caution; I hadn’t read the book, and managed to avoid spoilers. From the point of view of pure plot, it is a deliciously dark thriller, constantly taking the truth and twisting it just out of the viewer’s reach. In the final sections the film turns into strange territory, but that it does so without ever feeling false is a measure of just how good this film is. David Fincher is on top form here, meticulously constructing every scene and narrative beat with a painter’s eye; the performances  – especially Rosamund Pike as Amy and Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer  – are pretty much on the money; and the film is shot with a sheen and style appropriate to the film’s themes. It nods to all sorts of films – from Hitchcock, through Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and in one startling moment, Carrie – yet is definitively its own vision.

For all that, the film demands more from you. It has a dark vision of human relationships, and more or less forces the viewer into some uncomfortable reflections. For me the film touches genius in making you to pick a side; then undercuts that by showing you how shallow it is to do so. There’s a question around the source novel as to if it’s misogynist or feminist; such a debate may miss the point completely, in fact. Truth isn’t to be found on one ‘side’ or the other; it’s to be found in the combustible chemical reaction of two broken people. In the film’s deliberately over-stated central relationship we see writ large a deeper truth; that the sum of a relationship is greater than its constituent parts. Hence the uncomfortable reality the film leaves us with – give yourself to your relationships; don’t hide. The more you hide, the more exposed you are. The less you give, the more you lose; the more you give, the more you gain.

It’s not just relationships in Gone Girl‘s crosshairs; it’s a scathing attack on celebrity culture, on media obsession with making info-tainment out of personal tragedy (it felt apt to see this film in the week that Oscar Pisotrius was sentenced for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp), gender and domestic violence, and parenting. It needs a hearty running time to do all that without collapsing under its own weight. It is a long film, but necessarily so; it flies by. Mind, heart and eyes are fully engaged throughout.

In the end, however, it’s the nature of intimate relationships with which it is most concerned. For all the heightened reality that is a feature of this and Fincher’s other best work, it leaves you with pertinent and uncomfortable choices to make and questions to answer. It’s impossible to come out of this film and not find yourself sitting in judgement one character or the other; analyse that for long, though, and you find the finger pointed back on yourself. Which is what a parable should do, really.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

This is the latest in a line of reboots – except this time we’re not dealing with a comic-book superhero, but a flesh and blood person. Jack Ryan was the central character from Tom Clancy’s multi-million selling series of doorstop size thrillers. These books sold in serious quantities, telling old school stories of technology, terrorism and CIA spying; one novel famously culminated in an airliner into a Washington government building. Some were filmed with varying degrees of success; then the franchise dried-up, 9/11 and Casino Royale and the Bourne movies happened. Ryan just didn’t fit any more.

Times have changed again, and now Ryan is getting the reboot. The film opens on 9/11; Ryan (Chris Pine) is an American student in London who sees the fateful day as the spur to a life-change. He joins the army, gets seriously injured in Afghanistan and finds himself in rehab. That’s where he meets his future wife (Keira Knightly) and he’s tapped up as an undercover CIA economics analyst by his mentor figure, Kevin Costner. That’s the new foundations laid: he’s still a Tom Clancy creation, but in an uncertain new world. What follows is an efficient, entertaining old-fashioned sort of thriller in a recognisably new world. Which all makes it sound a little dull, predictable.

Which it isn’t; mainly down to director and main villain-playing Kenneth Branagh. To do what he’s done with his Shakespeare films – to make them accessible to people who don’t like Shakespeare – there’s one thing you have to understand: the audience. He brings out the humour of Shakespeare’s comedies, the universality of the tragedies and the grandeur of the histories – all in ways newcomers can understand. That’s the same target that he’s needed to hit with these more recent big-budget films he’s been direction. With both Jack Ryan and Thor the key to success is in understanding what the audience of these films wants, and giving it to them in a way that will draw others in. Whilst this film isn’t quite as much a resounding success as Thor, it still does everything it needs to. The action set-pieces are well delivered without being violent or gory; the most exciting is an expertly delivered sequence which cuts between a break-in and the most awkward over-the-table dinner discussion on film for a while. It’s an excellent example of drawn out tension and the way intelligent editing can ramp up tension and audience engagement more effectively than expensive effects.

There’s nothing life-changing or especially profound here – it’s just a good thriller, doing its job well and not outstaying its welcome with an overlong running time. There’s clearly potential for more films here, and if that’s how this pans out, then it will be interesting to see how the series develops. For now enjoy this for what it is – decent entertainment, confidently and efficiently delivered. Enjoy.

I rated this film 3.5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com

Prisoners: it’s God’s fault, apparently

Prisoners is a crime thriller with a desire to be much more than that.

Two families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving; as the two younger girls of each family go off to do their own thing in the course of the day, there dawns later the frightening realisation that the girls are missing. A parental search becomes a community event, a police investigation and a big news story. Leads are picked at; suspects rise to the surface and fall away again; one of the parents takes things into his own hands, the rest of the adults get sucked in and things get emotionally, morally and procedurally complex.

