Gone has fun within its generic confines and Amanda Seyfried displays some surprising menace behind her big eyes.
Over the last few years, Amanda Seyfried has alternated between feather-light, borderline dippy romances like Letters to Juliet and Dear John, and darker, sometimes gothic fare, like Red Riding Hood and Jennifer's Body. Gone belongs in the latter category. It also gives her an uncharacteristically surly and paranoid role, one that has her repeatedly widening her saucer eyes with distress.
Seyfried plays Jill, a traumatized young woman living in Portland with her sister Molly (Emily Wickersham). The movie does a nice job of parceling out information in its opening 10 or 15 minutes. It gradually becomes clear that Jill escaped the clutches of a serial killer some months ago. Or so she thinks. The police haven't been able to locate any evidence of her abduction, including the giant hole in the woods, filled with remains of other victims, where she remembers languishing.
When Jill returns home from her waitressing night shift to find Molly's bed unexpectedly empty, she is immediately convinced that her assailant has returned and taken her sister. The police, including Detective Powers (Daniel Sunjata), are less than convinced, which only increases Jill's intensity, fueled by an unstable mixture of her vindictiveness and need for vindication. She sets out to find the killer herself, and the cops quickly become more interested in stopping her than in helping her case.
The authorities' view seems supported by Jill's erratic behavior: she shouts at and ignores them, carries an unlicensed weapon, ditches her medication, and conducts her own improvised investigation. The movie isn't coy about her unhinged behavior, and putting it in the foreground makes Jill a fascinating, bizarrely charismatic heroine. Finally, the bad decisions common to so many horror-thriller protagonists have an excuse.
In fact, at its best, Gone is less a straight horror film-thriller, the kind that rips off Silence of the Lambs, and more of an amateur detective story that makes good use of its star and Pacific Northwest location. Gone isn't so skillful or observant in this as last year's Cold Weather, but director Heitor Dhalia, shooting in icy blues and grays, similarly paints Portland as rife with plausible murder suspects rather than hipster bohemia. Even kindly old neighbors are standoffish at first.
At the same time, the movie makes somewhat playful use of the weirdos, shut-ins, and occasional friendly faces Jill encounters while piecing together scraps of clues. This as she herself shows a seedy side, especially when deploying her hilarious gift for casual lie, in order to invent a different cover story for everyone she meets. Earlier in her career, Seyfried appeared on Veronica Mars, and if Gone doesn't reach those standards of knotty mysteries and sharp quips, it at least has some of its noirish pluck.
Gone does include some serial killer movie clichés. When filling in details about Jill's ordeal, it offers inelegant, sometimes cheesy, exploitation-style flashes, where more subtle devices might have generated mystery and tension. These devices include some clumsy red herrings to create suspects out of thinly sketched characters. As she pursues these suspects, Jill is a compelling enigma, and the one-scene strangers she interviews have character-actor charm (provided by pros like Nick Searcy and Joel David Moore), but the people from Jill's every day life -- the characters who should matter in her story -- are just plot-required distractions.
For the most part, Gone plays fair with these distractions, but the everyone's-a-suspect strategy falters in the home stretch, as it becomes clear that the screenplay doesn't have a particularly inventive solution (though, on the plus side, it doesn't have a ludicrous one in store, either). The movie never commits to a full-fledged character study of Jill, and though it moves along at a tight clip with a dash of style, it's not dazzling as a thriller, either. It has fun within its confines and Seyfried, as she did in Jennifer's Body, displays some surprising menace behind her big eyes.