Tone can be a delicate matter, and shaking it up can be a bold and admirable enterprise. But "Gone Girl" -- David Fincher's film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's runaway bestseller -- goes from intriguingly puzzling to downright alienating.
It's all part of the intent of Fincher's crazy black comedy of manners, scripted by Flynn herself and built around a twisty mystery: Where has Nick Dunne's wife gone, and is he responsible for her disappearance? The disruption to suburban normality in a once tony, now depressed Missouri community sets the stage for competing perspectives: that of Nick (a well-cast Ben Affleck), who insists upon his innocence even as he shows signs of misogyny and a violent temper; and that of his wife Amy (cool blonde Rosamund Pike), whose diary -- doled out in voice-over narration -- seems to implicate her husband.
A slew of peripheral characters add their own interpretations of the Dunnes' marriage and Amy's disappearance. Among them are the detectives investigating the case (the always terrific Kim Dickens and a wry Patrick Fugit), Amy's parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), Amy's unhinged ex (Neil Patrick Harris), Nick's twin sister Margo (a revelatory Carrie Coon), a high-powered defense attorney (Tyler Perry, spot-on) and rapacious TV journalists (Sela Ward and Missi Pyle, equally delicious).
No spoilers about where exactly the story takes viewers, but the twists lead into increasingly trashy territory inhabited by characters who become gender-politics cartoons: self-consciously scary archetypes of the stalking male and the hell-furious woman scorned. As with the once-upon-a-zeitgeist film "Gone Girl" most closely resembles ("Fatal Attraction"), the story's potential heroes are awfully unpleasant, and when the plot spins off into the ridiculous, it becomes even more difficult to care about anyone.
The unfolding narrative has a certain "what next?" pull, and some satirical bite to compensate for a lack of depth. Like "Fatal Attraction," "Gone Girl" is a marital house-of-horrors that aims to leave married audience members wiping their sweaty brows or giggling with transgressive glee at the worst-case scenarios.
Flynn and Fincher also merrily skewer the three-ring circus of media coverage, presenting the press conference, the vigil and the confessional interview as stations of the it-bleeds-it-leads cross. Through it all, there's a sinking feeling on the part of the audience that whether Nick "did it" or not doesn't much matter: Either way, he's guilty of being a terrible husband, and it's entirely possible that Amy is no saintly victim.
Once chaos overtakes Fincher's otherwise meticulous style, one suspects this tawdry tale signifies nothing more than a nihilistic view of heterosexual marriage. That'll make it a perverse pleasure for some, and leave the rest feeling abused -- or at least, dirty all over.
Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language. Two hours, 29 minutes.