Typical advice before viewing a movie based on a book: first read, then watch to compare, cheer, or castigate.

Advice for Gone Girl: watch David Fincher’s version before reading Gillian Flynn’s crime novel to better savour the screen adaptation.

Flynn’s wicked, twist-heavy and movie-ready bestseller from 2012 is about the nightmare facing Nick Dunne, a recently unemployed journalist whose recently unemployed magazine quiz writer wife, Amy, has gone missing. Did Nick do her in or was it one of the many obsessive admirers of his partner, the heroine of a successful series of children’s books titled Amazing Amy? How do his actions square off with Amy’s initially upbeat and eventually despairing diary entries, which record every turn and tremor of a once happy marriage? Is Nick a victim of the American economic downturn?

Assigned by gender

Like towels and monogrammed coffee mugs, Gone Girl has His and Hers bits. The sudden and initially jaw-dropping revelations are judiciously assigned to either gender, and the novel encourages a re-reading of each character’s first-person narratives to separate truth from self-deception. The first half, which stops at the exact point where a movie would halt for a popcorn-cola break, balances the requirements of a page-turner with a pulp tragedy about a relationship more lifeless than a corpse.

For the movie version, writer Flynn drains out the pulpiness to bring the narrative in line with director Fincher’s sleek and meticulous aesthetic. Her screenplay places us in a world of neat lines, smooth surfaces and ice-pick temperaments. (The adult-rated Indian version trims 4.54 minutes of lovemaking, male and female nudity, and coarse words for female genitalia.)

Fincher’s Gone Girl is an antiseptic interpretation of a septic marriage, and it sidesteps the strife that emerges after Amy’s disappearance in the interests of delivering a beautifully shot and elegantly assembled suspense thriller (the chic cinematography is by Jeff Cronenweth). Rather than “he said she said” unreliable narrator voices, we have a neutral observer ‒ Fincher ‒ who dresses up the crime scene perfectly and artistically for us to gaze upon and gasp at the right moments.

Easy does it

The shockers come on the clock. For those who have read the novel, they land with the same volume as a tea cup falling on a Persian carpet.

The characters are too smooth to be operators, as the original material suggests. Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), who is his most valiant supporter, is the only flesh-and-blood character in this house of mannequins, which includes detective Rhonda (Kim Dickens), Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s ex-boyfriend, and Tyler Perry as his celebrity lawyer. Ben Affleck, an actor of limited means, initially seems the right choice as the self-regarding and slack-bodied Nick, but his inability to move along with the constantly shifting narrative soon becomes painfully apparent, especially when compared with his co-star Pike, the sharp British actor with the enigmatic face full of stories.

Like Affleck, Fincher seems too obvious for this adaptation. The director of such beauties as Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac is a better choice for a thriller than most, but here, in his tenth film, he doesn’t move beyond the obvious. His excavation of the ruins of a marriage rarely dips beneath the top layer. Unlike Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, another missing persons movie that unearths its horrors with far greater feeling, Gone Girl lingers on the surface. It’s less of a nightmare than an unpleasant dream, with little sense of the peril that swirls around Nick and Amy and threatens to submerge them.