It's something of a spiritual experience to watch a movie and know that every shot is the product of someone's profound inspiration by the narrative they're telling. Ok, maybe not spiritual, but it's really awesome. We've seen it from the greats a million times over: Gregg Toland, Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, etc. I've seen it from more contemporary cinematographers like Seamus McGarvey. I've even seen it from small diamonds in the rough like the rom-com "(500) Days of Summer" photographed by little known Eric Steelberg. Where I have never seen it, is in a film shot by Jeff Cronenweth. He's done Fincher's last 3 films: "The Social Network" (2010), "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011), and now "Gone Girl" (2014). Even though they're telling compelling stories, he seems to return to the same overdone drudgery time after time. It's like he's bored. Like he shows up on set wondering what he can do with today's iteration of standard coverage and stark-ish soft light
Maybe we can give him points for consistency? All three movies were shot on the latest Red sensor. And we can even throw his work on 2012's "Hitchcock" and the recent Taylor Swift music video for "Shake it Off" in that category as well. He's found something that he likes and he sticks with it. Of course that would be infinitely more impressive if we could see from picture to picture how he exploits the sensor to make it achieve different looks in each film, but instead it's all kind of similar. Even the music video has a bland Cronenweth soft top light feel, just with less contrast.
But that being said, it is in fact a distinct aesthetic that he's got going for him. I've never seen another film and mistook it for Cronenweth's work (except maybe with the exception of "House of Cards"). What he does succeed at is directing the photography once the action starts to heat up. In the moment when the main girl finally ends up in bed with Neil Patrick Harris we start to get some novel camera angles. The perspective that Cronenweth affords the audience starts to augment the drama of the story. He's helping us to experience the moments leading up to the climax as viscerally as possible. But this kind of just leaves me with an empty feeling, wondering what happened to the rest of the film. Why was everything before this just a selection of scenes of people talking to each other with the camera as unobtrusively objective as possible? Perhaps, one could argue that there's a level of believability in that. Maybe he chooses to keep the camerawork simple because the audience accepts what they see as fact, as if it were from some omniscient perspective without the taint of a human being behind it. And I can kinda see that. I can see how they probably thought that was brilliant. But I don't think it actually paid off. They could have done much better for themselves if they used the camera to tell the story throughout the narrative rather than leaving it for brief periods toward the end.
There doesn't seem to be much of a clear protagonist in the film either, and I think that has a lot to do with the choice of camera placement. We never get into the head of Ben Afleck's character. We never get a moment of intimacy with him and the camera. That could have let us trust in him, and what could have been more powerful than the audience's belief in his innocence is the moment when we find out that he is actually culpable for what happened to his wife, but not in the way anyone expected. There was a lot of untapped potential with "Gone Girl," which is a shame because it was really a strong film. A DP with more of a sense of direction for the photography could have really brought some more life into this story.