Gone Girl: A Review Essay
Gone Girl had a 79% favourable rating on Metacritic. Not one critic gave the film a negative mark, though my favorite critic, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, wrote a mixed review. The movie has also been very popular with audiences and received an 8.5 score from a cross section of viewers. So why did I not like the film? Why am I writing this essay if I reacted so negatively to the movie? In part, to understand the basis of my dislike and, probably in greater part, to justify my dislike to my filmmaker son, Gabriel, who loves David Fincher movies.
At the very beginning of the film, Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, comments as the camera has a close up of a patrician blonde beauty with her hair splayed on the pillow and, when she turns, reveals her ivory skin. The gorgeous blond is his wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike. Nick reflects on how he would like to smash her head open so he could unspool her brain and figure out what makes her tick. But the murderous thought never takes place.
This is not a spoiler because there is almost no doubt that Nick is innocent of her abduction and possible murder when she disappears. Nick never smashed her head in. More importantly, instead of our understanding what motivates Amy at the end, though we are offered a number of possible motives for her actions in the best exercise in over-determination I have ever watched, the film unravels from the spool onto a mess on the floor in the last half hour of the movie. The question arises: Why did David Flincher use the metaphor of a spool of film when he shoots his movies digitally? Clue 1!
The movie begins for the first hour as a seemingly straightforward thriller about a missing wife and the possibility that she was murdered by her husband. In the second hour, it takes a bizarre twist. Amy, who is portrayed in the past through reading her diaries, comes into the present to become the agent of her own destiny just when Nick is trapped by her manipulation and the media response into greater and greater helplessness and passivity. The film appears to turn into a social commentary on marriage, on the media and on the social manners of our time more than a thriller. In the last half hour, the movie falls apart into an absurdist fiction. Is that what David Fincher, the consummate perfectionist, intended?
This is an easy film about which to write a spoiler review, but I will try to avoid that by not summarizing the plot any further. I can also ignore the plot because I think it is the primary diversion that virtually all critics focus on in their reviews. Like a magician who succeeds by deflecting the audience from the real action, the plot itself is as much a disguise as the social masks both Nick and Amy wear. Instead, I will write about the movie on a meta level. That is an approach very appropriate to this film for it seems ultimately to operate on that level. Just as the film begins with a metaphorical reference to spools of acetate film, Gone Girl continually references old movies, especially Alfred Hitchcock.
Is this film making fun of those movies by stretching an oeuvre of the femme fatale film noir genre to absurd lengths as well as almost two-and-a-half hours? If the movie is not commenting upon or even satirizing old-fashioned thrillers, Gone Girl is certainly satirizing reality TV and its penchant for undressing people’s personal lives on afternoon television, for the movie incorporates these commentator and interview shows into the plot in several comic asides. The self-referential character of the movie is evidenced by Nick commenting that he feels like he is appearing in an episode of Law and Order.
A few critics recognized that the film is a commentary on thriller narratives – for example, Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail. If the movie operates primarily on a meta level, is modern marriage being satirized or is the satire about the depiction of modern marriage in movies because the characters are so richly archetypal as well as unreal? Is the movie outrageously misogynistic or is the movie a satire of cinematic misogyny? After all, Ben Affleck as Nick never discusses his marriage so much as The Marriage, nor his wife or Amy so much as The Wife. Is the movie satirizing current dysfunctional marriages or satirizing their portrayal in movies? Is the movie about faking or is it a satire about the fakery Hollywood films engage in and that may simply be a reflection of larger social fraud? After all, the film is set in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse brought about by the sale of tranches of bundled mortgages that were excessive relative to the value of the properties.
