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Arts Film Review

New films: Gone Girl, Tracks, The Notebook

This is an odd week in that all three of the films reviewed are good, but each had some characteristic that felt somewhat unsatisfying. In each case, the specific concern was subjective and will likely affect (or not) different viewers in different ways.

Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher

“Gone Girl” is the latest film from director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” The Social Network”) and so it comes with high expectations, as well as those additional expectations associated with lead actor Ben Affleck.

Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a guy whose fifth wedding anniversary goes off the rails when his wife goes missing. Naturally the police are interested in their marriage and initially he’s a suspect, by default if nothing else. But more and more things seem to implicate him and the film seems set, early on, to be a “did he or didn’t he?” type of story.

We see his wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike, who can also be seen as Hector’s wife in “Hector and the Search for Happiness”), in flashbacks that show how they met and the early days of their relationship. Oddly, and perhaps to reinforce the feeling that these scenes are not part of the present day narrative, these scenes seemed to have a different balance in the sound mix, with at least of the primary dialog over-powered by background noise. I actually thought the sound in the theater was faulty at first, but the pattern seemed fairly consistent – and I haven’t had a chance to check it in a different auditorium.

As the investigation continues, the film changes gear and becomes one of those stories that it’s hard to discuss without ruining the plot – but suffice it to say that it’s never less than attention grabbing and compelling. It’s one of those stories that’s quite hard to watch, not just for the graphic scenes of violence, but for the scenes of psychological and emotional manipulation. When I filled out my post-screening comment card for the studio rep, I noted that I wasn’t sure if I had been entertained or traumatized at some level.

But even all of that, as described, is positive – in the sense that the film is designed to make audiences feel this way. It’s not a light story and it rarely, if ever, has a light tone – this is some dark territory that’s being explored. The problem for some viewers will be simply whether or not one finds the ending of the story entirely satisfying. It’s still a story that’s being very well told, but it might just be a story you no longer enjoy. That said, I think even that is intentional and partners and groups of friends are likely to walk away arguing about the outcome. On a personal level, it didn’t go quite where I was hoping and so I walked out a little disappointed but, as I said in the introduction to the column, that doesn’t stop it being from being a good movie, it just stops it from being one that I completely enjoyed.

 

Tracks
Directed by John Curran

“Tracks” tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, who in 1977 embarked on a solo trek across the Western Australian desert, accompanied only by a dog and four camels. As the film explains, camels were imported into Australia as working animals, because of their suitability to the climate in much of the country and, at the time of her expedition, Davidson noted (via the film’s narration) that Australia had the largest feral camel population in the world.

Davidson is played convincingly by Mia Wazikowska (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Jane Eyre,” Stoker”) as a young woman who feels the need to explore the barren desert as much to escape people and civilization as to prove that she can complete the journey. And so she’s frustrated by the number of people who take an interest in her trip, or who want or need to be involved at various stages.

The trip itself doesn’t start very early in the film, as we first spend time watching her earn her camels through multiple jobs and deals, and prepare for what’s ahead. Robyn’s own father had taken similar solitary walks, including across the Kalahari desert in Africa, and so this wasn’t an undertaking that she took lightly or without an understanding of the risks.

My own concern was again somewhat personal, and others may feel differently, but the film seemed somewhat bland to me. It’s a retelling of a great personal journey and a triumph of human will and endurance and yet, for much of the film, the sheer difficulty doesn’t really come across. We do see the psychological challenges and turmoil they generate, but the walking itself and the extraordinary distance covered didn’t seem well captured in terms of their necessary intensity.

It’s still an interesting film and a beautiful film to watch. And it has some lessons about native aboriginal culture that add depth to the experience, as I’m sure it did for Davidson at the time. But I don’t think the film was entirely successful in capturing the physical aspect of the undertaking. And it isn’t helped by a trailer that causes the film to seem somewhat different in that regard.
The Notebook
Directed by János Szász

Looking back on the week’s films, I’m surprised to find myself remembering “The Notebook” most fondly, as it didn’t really engage me fully at the time and, rather like “Gone Girl,” it ended in a way that didn’t entirely resonate with me. But it’s an amazing story and it’s one that builds after you walk away from it and let it sink in a little deeper.

We’ve seen many films set in World War II, with children being caught in the middle of the nightmare swirling around them – and most tend to share the aspect of the innocence of the children being held in stark contrast to the actions around them. “The Notebook” turns that perspective on its head as it tells the tale of identical twin boys sent to live with their maternal grandmother on a small farm near the Hungarian border.

Exposed suddenly to the brutality of war, the separation from their parents, and the extreme indifference of their grandmother, the brothers actually determine to train themselves through a series of exercises intended to make them stronger both physically and emotionally. They beat each other and they intentionally familiarize themselves with death, for example, to be able to endure anything that is thrown at them without displaying weakness.

It’s this idea of children purposefully dehumanizing themselves, for want of a better explanation, that is so powerful – and it’s not surprising to discover that this film is Hungary’s official selection for Oscar consideration. When we’ve come across this before, it’s tended to be the unfortunate outcome of a fictional circumstance, as in “Lord of the Flies” or the current crop of post-apocalytic or dystopian teen dramas such as “The Hunger Games.” But here the combination of real world horrors and willful intent, from children, result in a far more powerful and lingering effect.

The twins aren’t named in the film, which makes sense as they are never really seen as individuals – they’re a pair but they’re more like two halves of a single organism, acting, eating, working, fighting, and sleeping together at all times. Also, all of the characters are identified only in terms that the boys would relate to – mother, grandmother, officer, shoemaker – rather than with any greater specificity and to each of the boys, the other twin is like the other half of him rather than a person requiring a name.

I was strongly expecting one of those notes over the closing captions that would update us on certain outcomes and, without one, the last scene of the film seemed hard to reconcile at the time. However, since then it has fallen further into place in my mind, and in my appreciation of the film, and I have a feeling it will stay with me for a while.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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