The ghost of Gigli may haunt Ben Affleck forever. But Gone Girl might be the closest the actor’s come yet to scaring it away.
You see, Ben Affleck is excellent in Gone Girl. He’s not just movie-star excellent, though, where a sly grin and chiseled-jaw charm makes an actor magnetic enough to entertain or carry a movie—or “pull off a role,” the way it’s so often described when a beefcake Us Weekly staple manages to escape a meaty role without embarrassing themselves.
He’s excellent as in, like, actor-y excellent. As in, like, we may all need to start changing our minds about how we feel about Ben Affleck, the actor. Because, based on his performance in Gone Girl, he’s a really freaking good one.
It shouldn’t, of course, be counter-intuitive that a Hollywood A-lister with two Oscars and 59 acting credits to his name is capable of conjuring an electric, nuanced performance in a new movie. But let’s be honest about Affleck’s body of work for a second: it’s sucked.
Well, It’s largely sucked.
To be fair, you may be a big fan of his work as “Basketball Player #10 (Uncredited)” in the 1992 Buffy the Vampire film. Maybe you managed not to cringe at his take on the Bard in Shakespeare in Love, making you a stronger person than most. It’s a very real possibility that there are some out there who didn’t think the Japanese were the only ones who bombed in Pearl Harbor, or who mistakenly thought he wasn’t the worst Jack Ryan of them all in Sum of All Fears. And maybe you find some camp value, or thought there was some sort of performance art going on, in his spectacularly abysmal run of Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl, and Surviving Christmas.
And then there’s Daredevil.
Let’s acknowledge a self-aware famous person when we see one though—they are quite the unicorn. Affleck has admitted those were dark times.
“I made a bunch of movies that didn’t work,” he told Details in 2012. “I was ending up in the tabloids. I don’t know what the lesson is, except that you just have to find your compass.” He even stopped acting, or at least slowed down on his in-front-of-the-camera work, in order to find it. “I just said, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore. This is horrible. I don’t want to be in this spotlight, this glare, in this way. It’s tawdry, it’s ugly, it’s oppressive, and it’s inane. So I’m going to try to get away.’”
And when he came back, he was good.
He was good in The Town and in Argo, serviceably directing himself in rather flat parts—albeit exhibiting far more promise as a filmmaker than as an actor in these turns. He was good in To the Wonder, a curio typical of Terrence Malick that never overcame its moody whimsy to excite critics or audiences.
But it’s in Gone Girl that Affleck is great. He has found his compass. Or perhaps an argument could be made that he has simply just discovered it again. Because early in his career, though we ridiculed it above, Affleck was legitimately great in several of his films.
We may think of him as the sleek suit-sporting red-carpet stud now, but he excelled at playing the disheveled apathetics, stoners, and slackers in more comedic turns like Dazed and Confused, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. He absolutely nailed the most entertaining bullshitting scene there ever was in Good Will Hunting. As a singular scene, I maintain that it might be Affleck’s best acting performance up until Gone Girl.
He was tragic and spectacular in the little-seen biopic thriller Hollywoodland in 2006, rebuffing the peppy, sparkling tabloid persona that had been thrust upon him with a morose, revelatory dramatic performance.
But despite these examples and his recent success at re-establishing himself as a serious actor in serious movies, there’s still this element of disbelief that has trailed Affleck ever since his stretch of box-office bombs and acting misfires in the early to mid-2000s. Every cinematic triumph he accomplishes is met with surprise, as if there should maybe even be guilt in admitting that you enjoyed him.
“Argo is Ben Affleck’s personal masterpiece,” The Huffington Post’s Mike Ryan wrote after Argo premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. “And, no, I can’t believe I wrote that last sentence either.”
Part of the genius of Gone Girl, though, is that you kind of can’t believe that anybody who is in it is in it. The whole film is one giant WTF casting bonanza. Tyler Perry? Neil Patrick Harris? Casey Wilson? The girl from the “Blurred Lines” video? They’re all in it. And they’re all amazing. The acting in this film, guys, is good. Goofy! But good. And Ben Affleck is the WTF-casting-turned-brilliant performance leading them all.
Nick Dunne is a tricky role to play. The less said about the specifics of the plot, the better, but you should know that Affleck plays a husband whose wife (Amy, a brilliantly batshit Rosamund Pike) disappears and he is suspected of her murder. For a crucial portion of the film, you don’t know whether or not Nick did it, because Nick’s behavior is so freaking bizarre that it’s impossible to land on an educated guess.
He’s borderline indifferent, if just weary enough to show worry, when Amy disappears. He jokes around when he’s being questioned by police, but his eyes melt just so much with sadness when he unloads on his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) about everything that’s going on. Oh, and he smiles during the press conference announcing her disappearance.
In fact, if a cutesy story that Fincher told is to be believed, Affleck was cast purely based on his ability to nail that dashing-unsettling, “I didn’t kill my wife, I swear…OR DID I???” smile. And also because of Google.
“You cast movies based on critical scenes,” Fincher told The Hollywood Reporter. “In Gone Girl there’s a smile the guy has to give when the local press asks him to stand next to a poster of his missing wife. I flipped through Google Images and found about 50 shots of Affleck giving that kind of smile in public situations. 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.”
Another impeccably cast performance goes to Missi Pyle, who plays a Nancy Grace-esque cable news host named Eileen Abbott. “The hallmark of a sociopath is a lack of empathy,” Abbott says, and you can’t help but wonder, thanks to the impressive shades in Affleck’s performance, whether Nick is a sociopath, a murderer, or just plain a douchebag. A “I’m not a killer” speech Nick gives at a vigil for Amy is the crescendo of that questioning.
But when Gone Girl’s famous mid-point twist arrives, Affleck’s performance zings with sudden energy as Nick transforms from douchebag to Erin Brockovich, diving into the case of Amy’s disappearance (of sorts) himself. Critics often describe the kind of barreling, madcap work Affleck does in the second and third acts of the film as a “wild ride,” and, truly, the one Affleck goes on could not be more entertaining to watch.
By the time he lands the line reading of the year—“you fucking bitch”—at the film’s climax, you’re a fool not to erupt in applause: As it turns out, Ben Affleck, star of Gigli and survivor of Bennifer, is a fantastic actor.