In answer to all of these dichotomies, the prime emphasis seems to be on the, on the meta-level, because, after all, the bar in Missouri which Nick buys with his wife’s money and runs with his twin sister, is given a meta-name, The Bar. As Rhonda Boney, the chief detective investigating first the disappearance of Nick’s wife and then her latter suspected murder, comments: “I know the Bar. Great name — very meta.” This and other numerous hints suggest the film should be viewed mainly on a meta-level in reference primarily to the artifice of films rather than as an artificial viewing of real life. If I have concluded this, why do I still feel meta-troubled as well as angry and disappointed on a primary level? As my wife Nancy insisted after we saw the film, it’s just a movie; why are you so upset?
Compare the portrayal of Amy as the beautiful but threatening platinum blonde to Alexander (Alex) Forrest played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Alex is a prominent editor in a publishing company; Amy is in the same industry, but as a lowly quiz and puzzle writer for women’s magazines. In the 1987 Academy Award nominated psychological thriller, Alex is a psychopathic and obsessive stalker. Amy, though also a psychopath, is the inversion and projects rape and stalking onto males. But both women use the pretense of pregnancy to entrap the male. Gone Girl operates on the meta level by inverting the changed ending for Fatal Attraction. Alex is killed by Beth, Michael Douglas’ wife, but in the original version, Alex slashes her own throat. There is a throat slashing scene in Gone Girl, but it is not Amy’s.
The reason I dislike Gone Girl is not because I dislike David Fincher’s films. I did not like watching Fight Club, but it was because I could not take the realism of the violence and thought the depiction evoked fascism rather than undermined it. However, I appreciated the skill with which the film was made, especially the cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth who played the same role in the shooting of Gone Girl. I loved Social Network. I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a rich romp into crime pulp fiction. I did not see Zodiac, which I believe many critics regard as Fincher’s best film. I did see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which puzzled me by its obvious perversity, this time in a conventionally romantic mold rather than a cynical one. The 1995 noir thriller, Se7en, both delighted and horrified me with its portrait of a serial killer obsessed with the seven deadly sins and, like Gone Girl, is rich in clues, twists in the plot, surprises and outrageous madness. But it is just a thriller and not intended primarily as a comment on narrative filmmaking itself.
However, it is not the echo of his own films that one experiences most in watching this movie, but a number of the great classics of Hollywood, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock, the original master of weaving sophistication and raw violence into the same braid. Hitchcock taught future filmmakers to make perfect sundaes except the maraschino cherry at the top was crushed and the very bright blood-red colour spread through the pure white of the ice cream. Gone Girl plays with the portrait of a woman who changes her identity with cutting and dying her hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, only it is Amy, not the male character, who is obsessed with maintaining her image as the perfect woman. It is not the male character who keeps the female character captive. It is not by accident that, after Amy is awoken sleeping in her car, she flees to a cheap hotel as Janet Leigh did, also after being awoken by a police officer. Janet Leigh fled to the infamous Bates motel in Psycho. Only Janet Leigh’s money was stolen by the schizophrenic proprietor of the motel, while Amy is just robbed of the remains of her trust fund by two drifters. If Amy is missing from the present in the first hour of the film, she is omnipresent in the past – both her own and the past of filmmaking. In the second hour, the past catches up to her.
Near the end of the movie, Amy asks Nick to strip in case he is wearing a wire. Will Amy kill Nick in the shower as Janet Leigh was killed in Psycho? Amy Dickinson, playing Kate Miller in Brian de Palma’s classic, Dressed to Kill, also took a famous shower. Glenn Close collapses in tears in a shower in The Big Chill. In Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy take a very erotic shower to cement their relationship. Will Nick and Amy reconcile through sex in the shower as they did so frequently in their early courtship, or will one of them kill the other? However, Fincher is just playing with us, as Amy played with Nick and the police in leaving her clues. The shower, supposedly a symbol of cleansing, is used to illustrate degradation that is even worse than murder, and a reconciliation that is as empty of meaning as enslavement.
