That Gone Girl is something close to a mechanically flawless thriller I take to be more of an objective reality than an opinion. There is great mastery to be found in Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography, using the harsh sharpness of digital video to render suburban spaces with an exaggerated realism, making them pop so hard that they go 'round the other side and start to feel like fake structures, all surface texture and color, and this turns out to be just about the perfect setting for the story. The subtle visual overlaps in Kirk Baxter's editing (he's working without reliable partner Angus Wall this time) and the pulses in the cutting rhythm nicely echo and reinforce the sense in all good thrillers of fate closing in, wrapping around, and choking the characters and audience, while also - crucially in this case, creating a steady enough flow that a 149-minute running time prances by unnoticed. It's never been clearer that these two men are, increasingly, as important components in the making of David Fincher films as director David Fincher himself, whose noted obsessive perfectionism is anyway ideally suited to making the kind of elaborate watchworks of a film like this, where the story progresses in three separate chronological registers (the present, the several years past, and the past of about a week ago), all building towards one unalterable doom, obvious in retrospect but terrifyingly confusing in the moment.

And for all that it's perfect, I find that Gone Girl suffers from that most amorphous and indescribable and subjective of artistic flaws: I just didn't like it. It reminds me most, out of Fincher's directorial canon, of The Game, another magnificently crafted device that ends up being too chilly and remote from its characters for its own damn good. It's not simply that they're unlikable, though the leads in Gone Girl are immeasurably unlikable. It's that there's not much reason offered within the film for us to have any kind of feeling about them beyond the sense that we're watching rats in an especially masterful maze - but nothing ever offers us the chance to feel like we're inside with those rats, nor apparently does the film even grasp why that might be a way to make a thriller that's generally gripping and involving, and not just a handsome exercise in structuring and executing a thriller whose outcome is largely of academic, not emotional interest.

(And yes, there's the contingent who have seen the movie, as they read Gillian Flynn's bestselling book, as a deeply intimate and involving study of marriage in free fall. I don't begrudge anybody that reading, but I think it only holds if you close the book or stop the movie at the halfway point, and thus save yourself the discovery that it is in fact a trashy potboiler about a psychopath being psychopathic, and if it resembles your marriage in even the broadest sense at that point, I hope with all my heart that you have a terrific counselor).

The plot, in brief, and largely for form's sake - it is an immensely spoiler-sensitive story. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) have not been happy in their marriage for many years. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously vanishes, and the evidence starts to pile up, especially when you start looking for it, that Nick maybe probably killed her. His sole allies are his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), a skeptical police detective, Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), and eventually the tacky men's rights lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). His opponents number just about everybody with eyes to look at the mounting circumstantial evidence, but most persuasive is Amy herself, who gets to tell her side of the story of how their marriage grew toxic and malevolent in a series of flashbacks to their life together, from dazzling meet cute to the shrill misery of their move to Missouri from New York, precipitated in part by Nick's mother's illness, mostly because of financial collapse during the post-2008 recession. And while I will not at any other point stoop to making a "the book does this, but the movie does this" comparison - both of them are ultimately sudsy, enjoyable, but aggravatingly insubstantial beach reads - I can't overlook how much better a job the book does than the movie of expressing the story as an extension of the general social malaise of economical despair.

Anyway, the question looms: did Nick kill Amy, and is Amy even for sure dead? And I'm going to avoid the Big Spoilers, but it's really not worth talking about the film without touching on at least some of the Little Spoilers, so please take that as your warning to skedaddle if you're inclined.

So if we've shaken off all the spoilerphobes, here's one of the really odd things about Gone Girl, the movie (not bad, necessarily, but odd): it's basically never plausible that Nick is actually guilty of murder. Blame the way that the cinema eye feels "objective" while first-person narration does not, blame the way that Affleck, however brilliantly cast as an arrogant dick who has to work enormously hard every minute to seem even a little bit less smug and off-putting, is still a charismatic movie star, and its damn hard to sell charismatic movie stars as villains, unless you go all the way over the top with it, and of course in Gone Girl, the whole point is to keep things as ambiguous as possible. But for all that he's unpleasant and off-putting almost constantly, the way the visuals are structured and the film is assembled simply takes it for granted that he's innocent, of this crime at least.

The result is a sleek wrong man thriller, nothing more or less, and I suppose there's nothing wrong with that; it's a bit lugubrious for a genre film, with its imposing cinematography and strangulating sense of things getting worse and worse and worse in the screenplay (also written by Flynn, who largely just transcribes and condenses her book, though there's a different final scene). But it also clips by, and there's a decent quantity of humor, almost all of it provided by the side character - almost all of it supplied by Coon's Margo, in fact, in what I'm tempted to call my favorite out of a good bunch of performances (Perry is a sardonic, self-aware reservation, and while Dickens is kind of playing a stereotype, she does it with energy).

The only weaker spots are the leads, really, though whether it's because the austere remove the film keeps us at from them that they seem so vague, or of the shortcomings of the performance are part of what drives the austerity, I cannot say. At any rate, Affleck is here more to be Fincher's handsome, thick-chinned prop of entitled manhood, while Pike, on top of employing a far too measured American accent that never falters, but which she obviously finds uncomfortable (the only time she ever feels like speaking is natural to her is when she adopts a broad Southern accent, which I believe to be easier for Brits to mimic than the studied Midland accent Pike shoots for), disappointingly stops her performance at whatever is obviously happening on the surface - Amy is undoubtedly a rich, chewy role for any performer, even without having to dig for undercurrents, and it's easy to see why Pike left things at the level the script dictates. But one of her best gifts has always been finding what's not in the script and playing a character who comes into the film slantwise, and that's not her Amy, not at all. Her Amy is exactly the Amy I had in my head reading the book, and anyone could have played that part. Pike didn't become one of my favorites of her generation from doing things I would have expected.

None of which really detracts from the pleasures of Gone Girl, since they are almost all formal in nature: the way that the images create tension, the way that the editing punctuates, and to a degree the way that the score keeps it all at a heightened pitch (I am undecided on the music - it works in the film's interests, but it's by far the least interesting of the three film scores that Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have composed for Fincher). The film clicks along fluidily and icily; it's technically impeccable but the whole thing feels awfully dry to me, proof of the director's technical accomplishment, but even more, proof that he badly needs process-oriented stories to bring to life, like Zodiac and The Social Network, because he's just too damn chilly for character dramas.