There is a moment midway through Gone Girl’s second act when Tanner Bolt – a hotshot lawyer in the Johnnie Cochran mould who specialises in getting husbands off the hook for killing their wives – reliably informs the film’s protagonist Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) that his case won’t be decided by the facts, but by “what the public thinks of you”.
The case in question concerns Nick’s missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), who vanishes at the start of the film and who the police – and the people of America – soon suspect him of having killed.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest they’re right – clues at the crime scene, Amy’s diary entries – but these facts aren’t known to the public. Instead, Nick’s trial by media begins because he fails to act ‘appropriately’ on camera, smiling awkwardly as he pleads for information at a press conference, naively posing for a selfie with a volunteer on the manhunt.
These gaffes – gleefully seized upon by TV News channels – turn him into ‘the most hated man in America’. Nick’s battle to clear his name shifts from convincing the police he’s innocent to convincing the watching world he’s not such a bad guy after all. Bolt advises he take part in a confessional on-air interview, and coaches him in appearing contrite and less smug (otherwise known as ‘default mode’, when it comes to Affleck).
“I don’t know that this film is really about ‘the media’,” David Fincher insists when I meet him in London a few weeks before Gone Girl – an adaptation of the wildly popular 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn – is released in the UK.
“It’s not even about people taking a healthy or borderline-prurient interest in a case. It’s about headline news. It’s about tragedy vampirism. It’s about that particular, self-righteous brand of mob fermenting that puts the vivisection of this marriage on a high heat.”
Representing the "tragedy vampirism" is Missi Pyle’s wonderfully vindictive news anchor Ellen Abbott, who pops up on TV screens throughout the film to stoke the condemnation of a man yet to stand trial. There are also small, potent nods to the role we all play in creating this sort of public hysteria that places juicy narrative before fact. The selfie-taker, enchanted by Nick’s celebrity (even as question marks loom over his guilt), treats him like a rock star, then in turns acts violated when he realises his mistakes and asks her to delete it. As interest in the case grows, Nick drives past the pub he owns and sees crowds of teenagers goofing off for photos outside. The media is portrayed brutally, but so is its audience on Twitter, egging the whole thing on.
You think, of course, of The Social Network, Fincher’s celebrated (and heavily fictionalized) 2010 film about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook (I also thought of Oliver Stone’s MTV-generation, serial killer fan boys in Natural Born Killers), a film, you could argue, that spearheaded the growing artistic backlash against the social media age.
Fincher, however, rejects the link. He insists the subject of social media “doesn’t interest me” – a strange thing to say, perhaps, given it was the subject of his most critically acclaimed film to date.
“I don’t care about social media,” he says, courteous but agitated.
“I do as it relates to a murder investigation. But I’m not waging a war against selfies, however ridiculous I think they are. That wasn’t part of the science project.”
Fincher has resisted interpretations of his films as anti-society or anti-modernity before.
Fight Club, his 1999 masterpiece that charts the ennui of man beaten down by the rat race of consumerism before being redeemed, initially at least, by embracing a band of fist-fighting outsiders, was embraced as emblem of late 90s anti-capitalism.
Yet when the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker, in his infamous (and admittedly hysterical) review of the film labeled it “anti-capitalist, anti-society, anti-God”, Fincher reacted with incredulity, blowing up the offending quote and mounting on a wall in his office. (When reminded of a similarly withering Roger Ebert review in 2011, his response was, essentially, “f**k Ebert…”).
A notoriously exacting auteur, Fincher demands complete control over the direction of his movies, something he confirms when I ask him what piece of advice has most stuck with him throughout his career.
“My Dad said to me: ‘Learn your craft, it’ll never stop you being a genius’. When I was young and first spending time around movie sets, I said to myself that I would never be the kind of director who is beholden to other people to know what can and can’t be done. If I want a low shot, I know exactly how that is achieved, so no one can tell me it’s impossible.”
This degree of authorship helps explain why, when he’s making movies he wants to make, Fincher is one of the leading American directors his generation. An obsessive re-taker of scenes, no second of his films are anyone’s vision but his own. There is a distinct Fincher aesthetic that runs through every project, from the decaying crime scenes in Seven to the darkened dorm rooms of Zuckerberg’s Harvard to Frank Underwood’s office in House Of Cards.
It also, perhaps, helps explain why he can be prickly when his work analysed – or as he sees it – people miss the point.
Gone Girl is two and a half hours long, but rattles past like a film half that length, propelled by Fincher’s instinct for adjusting the tempo at the right times and a Fight Club-esque reveal half way through that sends the film on a satirical trajectory, in which Rosamund Pike in particular shines.
But the central relationship of Nick and Amy’s marriage, and their internal lives, are the least memorable or compelling aspects of the film. It’s is the knee-jerk, ever-judging world around them, the rabidity of public opinion fuelled by the malleable artifice of the internet and 24-hour-news coverage, that is the film’s most vivid and believable character.
“A film is 25% image, 25% sound and 50% what an audiences brings to it,” Fincher tells me at one point. Whether he intends it this way or not, it is that 50% – his audience of consumers and voyeurs and social network addicts – that often seem to be the target of despair in Fincher’s movies. When I left the screening of Gone Girl, my first impulse was to tweet, ostensibly to recommend the world see it, really to brag that I had.
Gone Girl is out 3 October.