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl portrays Amy, the beautiful and captivating platinum blonde of Hitchcock’s obsession, and we cannot help but be reminded of the performances by Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren as well as Janet Leigh. In doing so, David Fincher resurrects an archetype of pulp fiction in Amy Dunne to prove that a specific type of the Hollywood femme fatale ironically has not gone – is not done. But Amy is like no other femme fatale. She is smart, logical, highly organized and calculating. Just as she was constructed as an artifact by her parents who used their daughter to write their popular and best-selling Amazing Amy children’s series as the fantasy image of their own child, the parents brought up the real Amy always with something missing that the fictional Amazing Amy received – a dog for example. So Amy has beauty, intelligence, a sense of humour, warmth when she wants to display it for her own purposes, but something is missing that would make her human. She is a Dunne, but she is not done. She is incomplete. We are left hungry at the end of the film.
A major frustration in the film is that we never learn what is missing. So though the film plays on a Humean sense of causality – our propensity out of habit to see one thing leading to another, clue one leading to clue two which leads to clue three as in the game of Treasure Hunt we put on for my grandchildren at our island retreat – it never quite works because the contingent, the unexpected interferes and blows up the well-ordered planning of sticky notes pasted on a calendar. What is missing is not the ability to innovate in response to unexpected challenges – Amy is very proficient at that – but the core meaning of causality – taking responsibility for one’s actions. To that, Amy seems oblivious.
So the film’s first hour proceeds deliberately as a collection of archetypal scenes in a romantic comedy with ultra-clever rapid-fire witty dialogue and innovative romantic walks through Manhattan where Nick and Amy are treated to a sugar shower outside a bakery. A spoonful of sugar is supposed to make the medicine go down, but a whole cloud of it cannot get us to swallow the supposed looming malice. The mockery of the sweet sentimentality is almost harder to take than sweet sentimentality in its own right, but though that part of the film lost my wife’s continuing acceptance of the absorption films in movie houses can deliver, I remained captivated by the trickery until about an hour had passed.
Even when the couple move to Missouri into a large rented house when they were supposed to be unemployed and broke following the 2008 economic crash, I wanted to see what happened between the charming but hollow husband, Nick, a hulk who projects weakness rather than strength, confusion rather than self-assuredness, charm and amiability without intimacy or even true friendship, and the emotionally frozen highly educated and very intelligent woman in this cultural backwater. But the reason they landed there is limp and the reason they stay there is non-existent. Nothing makes sense.
Is that the way the film intends to communicate that it is operating on a meta level and not talking about reality, but rather satirizing the portrayals of reality in other movies and television? We never learn why for hours if not days Amy remains covered in blood when she returns. Why did she not take a shower? There is so much that is discordant that you know it must be deliberate. Nick slips in and out of his house even though the house is surrounded by a media frenzy after Amy goes missing. It is not simply that Fincher is a director who emphasizes technique, who stresses the mechanics of moviemaking rather than the why and wherefore. For in this movie, Fincher plays around with all the mechanics just as Amy plays around with her clues. With deliberate misdirection, the false diary and the Punch and Judy dolls intentionally mislead.
Watching the movie is like walking through a mirror maze in a carnival. Like a mirror, the surface of the movie is very clear and both cleverly and perfectly constructed, but it is also deliberately incoherent with a plethora of technical imperfections as if Fincher is satirizing his own method of working. Was this also true of the intent of the film, to make viewers, who look at the film simply as a thriller and not as a satire of thrillers, take pleasure from the movie while, at the same time, unnerving those who read the film at a meta level as if Fincher, like Amy, is dropping clues to his own discombobulation?
If Amy is such a cold construct, why is she so bothered by Nick’s infidelity? Why wouldn’t she go off elsewhere to reconstruct a life rather than suffocating in that small town? One cannot reconcile the jealousy with the ambition, the emotional hatred with the cold calculation. Why would a man who killed his wife immediately call the police after she goes missing? When did he have time to dispose of the body? Why is there no blood trail if so much blood was spilled on the kitchen and then there was no blood trail elsewhere? Why would Amy hit herself with a hammer and bruise her legs if she was supposed to disappear and go missing?
