With “Gone Girl,” director David Fincher has finally found the perfect role for Ben Affleck. Lacking any humor or meaningful emotion, he plays a guy who is morose, sullen and extraordinarily confused. It is a role found in heaven for an actor largely devoid of any meaningful talent.
I know that sounds a bit nasty, but Affleck is the ideal character to be suspected of murder. “Gone Girl” is a searing drama centering on the disappearance of a wife and suspicion surrounding the husband. It quickly became a whodunit, but its length caused me to have considerable trouble caring who did it.
Don’t get me wrong, as the movie has some expected great strengths. Fincher has brought us some glorious films in the past, including “Se7en” (1995), “Fight Club” (1999), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) and the celebrated “The Social Network” (2010). Nonetheless, while the suspense in “Gone Girl” increasingly leaves you riveted to your seat, it descends into a madness that Fincher asks the viewer to accept. Quite honestly, I was left thinking, “Are you kidding me?”
The heart and soul of this film comes from extraordinary performances by several actresses. Let’s start with Rosamund Pike, playing the missing spouse, Amy Dunne. She is superior as a wife forced to accompany her husband from New York to his hometown in Missouri as her writing career collapses and her accumulated fortune starts to disappear. Though she gradually devolves into a demonic force who embraces pain with a satanic joy, she is as captivating as she is monstrously unlikeable.
Adding power to the film are the performances of Carrie Coon as Nick Dunne’s sister, Margo, and Kim Dickens as homicide detective Rhonda Boney. Margo is everything her brother is not, namely intelligent, caring and sensible. Detective Boney, who is leading the investigation concerning Amy’s disappearance, is a bright detective who is hard to convince, and both women make the film believable even when it explodes from within.
Though Neil Patrick Harris has an annoying role playing a former boyfriend of Amy, Tyler Perry provides considerable interest as a nationally known defense attorney, Tanner Bolt. Though he is a copy of the legendary Johnny Cochran, as a criminal defense attorney I can tell you that his advice to Affleck’s Dunne was spot on at every turn.
Oddly, the part of this film that I embraced with glee dealt with an idiotic impersonation of TV’s Nancy Grace. Writer Gillian Flynn, who adapted her novel for the screen, mocks the character unmercifully, and it was a joy knowing that Grace was subjected to the contempt she deserves.
In any event, I know I am in a small row boat by criticizing this film given its great reviews. However, it has a great deal going for it, particularly when it allows Grace’s alter ego to flamboyantly defend evil. Yet the movie lasts nearly two-and-a-half hours, so be prepared for a long cinematic train ride.
There have been a number of great movies centering on lawyers and trials, but unfortunately “The Judge” is not one of them. Despite the appearance of brilliant actors Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga, it becomes largely a soap opera masquerading as a trial where a son represents his father.
The performances of Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind” (1960), motivated me to become a defense attorney. Ironically, while both lost their cases, they performed their task with a profound sense of dignity and honor.
“The Judge” captures none of that drama or magnificence. Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, an arrogant defense lawyer from Chicago who is as proud of his own self-worth as he is of his Ferrari. Though he has not talked to any family members in over 20 years, he learns that his mother has died in their hometown in Indiana. He reluctantly agrees to go to her funeral, where he reunites with two brothers and a father (Duvall) who has been a local judge for more than 40 years.
As Joseph Palmer goes through the trauma of his wife’s death and the fact that he has been hiding cancer treatment, he is arrested for allegedly hitting and killing a bicyclist with his car who just happens to be a hated ex-defendant in his court. Of course Hank has to rally to the flag, but the drama falls short at nearly every turn.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the special prosecutor with a bit of class, but Downey Jr.’s character doesn’t know the meaning of the word. His relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Farmiga), and an attractive young woman who may be her daughter, is borderline condemnable. It makes it very hard to like this guy.
Quite frankly, you wanted the movie to focus primarily on Joseph’s trial, but the film strangely concentrates on a family trying to reunite. The brothers are played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong, with Strong’s Dale Palmer being the only truly likeable person in the film.
The film takes place in fictitious Carlinville, Indiana, and we Hoosiers are basically portrayed as a bunch of goofs surrounded by large fields of corn who spend our free time fishing. It wasn’t that I was insulted, though fishing never has appealed to me unless I was on a boat off the Florida Keys.
In the end, if you want to see a movie that reminds us of what it means to be a defense attorney, then revisit “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Peck’s Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom after his loss. His daughter, Scout, sitting in the balcony of the courtroom with the family of the defendant, is told to rise as Finch walks under them. The client’s father simply says, “Stand up, Scout, your father is passing.”•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.