Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" was 2012's hippest piece of airport fiction. Its protagonists are two New York City journalists, Nick and Amy Dunne, whose super-sexy marriage turns so ugly that after Amy vanishes, Nick is suspected of killing her -- and becomes an overnight celebrity. Narrated from both spouses' unreliable viewpoints, "Gone Girl" zigzags through a media-crazed hall of mirrors in which public perception becomes more important than truth. The whole book was smart, wickedly funny and very "now."

David Fincher's screen version is a deeper, darker experience. On the surface it's beautiful, a Hollywood noir aglow with two exceptionally gorgeous stars, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and the lush cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth. Underneath, however, lurks an evil that comes into focus only during the film's final act.

The less said about plot the better, since "Gone Girl" has more twists than a pack of Twizzlers. (Flynn wrote the screenplay.) At any rate, it's the characters that make this story so vivid. Affleck is perfect as the handsome, hapless Nick, while Pike is dazzling as Amy, a Manhattanite withering away in dreary Carthage, Missouri. There, Nick and his twin sister, Margo (an excellent Carrie Coon in her feature debut), start a bar called The Bar. "Love the name," says Rhonda Boney, a "Fargo"-esque cop played by Kim Dickens. "Very meta."

Nick has also become meta. Like the actor who plays him, he's a public figure and fair game for ignorant judgments. Women rate him (creepy or hot?), men bristle at him, television journalists prey on him. (Missi Pyle plays a barely disguised version of Nancy Grace; Sela Ward is a vampiric interviewer named Sharon Schieber.) Two unexpectedly good performances come from Tyler Perry as Nick's glib defense lawyer and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's slightly strange ex-lover.

Flynn's novel found wry humor in our 24/7 media culture, but for Fincher ("The Social Network," "Se7en"), it's a horror show. Even more upsetting than this movie's blood-splattered crescendo (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher's go-to composers, have never delivered a more haunting score) is this movie's quietly chilling conclusion. By then, reality no longer matters at all.


PLOT In a small Missouri town, a husband stands accused of murdering his wife.

RATING R (violence, nudity, sexual situations, language)

CAST Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris

LENGTH 2:29

BOTTOM LINE Gillian Flynn's playful novel is now David Fincher's chilling movie. Still packed with twists and turns, but the overall effect is unsettling.

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FOR DIRECTOR DAVID FINCHER, IT'S ABOUT CRIME

"Gone Girl" director David Fincher has helmed some of the most high-profile projects of this and the past two decades, including the controversial classic "Fight Club." His oeuvre spans sci-fi ("Alien 3"), fantasy ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), fact-based drama ("The Social Network") and even (badly) rom-com ("Love and Other Disasters"). But his consistently best work may be in dark crime dramas.

"SEVEN" (1995) Fincher's memorably disturbing second feature as a director, after a career in commercials and music video, found Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman investigating deranged mastermind Kevin Spacey, whose string of murders reflects the Seven Deadly Sins.

"PANIC ROOM" (2002) In this home-invasion thriller, mom Jodie Foster and daughter Kristen Stewart barricade themselves in a protected room containing bonds that a trio of desperate burglars desire.

"ZODIAC" (2007) Jake Gyllenhaal stars as real-life San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, whose involvement in the 1960s and '70s "Zodiac Killer" case led to the best-selling nonfiction book on which this period mystery-thriller is based.

"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" (2011) Adapted from the Stieg Larsson novel that also was the basis for the same-name 2009 Swedish film, Fincher's was a rare remake as well received as the original.

-- Frank Lovece