Page to Screen: Gone Girl (2014)

gonegirlFILM

Gone Girl
based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

★★★☆☆

2014 • 149 minutes • 20th Century Fox

Spoilers below.

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:

I saw this film in theaters.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Gone Girl (2014)

  1. I tend to think this is neither of the two things people want to make it in the world of feminism — neither a step forward into a Brave New World of complicated and terrible female characters, nor a regressive false-rape-accusation trope book that’s setting us back. I think it’s one of those cases where Flynn wrote a superb thriller, and so many people loved it at the same time that we wanted to put more significance on it than maybe it merits, on its merits. Is that too awful a thing to say? It’s not saying anything universal about humanity, you know, it’s just a case study of thriller-insane characters.

    • See, I’m always much more interested in what meaning people derive from a text than what meaning the author supposedly imbued the text with. Flynn may not have started out trying to say Something Important about Gender and just wanted to write a solid thriller, but the context has changed. Gone Girl is no longer in league with other thrillers; this story and what it says (and how people hear what it says) is now being considered an Oscar contender, part of the last bastion of mass high culture that we still have in the United States. I think you’re right, that it ultimately is neither this nor that, but the tension between the two, as the discussion revolves around how the text can be read, is fascinating to me.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Jenny that Gone Girl is neither feminist nor non-feminist. It can be read either way or both ways at the same time, as the million think pieces about it attest. But I do think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the story to chew on. (I’ve been composing my own post on the movie in my head for the last week, but I probably won’t get around to writing it.) The MRA trope problem is easier to see in the movie, I think, because we don’t get Nick’s thoughts and know how much he’s complicit in the conclusion. In the movie, he’s a garden-variety jerk married to a crazy bitch, rather than someone who loves to play the put-upon nice-guy victim.

    The point you make about Amy wanting her own narrative is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. In the book, the whole treasure hunt business is a way for her to write the story of her relationship with Nick and see if he’s getting the story right. And she gives up her suicide plan when she sees people are loving the version of herself she created. She goes back to Nick when she sees that he knows the whole story and wants her back. The story she’s creating is terrible, what with her being a sociopath who’s using the tropes she sees all around her, but for the first time she has her own story. (Though that raises the question of whether it can be her own story if it’s just a rehashing anti-feminist tropes.)

  3. I haven’t seen the film yet, just because as much as I love the book, it’s also an intense, even upsetting experience that I’m cautious of exposing myself to again, even though I’ve reread Dark Places and Sharp Objects, Flynn’s other books, several times.

    Gillian Flynn’s called herself a “gonzo feminist” which I think is a fairly apt way of putting it: controversial, in-your-face, unapologetic in how she presents her complex and nuanced but yes, terribly difficult and even hateful female characters.Still, I can’t say I find many other writers who’s as smart about gender performance and the way women interact with men and other women in an inherently sexist society and how women react, sometimes violently, against it. Can’t wait to see the film for myself. Pike and Affleck struck me as perfect casting from the get-go.

  4. Pingback: Gone Girl (2014) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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