Hannah Strong explores how David Fincher put the actor's uneasy allure to fascinating use in his 2014 film adaptation
In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film's release. To coincide with the arrival of David Fincher's Mank, Hannah Strong revisits the clever casting of Ben Affleck in the 2014 adaptation of Gone Girl
There is a moment, 28 minutes into David Fincher’s Gone Girl, where Nick Dunne – beleaguered husband of the missing Amy Dunne – is asked by the police investigating his wife’s disappearance to read out the first clue from their annual anniversary treasure hunt. He does so, and considers the puzzle for a moment, consternation wearing heavy on his brow, before we see the lightbulb illuminate inside his head; a bright, self-satisfied smile is our indicator. “I know this one!” he beams, with the childlike pride of a man who has glumly watched his wife run circles around him for years.
It’s the only time in Gone Girl that we see Nick Dunne smile, really smile. That is, not the shit-eating movie star grin which draws the ire of the media during the initial press conference about Amy’s disappearance. “I flipped through Google Images and found about 50 shots of Affleck giving that kind of smile in public situations,” said Fincher in a 2014 interview with Playboy. “You look at them and know he’s trying to make people comfortable in the moment, but by doing that he’s making himself vulnerable to people having other perceptions about him.”
And boy, do people have perceptions about Ben Affleck. From his high profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez (and the movie it spawned) and his marriage to Jennifer Garner (and the divorce that followed) to his highly-publicised back tattoo, Affleck has a unique sort of celebrity cache; people are continually fascinated and repulsed by him. In 2017, Affleck issued an apology to Hillary Burton, after footage emerged of him touching her breast during a 2003 episode of MTV’s TRL, but that wasn’t the only allegation of inappropriate behaviour that came to light. Whether Affleck’s attitude toward women has changed in subsequent years since these incidents remains to be seen, but his career certainly hasn’t suffered. He’s had a plush payday in the Batman franchise and a warmly-received dramatic turn in The Way Back pulling from his own experiences of alcoholism; there’s very little Hollywood won’t forgive a charming white man for.
David Fincher saw all the chaos that surrounded Affleck in 2013, when he cast him as Amy Dunne’s “salt-of-the-earth Missourian guy” in Gone Girl, and harnessed his strange hold over Hollywood – alongside his undeniable but oft-overlooked talent – to capture an excellent but understated performance from a celebrity the public is constantly at odds with.
Throughout Affleck’s career, he's become accustomed to playing the hero. Kevin Smith occasionally took advantage of his impossible good looks to cast him as the foil in his 90s slacker comedies, but from his supporting role in Good Will Hunting through to Armageddon, Pearl Harbour and The Sum of All Fears, Affleck was the all-American action man. Even the one-two punch of box office bombs in Daredevil and Gigli (released six months apart) couldn't stall his career for long; by 2007 he'd achieved critical acclaim with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone – a streak would develop with 2010's The Town and culminate in the Best Picture Academy Award he won for 2012's Argo. But Affleck’s off-screen antics alongside our changing cinematic appetites (step forward the Chris Evanses, the Oscar Isaacs, as beloved for their public charisma as their acting) have increasingly convinced the public Boston’s wayward son is more of a villain.
Released in the summer of 2012, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became an instant best-seller; a psychological thriller with real bite. Flynn had worked previously as a magazine writer, and was inspired by her own experiences working in the media – and subsequently being made redundant – to put some of herself into the character of Nick Dunne, who is a high-flying journalist when he first meets Amy (their marriage starts to fall apart when the couple both lose their writing jobs). It’s Flynn’s scathing portrayal of “tragedy vampirism” within the media which feels the most prescient part of her novel, but she’s careful to wrap her condemnation of the gossip-obsessed tabloids in a slick, compelling, and ultimately amusing manner. Gone Girl is not a screed against the newscasters – it’s an arched eyebrow, questioning our own complicity in this specific sort of circus.
In transferring Flynn’s novel to the screen, a sort of shorthand was required; 500 pages from contradictory dual perspectives does not a 180-minute film make. There needed to be a reason the audience would be on the back foot to start with; Affleck’s casting was a wry, knowing acknowledgement that for all intents and purposes, Nick Dunne should be the good guy. He’s framed for murder by his sociopath wife, endures a trial by media, and ultimately is trapped in his marriage to Amy when she returns, where the threat of either death or prison looms in the periphery. Yet as Amy herself notes after their reunion – and as Nick seems to accept – they are equals. A couple we condemn to live unhappily ever after.