It’s graphic and disturbing, recalling and alludes to issues of forced detention, torture, faith and suffering, institutionalised abuse and revenge. It’s beautifully shot – cinematographer Roger Deakins once again displays his characteristically painterly eye for seeing what’s in a frame that may otherwise may not be seen. The composition of shots, the colour palette, the decision to cut or linger all enhance the whole film and allow the different themes to float to the surface. This is a crime thriller with much to say.

Sad to say, though, that I’m not really sure what the film is trying to articulate; and neither does the plot hang together. Either one of these faults would be less of a problem if the other wasn’t also an issue. The plot has significant and problematic holes; the themes are so varied that none are developed sufficiently to be allowed to really speak.

[Possible plot spoiler in next paragraph]

The final motivation, when it comes, is one articulated as revenge on God for suffering experienced. Which is fine – well, of course suffering isn’t fine, but you know what I mean. People suffer, and they do truly and often blame God and then act on that blaming. That’s real and true. It’s so undeveloped here, though. One minute you’re thinking about torture and forced detention; next you have to shift gears totally and connect with a pain so deep it leads to radical vengeance. In shifting gears in such a way there’s grinding and groaning; someone forgot to depress the clutch. So the final motivation, which could and should have been the culmination of two hours of tension and counterpoint, building and meditation becomes more of a … well, shrug.

As a result of this, the plot holes become even more frustrating. You’re left wondering why that character has been abandoned, why that action happened at all, why this lead wasn’t followed sooner … especially when you as viewer stroll to the correct conclusion about an hour early. The film has big theological questions but they’re articulated, ironically for a film about missing children, at primary school level rather than the level of true and deep engagement. I was drawn to think of those who kid themselves they’ve engaged with theology because they’ve read The God Delusion, in reality as deluded as someone like me who thinks they have good biological knowledge when I stopped studying it aged 14. Good actors like Jake Gyllenhaall, Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis and Maria Bello are left trying to breathe life into so many shallow-breathing bodies that by the end they’re the ones in need of resuscitation. All of which means it’s a long two hours.

Other crime thrillers do similar things with much more efficiency and power – consider, for example, Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River; both films which remember to tell a story well and focus on one or two themes. They show Prisoners that less really is more. It’s s a shame to have to say that. Prisoners is a film which should tick all my boxes for thoughtful crime thrillers, as the other two I’ve just mentioned do. That this is so does not make it a bad film; just a disappointing, deflating one – which for me is worse.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com

A Prophet: Formed In The Crucible

Why is it that sub-titled films are such a hard sell to English speaking audiences? In The Prophet we have a gritty, gripping crime/prison drama with more than a hint of Scorsese in its influences. While it will probably do well, it’s not going to tear up any trees in the box office  – largely because it’s spoken in French and the audience actually have to glance at the bottom of the screen to get the dialogue. Well it’s their loss. This is a straight-up great thriller, character study and examination of what makes us the people we become.

We join a scared, vulnerable 19-year old (Malik El Djebena, played by the brilliant newcomer Tahar Rahim), serving a 6-year stretch for attacking a police-officer, as he’s going up to the adult prison from the juvenile detention center. If ever there was a boy in man’s world, it’s Malik. He’s out of his depth,  a study in fear and naked vulnerability. He clocks the gangster mastermind who runs the prison, but keeps his distance. It’s a fruitless task. Needing a potential informant new to the prison out of the way, the mastermind puts young Malik in the ultimate human dilemma – kill the informant, or be killed. In the short term – half an hour or so of screen time – this triggers a superbly portrayed moral and personal panic and as a good a portrayal of the impact of of taking a life on the would-be killer as you are likely to see.

What that event triggers for the rest of the film, however, is even more brilliant and gripping. Set-against the shifting, seething racial tension at the heart of most globalised countries, we see a boy turning into a man. But what sort of man? Is he mad? Bad? Wise as a serpent? Innocent as dove? It’s brilliantly put-together and at times so tense you can hardly breathe. In the film’s final, subtly moving images, we are left to question the effects on the wider community Malik will rejoin as he leaves the prison. Does he leave his prison identity behind him? Or is he irrevocably changed? How can he not be  – are we not all fundamentally shaped and changed by all we do every day? These are the issues this films grapples with – in the context of the biggest possible of events (killing), and one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity (ethnic).

This then, is a film about the crucible that forms the personality. It poses the question do we ever really know anybody (Malik, each other, ourselves)? Does the central character ever know himself? He seems to change and reveal aspects of his identity so often  that he never knows where he stands; or is that just survival? That A Prophet does all this in the form of a gripping thriller about real people is verging on the miraculous. It left me reflecting that the only way to know myself, and that’s to know the one who formed me. Not bad for a thriller, that.