Movie Reviews: “Gone Girl,” “Tracks”

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There’s something to be said for trash that knows it’s trash. I’m often the first to defend “Showgirls,” for instance, or the filmographies of John Waters and Russ Meyer. But trash that thinks it’s art shames both, and that’s where the superficially entertaining “Gone Girl” resides. Well-shot, well-edited and well-scored—it’s directed by David Fincher, after all—“Gone Girl” is addictively watchable, but its pleasures are indeed guilty and transient. This hysterical, soap-operatic adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-seller is an unmysterious mystery, an often unintentional comedy and an unconvincing thriller, a film that tries very hard to hoodwink us into thinking it’s something profound.

Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a bar owner in Missouri who, on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing, their coffee table smashed, the occasional bloodstain on the kitchen cupboards and a hand-written riddle among his wife’s “unmentionables.” This verbal puzzle—the first clue in a scavenger hunt that’s part of the couple’s anniversary tradition—leads to further cryptic notes and the assistance of a pair of local cops, the blunt and prying Rhonda (Kim Dickens) and the skeptical Jim (Patrick Fugit).

Soon enough, the media catches wind of the disappearance of this young, attractive scion of a wealthy dynasty, descending on the Dunnes’ home with tabloid fervor and condemning Nick for being insufficiently depressed about his wife’s apparent kidnapping. Every once in a while, Fincher’s film flashes back to earlier times in Nick and Amy’s marriage, a halcyon union between a rich girl from New York City and a corn-fed Midwesterner that eventually soured.

I won’t spoil anything from here; the movie does its own spoiling about an hour into the picture, and the longer this film unspools, the more ludicrous it becomes, its plot points transparently risible. New characters, introduced mid-story, do spark interesting directions—like Tyler Perry as a high-profile defense attorney and Missi Pyle as an obnoxiously crusading cable-news host, likely modeled after Johnnie Cochran and Nancy Grace, respectively.

But Fincher’s tone soon becomes awkwardly perched between a modern-day media satire, an edgy shocker and an arch throwback to classic Hollywood thrillers, and it doesn’t work. The latter surfaces mostly in Pike’s off-putting performance; her Amy is less a flesh-and-blood person than an artificial construct, a Macy’s mannequin brought to life, free of nuance. She seems to be channeling Tippi Hedren in the ‘60s more than the contemporary anti-socialite that she seems to represent on the page.

Cheap thrills and silly twists disguise themselves as pointed commentary on the tribulations of long-term relationships, and as the movie’s glossy movieness takes over, other reference points, both high and low, burble to the surface—“Fatal Attraction,” “Leave Her to Heaven,” “Desperate Housewives,” Fincher’s far superior “Zodiac.” Taken together, they suggest that Fincher’s vision for “Gone Girl” is more referential than inspirational—a tawdry derivative in a career of originals.

“Gone Girl” opens today at most area theaters.

It’s been 34 years since Australian writer Robyn Davidson published Tracks, her best-selling memoir about her remarkable nine-month, 1,700-mile trek—by foot and by camel—through the Australian outback, to the Indian Ocean. That’s more than three decades movie producers have slept on this compelling story, and watching director John Curran’s skillful adaptation, one wonders what took them so long.

Mia Wasikowska, best known for her title roles in “Alice in Wonderland” and “Jane Eyre,” plays the 27-year-old Robyn. She’s too young for the part, only because she still looks 18, making her solo excursion seem somewhat like a restless teenager’s rebellion. At any rate, as the film opens, it’s 1975; she spends two years on the farms of discouraging authority figures, training feral camels to carry her supplies. By April 1977, she takes off into the pictorial wilds with four camels and her beloved black lab—an impossible journey accompanied, at sporadic intervals, by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whose magazine sponsored her voyage and turned her into a media sensation.

“Tracks” is a procession of scenes that alternately test Robyn’s mettle (killing wild animals to survive, tending to sick and/or disappearing camels, losing her mind in an endless desert expanse) and showcase the kindness of strangers (Aboriginal village elders navigating her through a region in which women cannot travel alone; an elderly couple living in convenient oblivion who provide a safe haven; Rick’s tireless, if romantically motivated, dedication to keeping her safe). All along, we try to answer the question Robyn herself dodges: Why is she doing this? It’s surely not for Guinness-breaking notoriety.

Motives are suggested in fits and starts. We learn that her mother hanged herself when Robyn was 11, and we assume she’s never confronted her grief; we see glimpses of her traumatic childhood in fragmented flashbacks stirred up through her quest. As her history takes root, we accept that she’s not an idealistic dreamer so much as a misanthropic escapist, fleeing life and other people, finding solace in her animals. She’s lonely on her odyssey, but she’d probably be lonelier in a city. When she sleeps with Rick, partway through her voyage, she does so knowing that it’s a one-night stand, meant to quench a fleeting pang of vulnerability. As a moviegoer it’s refreshing to see a man objectified to meet a woman’s needs, and not the other way around.

Thus, “Tracks” emerges as a feminist spin on the classic hero’s journey, a narrative too eccentric to fall into traditional Joseph Campbell archetypes but too structurally familiar to be considered radical filmmaking. Curran is a director who makes good, handsome movies that fall short of being great ones (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Painted Veil”), and “Tracks” falls into this sturdy tradition. The film is airbrushed for Hollywood; the real Robyn had to fend off lecherous would-be rapists during her voyage, but in the film she merely swats away pesky tourists with cameras. And Curran could have delved deeper into the psychosis of the sweltering desert, aside from a mirage or two. One scene, in which she retrieves a golden compass from the desert ground, has a connection to her past that is only vaguely conveyed, and it lacks its emotional impact.

By and large, though, with her chapped lips and peeling, sunburnt skin, Wasikowska embodies her rudderless vagabond with a hard, lived-in naturalism. She brings to life a character that is neither hero nor antihero—nor especially a role model. She’s a great story, though, and Curran tells it like a seasoned pro.

“Tracks” opens today at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Muvico Parisian in West Palm Beach, and Regal South Beach 18.