When Gone Girl was released, Amy Dunne became a sort of icon among audiences for rejecting the patriarchal ideals of womanhood. She instead acts with the sort of cool-headed narcissism more commonly attributed to the Norman Bates or Patrick Batemans of popular culture and it's that subversion which makes her so absorbing and ultimately entertaining. Casting a more sympathetic actor as her husband would have elicited an entirely different reaction, positioning Rosamund Pike’s smiling villain further on the side of nightmarish. To think of other Fincher alumni who could have fit the casting call, there’s Jake Gyllenhaal or Brad Pitt (two more all-American heartthrobs), but both are too beloved in the eyes of the filmgoing public. Nick Dunne needed an underlying element of unscrupulousness to make his philandering and inattentiveness worthy of punishment, and few of Affleck’s Hollywood peers have such an uneven perception among audiences.
Fincher points to Affleck’s acute understanding of how others perceive him as to why he was drawn to him for the role. “Actors don’t like to be made the brunt of the joke. They go into acting to avoid that,” he told Film Comment. Another Fincher observation, from Affleck’s profile in The New York Times: “We had to have somebody who understood the lose-lose situation, and somebody who knew what that meant, and wasn't angry about it. He actually has great wit about it. As it relates to this circumstance, he can see the humour in it. Even when he's the punchline.”
There’s a hangdog resignation to Nick Dunne throughout the film that speaks to this; he’s still the fool who continues his affair with a young college student while the neighbourhood are searching for his missing wife, so driven by his very base desire for sex it never enters his head how it might make him look to an already hostile public. The audience sees Amy’s point of view long before her voice over informs us how much happier she is dead; she is the yellow glow of a floor lamp, saying “See what I have to put up with?” as Nick has sex with his mistress. Through Nick’s incompetence, we see her frustration.
Then there are the subtle tics that make Affleck so perfect as Dunne, highlighted by Fincher in the Gone Girl director’s commentary; his ability to sneak a glance at his phone while speaking to someone, or to completely fabricate a conversation. But being a sneak doesn't necessary make one a good liar; Dunne is an awful liar, which is why he can’t play the role of loving, concerned husband when the cameras turn to him. The first half of Gone Girl hinges on the audience’s suspicion of Nick Dunne; the raised eyebrow when he claims, attempting sincerity, “I did not kill my wife.” True crime enthusiasts know that nine times out of ten, The Husband Did It, and there’s an inherent insincerity to Affleck (the man) which is harnessed here. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Nick did murder Amy in Gone Girl’s media circus; only that the public believe he did.
But there needed to be something real about Nick Dunne, too; something amiable and charming, beyond the way he gently brushes powder sugar from Amy’s lips on the night they meet, to temper his duplicitous ways and the media fallout. The way Affleck’s eyes light up at his treasure hunt realisation – so believable it’s easy to see how this man would be set up so effectively by his wife. He doesn’t have a clue who – or what – he’s up against. It’s enough to generate a modicum of sympathy for the golden boy who thought he had it all figured out, and opposite Affleck’s clueless husband, Rosamund Pike’s meticulous murderess Amy Dunne is all the more compelling. To create a performance where the audience can so easily believe you’re not performing at all is quite a feat (though Affleck drew the line at wearing a Yankees cap). To create one that serves as a catalyst for your co-star’s work is an even more impressive achievement.
It’s six years since Gone Girl, and throughout 2020 Affleck's relationship with Ana De Armas and unusual mask-wearing habits have fascinated the media, while Adrian Lyne’s long-gestating erotic thriller Deep Water (co-starring De Armas) will hit cinemas next summer, marking the actor's third collaboration with a romantic partner following Gigli and Daredevil. He remains a compelling-yet-unsettling fixture of Hollywood, but David Fincher remains perhaps the only director to make the connection between Affleck the Man and Affleck the Performer. The result is a quietly brilliant portrayal of modern masculinity, stumbling and flawed in the face of a woman’s anger at years of mistreatment. This isn’t to justify any of Amy’s actions (the extremity of them is part of the black humour) but rather to understand that Gone Girl is about the lies we tell ourselves, and the ones we try to enforce upon one another.
An anecdote, to end on: when Amy and Nick first meet in Gone Girl, Amy tells him: “You have a villain’s chin.” Rumour has it that – slightly stung by the remark – Affleck was compelled to follow up Gone Girl by finding a role with a “heroic chin,” which led him to playing Batman. It’s probably not true, but it could be, right? After all, there’s no such thing as plausible deniability when it comes to Ben Affleck.
Hannah Strong is the Associate Editor of Little White Lies and a freelance journalist. You can find out more about her work here.