Mean Girls and Veronica Mars, and at some point those of us in her cheering section are probably going to get the message and go home. Maybe if they do an In Time 2. But in the meantime, here she is headlining her first hot woman vs. a serial killer thriller, that evergreen favorite of hack filmmakers the world over (why, Gone's writer, Allison Burnett, has even logged time in the subgenre already, contributing to the 2008 Diane Lane vehicle Untraceable), and doing not at all a bad job of it, given the massively low returns that any halfway savvy thriller fan knows to expect from the form. There's not much about the film that stands apart from the pack, and little that works in the moment, but what does is mostly due to Seyfried, and the film argues for the best and worst traits of her career to this point: she has a wiry self-determination that's always just a few seconds from snapping, and the camera soaks her up like nobody's business on the one side; and on the other, she picks the worst fucking scripts. It was one thing back in '08, when Mamma Mia! happened, and it was easy to be all, "eh, she's doing it for the exposure", but there have been a lot of Letters to Juliets and Red Riding Hoods since then, and Gone is more of the same, new genre or no: a film made by an actress who knows she can own the entire picture just by showing up, and is quite content to take whatever paying jobs will have her.
Gone, as you can undoubtedly tell from its kinetic and wildly idiosyncratic title, is about a certain Jill of Portland, Oregon (Where Untraceable happened! Oh Allison Burnett, you auteur, you!), who one year ago was abducted by a serial killer and only just managed to escape from his deep pit far into the untamed woods of the preserves at Forest Park. A near-total lack of evidence kept the police from buying her wild story, which hasn't kept her from bothering them with her theories every time a girl goes missing. What triggers her latest freak-out is when her very own sister, Molly (Emily Wickersham) is taken from the house they share; Jill is convinced that this is because the mysterious killer was in fact trying to take her and finish what he started, and her sister was merely in the way.
Thus begins a chase: the cops after the increasingly erratic, gun-wielding Jill, and Jill after the possibly non-existent killer. Oh, why pretend? This is a Hollywood movie in 2012. Yes, she's been right all along, and she manages to track down the killer via an extremely torturous series of clues that by and large don't make sense in light of what we already know, and don't make sense in terms of what we later find out; but they do, typically, make sense for just as long as they are onscreen, as long as you don't try to hold too much of the film in your head at one point, and trust it all ends up making sense. It does, mostly; just try not to hold the characters' behavior to any standard of the actual humans you may have crossed paths with in your life, and everything is fine.
Burnett tosses a few red herrings out here and there, one of which actually manages to land pretty well (without going all spoilery, it helps that one particular actor looks immediately untrustworthy, just because of who he is, without having to speak a word or even focus his gaze on Seyfried), but the cavalcade of feeble logic jumps, contrivances, and outright plot holes starts to get wearying long before the end. Still, the script she provides is better than what Brazilian filmmaker Heitor Dhalia, in his Stateside debut, does with it; Gone is a surprisingly flat movie, lacking any of the urgency that its concept (girl has about 12 hours to find her sister) not only requires, but would theoretically seem to possess by its very nature. There are a couple of moments where everything comes together; in particular, a late-game sequence that consists of Jill, an eerily placid voice on the phone, and a whole lot of dark forest, is a genuinely unnerving piece of thriller craftsmanship that would still be a standout in a far better movie than this. Mostly, however, Dhalia traffics in the obvious (a cat jumping out of a closet, haven't seen that chestnut in a while) or the overwrought (using close-ups to create a sense of claustrophobia and then going so far overboard as to suggest a serial killer themed remake of The Passion of Joan of Arc).
Which brings us back to Seyfried. She's not given much to work with, and she's not a good enough actress to save a role whose characterisation is as plot-dependent and changeable as Jill's; but whatever paranoid, nervous energy the film possesses, is entirely thanks to her. It helps that she has naturally huge eyes, that already look a bit manic even when she's playing happy or content. She's even able to put over, briefly, the idea that Jill might actually be crazy, through the sheer edgy, shaky quality of her performance, which is all shouting and spittle. That neither the screenplay nor direction are interested in following her is not ultimately her fault, though it does leave her stranded; and it sucks away the only element of Gone that ever threatens to be genuinely interesting. No, what's left is generic killer-chasing of the standard winter release model; it has ruined better and worse actresses than Seyfried and will continue to do so into the future, though at least the gloomy Portland atmosphere gives it a slight nudge above the median of the form. Beyond that, there's absolutely nothing to see here.