Will ‘Gone Girl’ break the curse against crime thrillers at Oscars?

Having seen “Gone Girl” on Friday night at the New York Film Festival, it seems to me its biggest hurdle in the awards season to come is the possibility that it’ll be considered too pulpy. It’s a crime thriller with grandiose twists and turns, and no refined social message the motion picture academy can congratulate itself for acknowledging. Those kinds of films rarely win, with a few notable exceptions. Can David Fincher be another exception to the rule?

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It’s no secret the motion picture academy likes their films to carry a certain nobility: Important Themes like world history, politics, morality, art, or war – but the real kind, not those silly “Star”-type wars. However, voters don’t mind voting for less lofty fare if there’s an auteur behind the camera with enough artistic cachet to make voters feel important anyway.

Martin Scorsese had that in 2006 when he won for “The Departed.” By that point, Scorsese was still Oscar-less despite a resume that included “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” He even tried his hand at the kinds of period epics the academy often eats up (“Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”), to no avail. So by the time “The Departed” rolled around, he had such a big Oscar IOU that he could conceivably have won for directing “Dude Where’s My Car?” Crowning the film as Best Picture capped off his victory lap.

Has Fincher accrued the same clout and good will? He has only made a couple of big plays for Oscar – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) and “The Social Network” (2010) – but the latter of those lost in a controversial decision to one of those big, “important” historical movies, “The King’s Speech,” and many felt that Fincher was wronged.

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However, there may not be quite as great a sense that the academy owes him a win, so a thriller like “Gone Girl” might be a tougher sell for him than it was for Scorsese. On the strength of its all-star cast, excellent reviews (82 on MetaCritic as of this writing), and, potentially, a box office windfall, they might very well nominate it, but it’s not the kind of “Girl” Oscar marries.

It’s also a fairly chilly film. Fincher isn’t known for heart-on-his-sleeve sentiment – far from it. He’s a meticulous stylist and technician, appealing to the mind more than the emotions. Of course, that works sometimes too at the Oscars: “No Country for Old Men” had a similar brooding appeal, though it also carried the literary weight of Cormac McCarthy and a message about the escalation of violence in American society, which was enough snob-appeal for it to overcome its crime-film trappings with the academy.

Perhaps a better comparison is to “The Silence of the Lambs.” It was a violent thriller about the hunt for a serial killer, and its director, Jonathan Demme, had no Oscar track record at all up to that point, but it became one of only three films to win the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). However, that was far from a typical result; consider that even the great Alfred Hitchcock never won for thrillers like “Psycho” or “Rear Window,” despite the fact that they’re undisputed classics.

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“Gone Girl” is unconventional for academy tastes, but I don’t mean to suggest it’s unworthy. On the contrary, it’s a deviously satisfying thriller, smart and efficient even at 150 minutes. Its script by Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own bestselling novel, is a strong contender for Best Adapted Screenplay for the way she reinvents her story as it goes along; the plot keeps building and morphing and shifting under our feet even after we think she’s played her last card.

Of the cast, the best bet for a nomination is probably Rosamund Pike, who has by far the meatiest role as the title character, a missing wife whose marriage is illuminated over the course of the investigation into her disappearance. She currently ranks fourth in our Best Actress predictions with 9/1 odds.

Ben Affleck plays her husband and suspected killer, which sounds like an equally dynamic role for an actor, but the film is not as much a performance showcase for him, though he does get to sully his good-guy persona with an ambiguous, morally elusive quality we don’t often see from him. Nevertheless, just like “Argo,” I could see him missing out on a Best Actor nod even if the film ends up winning Best Picture. Our predictors seem to agree, ranking him only 10th in the race with 100/1 odds.

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Among the supporting cast, standouts include Carrie Coon as Affleck’s twin sister, Kim Dickens as the lead investigator, Neil Patrick Harris as a mystery man from Pike’s past, and Tyler Perry as a morally questionable defense lawyer. But those roles lack the kind of dimension and showcase scenes that would make them strong contenders in the supporting races. Possible, certainly, but I wouldn’t bet on them just yet.

I think Best Editing is the film’s strongest bet below the line, thanks to its complex narrative structure, which includes flashbacks and a nonlinear time line that doubles back on itself to show new story details. The last two Fincher films – “Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – won in that category.

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Previous Fincher collaborators and “Social Network” Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross could contend for their eerie, nontraditional score, as could cinematographer and fellow “Social Network” nominee Jeff Cronenweth for creating the film’s sinister visual atmosphere.

Do you agree that “Gone Girl” is a major contender for Oscar nominations? Can it be a rare crime thriller to win the top prize? It currently ranks sixth in our combined Oscar odds for Best Picture. Use our drag-and-drop menu below to make your predictions.

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