Why would Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Desi Collings, played by Neil Patrick Collins as if he were a version of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, who is obsessed with his long lost love, visit the scene of the volunteers just after Amy was kidnapped if he were the kidnapper? Who would be guarding Amy hundreds of miles away in St. Louis or in his lakeside or mountain retreat? If Amy had always been tied up and raped repeatedly, why is there footage in the security cameras of her without any ropes on? Even the intellectually pretentious Nick can ask how she could obtain a box cutter. Why is there not much more suspicion about Amy’s implausible story which could easily be checked by a third class detective? Why is her pregnancy at the end of the film as dubious as the faked pregnancy she previously claimed? Amy set up one possible motive for Nick’s alleged murder of her because Nick did not want a baby when she wrote in her diary and told her empty-headed neighbour that she was pregnant. Surely, it would have been easy to check whether she had been pregnant. The answer – the film had to end for it had already run for 145 minutes. But a deeper answer is that a perfectionist as acute as David Flincher would never have made one of these mistakes let alone well over a dozen – unless, of course, he intended those mistakes to be clues about the real nature of the movie.
Why would the meticulous, painfully detailed David Fincher make a movie that has so many obvious narrative flaws? Why would the film’s admirers who view the film as a sophisticated, stealthy and sinister thriller with an added tone of social satire not get the clues? Are they, as part of the chattering class, also being satirized? The dominant theme of manipulation is echoed in the techniques Fincher employs and, at the same time, satirizes. I think Fincher’s ambition for the film was much greater than his admirers suggest.
If the main drama of the film is the development of the distrust between Amy and Nick that goes over the boiling point, it is only achieved by getting us to distrust Fincher as a movie maker. And that all may be deliberate. In the misogyny that permeates the film, we become ourselves distrustful of our fellow human beings. Because going to the movies is an act of trust. We allow the director to manipulate and direct us as well as the actors, the set, the music, to create the whole world of movies. If we cannot trust a movie maker to deliver on his promise, whom can we trust?
Even if we are deliberately played with by the director, we do learn to appreciate and even love the acting. Ben Affleck is actually superb in moving between a put-on and practiced charm that sometimes gives him away when the media takes him by surprise, and being a liar and a cheat, even with his own twin sister. Rosamund Pike is, if you can believe it, even better in a much more difficult if not almost impossible role. For she has to play two radically different characters without being schizophrenic – the brilliant, beautiful, ambitious trust fund child used to the materially better things in life and a terrifying vengeful harridan and monster who will entrap a boyfriend, kill another and even enslave her own husband. In both roles, she reveals one thing in common – all-too-clever calculation and manipulation – the very same virtues characteristic of Gillian Flynn’s novel and script and Fincher’s filmmaking.
But the accolades are not restricted to the main characters. Carrie Coon is superb as Nick’s caring twin sister who is totally disappointed and deeply hurt by the failures of her bother to whom she is so attached. Kim Dickens as the Fargo-like detective who balances skepticism with a sense of doing what’s right is the other balancing pole that gives the film a degree of stability. And Tyler Perry turns the archetypal celebrity calculating, clever and highly successful defence attorney for battered husbands, Tanner Bolt, into a warm and caring human being even as he sees the issue of justice merely as a manipulation of public opinion. The performance is a tour de force in a relatively minor role. I presume these parts were meant to be foils for both the superficiality of Amy and Nick as writers – Fincher does not write his own scripts – as well as the crass media people. Was he also turning Gillian Flynn’s thriller inside out and satirizing it?
Then there is the musical score that jangled and added to the confusion as much as I could judge, though I would have to listen again to be sure of what I am writing. Speaking of judging, certainly the music was very different than the clues provided to the emotional development by the musical score of The Judge. The movie was clearly intended to be unsettling from the opening title to the weird ending when wimp Nick effectively voluntarily accedes to Amy’s demands. Even a slave who accepts bondage rather than be killed is given protection and sustenance in return. Nick did not even receive this meagre compensation. Fincher would not abide such a romantic tying together of threads.
And I felt cheated.