based on the novel by Gillian Flynn
2014 • 149 minutes • 20th Century Fox
For some reason, thinking about Gone Girl, the novel, exhausts me. It’s no insult to mystery (if I must throw in my lot with only one side of the frustrating but apparently evergreen literary fiction versus genre fiction debate, I will, of course, be on genre fiction’s side) or to Gillian Flynn herself, of whom I know precious (but positive) little. Rather, as you may recall, I worked at the Tattered Cover for a year. The book was so popular that, a year after its publication, I spent my closing shifts chasing miscreants out of the second floor under the watchful eye of a Gone Girl poster. When the paperback finally dropped in April (you’d be surprised by how many little old ladies prefer paperback to hardcover), there was no way for me to escape it save actually not reading the thing. Missing a Flynn novel was an easy, small thing for me.
Missing a Fincher film, however, was not. Watching The Social Network for the first time was such a formative, visceral experience for me as a budding film fan that I’m always willing to investigate. (Okay, I know I didn’t see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that’s because I couldn’t work up the nerve to, not because I didn’t want to.)
Gone Girl appears to have a very simple premise—on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne disappears. Her husband, Nick, is baffled and distraught, but, despite his willingness to work with local law enforcement, suspicion soon falls on him, especially after his adulterous affair is revealed. Fincher and Flynn (who enjoyed working with each other so much that Flynn is now writing the adaptation of Utopia that Fincher is directing) revel in casting Nick in a darker and darker light, with every new detail and chiaroschiaro angle working against him, until the first of what feels like a welcome thousand reveals unspools—Amy is not dead, but alive and framing Nick for her murder. Amy’s cool cunning and sociopathy becomes Fincher’s focus, embodied by Rosamund Pike’s icy, collected visage. In fact, it becomes his focus so much so that the film feels like it just keeps going to see what further hell Amy can wreck upon Nick.
Which begs the question: is Gone Girl misogynistic? This is not a question that can be answered easily or concisely, which is why I’m very pleased to see a lot of discussion about the treatment of gender in both the novel and the film. Flynn, a feminist, does not think so; she wants to write about the violent, darker impulses of women that are treated as verboten while equivalent male experiences are celebrated. At Vulture, Amanda Dobbins argues that the novel cannot be, since Amy is the central character with the most agency, but the film, which necessarily focuses on Nick’s story, can’t get into her head quite the same way. (Fittingly, the film begins and ends with similar shots of Nick wondering what’s going on in Amy’s head, speculating a violent method to do so in the first.) I would take that comparison further and point out that the entire context is different. On the bookshelf, Gone Girl, sitting pretty in mystery, rubs shoulders with several well-rounded female characters. On the screen, however, her cohort becomes Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell and Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest. Even Amy’s much-celebrated Cool Girl speech ends up unfortunately truncated. In the novel, Amy points out that the “Cool Girl” is a construct men and women create out of sexist media tropes to try and impress one another; in the film, the critical middle section is absent, leaving Amy angrily accusing women on the highway of doing everything they do in order to attract men instead of criticizing the system.
Half of me wants to believe that Amy represents a step forward for female characters in film, by refusing to offer any pat explanations for her behavior; the other half of me can’t help but think of Susan Faludi’s account in Backlash of watching Fatal Attraction in an audience whose male members encouraged Michael Douglas’ characters to “kill the bitch.”
This is not to say that Rosamund Pike plays Amy as hysterical caricature. Pike has been giving solid supporting performances since the inauspicious beginnings of her career (her film debut? Die Another Day), but has never managed to land a leading role that’s garnered her the praise appropriate to her range. Amy, at long last, is that role, as Pike plays layers and layers of Amy, from the false Amy seen in her diary to the meek, amiable Amy manipulating a past stalker to the almost unfathomable sociopath Amy is at heart. Many reviews I’ve read have wondered about a version where a more all-American actress (such as Reese Witherspoon; Witherspoon, who produced Gone Girl, definitely has the underutilized range for such a role) played Amy instead of a Brit reminscient of Kim Novak, but Pike carries it off, leaning heavily on Amy’s status as a spoiled New Yorker. At her core, Amy wants her own narrative back, stolen from her in childhood by her parents, who wrote a series of children’s books based on their daughter and then sapped from her by Nick and Missouri. But her understanding of the narratives available to her are stunted, by the expectations of the narratives assigned to her (pretty, blonde, wife) and her own sociopathy. Never explained but highly noticeable is Amy’s distaste of everyone, including other women who might provide the foundation for a new narrative that’s all her own. (There’s an argument in there for this being the evil counterpart of Breakfast on Pluto, where Kitty uses her powers of narrative to better her life and the lives of those around her.)
Gone Girl is a very unsettling experience, and that’s on purpose, between Trent Reznor’s pitch perfect and threatening score and the tense atmosphere. (It made me want to pull my nails out. In a good way, of course.) But the gender politics, especially in cultural context, makes it even more so.
I’m going to link some more discussion about the film, because it certainly bears discussing:
- Nico Lang at The AV Club argues that the film violates the balance of the novel.
- Todd VanDerWerff at Vox argues that it’s the most feminist mainstream film in years. (Somebody didn’t see Maleficent…)
- David Haglund at Slate dissects what went wrong with the film’s “Cool Girl” speech.
I saw this film in theaters.