There is no proper way to review “Gone Girl” without going into spoiler territory. If you have not read the novel by Gillian Flynn and want to be surprised by the film’s revelations, you may leave this review now knowing that I loved the film and highly recommend it, then come back later if you are so inclined. Okay?
Now then. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. David Fincher is my favorite living American director. He is well-respected by film buffs everywhere, even those who may not like his particular aesthetic and pet themes. There was some bitching going on when he was attached to an adaptation of “Gone Girl”, following his adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that he was sort of “slumming” in adapting common-man bestsellers. Think about when Martin Scorsese adapted “Shutter Island”, a B-movie made by an A-director. Sure, he directed the hell out of that film, but the subject matter was far below the man’s talents and it seemed like a waste of time for the man who is capable of films like “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas”. “Gone Girl” does not fit into that category for Fincher in the way that, say, his own B-movie effort, “Panic Room”, does. While I loved “Panic Room”, and admittedly love every Fincher film save for “Alien 3” which he cannot entirely be blamed for, it was Fincher’s most shallow film, a home invasion thriller done very well but saying little. Those who would criticize his adaptations of “Dragon” and “Gone Girl” strike me as pompous brats who can’t enjoy a good yarn and see that good fiction isn’t limited to more Literary novels.
Truth be told, a lot is going on in “Gone Girl”. Yes, on the surface it is a rather pedestrian satire of how the media treats crime stories, passes blame, shifts opinion on a dime, and creates its own narrative separate from any evidence that has yet to be uncovered. We see that in recent stories like the Ferguson shooting all of the time. “Gone Girl” may do this effectively, but taking down Nancy Grace falls into fish-in-barrel territory. Also, the film works splendidly as a murder mystery, and then a twisty thriller. This may not seem like much, granted, but when so many bad mysteries are made, from the ghostwritten novels bearing James Patterson’s name to Lifetime TV movies and “crime porn” specials on WEtv, a good rip-roaring mystery is a well needed breathe of fresh blood into the cultural zeitgeist. Switching narratives, plot contrivances, outlandish acts of revenge…”Gone Girl” fits all of the staples of a murder mystery and turns the flaws into plusses with a trippy structure and characters that are both bugnuts crazy and yet FELL more believable than they actually are.
However, that’s not really what anyone wants to talk about when they talk about “Gone Girl”. The thing of preeminent importance with regard to this story, in novel or filmic form, is gender politics. When I first read the novel, I felt like it was the most misogynist thing I had ever seen committed to print. The character of Amy (Rosamund Pike), who does missing but is revealed to have staged the whole thing to get back at her cheating husband, and who has a history of faking rape to get back at other men for merely attempting to get more space, embodies everything that the misogynist men who frequent the “Men’s Right” subreddit are afraid women are: controlling, manipulative, easily offended, brutally spiteful, vindictive, using sex and a societal double-standard to their advantage, etc. Amy is in many ways a cartoon illustrating the deepest fears of men who hate women (“Men Who Hate Women” being the original title of the novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, natch). Some have defended Amy, saying that the character is fiercely intelligent, which she certainly is. Still, the film and novel go out of their way to show that despite her intelligence, she is nothing more than a silly girl, such as when she jumps up cheering girlishly upon getting a hole-in-one in mini golf, which leads to two rednecks knowing she has cash and subsequently robbing and leaving her penniless. She blames her husband for falling out of love with her because she was masking to be who she read him as wanting her to be, but he was never aware of the masking and, as such, can she really blame him for not upholding some unspoken contract? Granted, Nick (Ben Affleck, perfectly cast here) is an asshole who cheats on his wife, who gamely allows them to move to HIS hometown in the Midwest when they’re both laid off from their NYC magazine jobs and Nick’s mother gets sick. He’s not a good guy, though the film firmly plants us on his side regardless of that, which may speak to the film’s true leanings.
I’ve read numerous analyses of the novel, and now the film, which argue the film is truly feminist. Vox.com tried to use the mise-en-scene and center frame positioning of characters to explain the film shifting allegiances, from Nick to Amy. I’m not quite sure that is the case. Regardless of who commands our attention in a frame, we still see Amy as an evil, bitter woman. She is a murderous who blames her husband for her behavior in conforming to his wishes, but she seemingly never voiced her true wishes to him, which the film counts among them performing less blowjobs and being able to eat more junk food without doing matching exercises to keep off the weight. Not communicating something and them blaming someone for not instinctively knowing the things you are not communicating is…well, what men stereotype women as doing all of the time. Amy is the most evil women ever conceived of to many men. There’s no way around that.
So the question is, does the film LIKE Amy for being this way, or HATE Amy? I think it’s hard to argue the film likes her. Grudgingly respects her, probably. One can’t deny that the second act of the film, kicking off with a montage of Amy enacting her plan, injects adrenalin into the heart of the film and perks one right up if they have been relaxed into watching a by-the-numbers crime procedural. Perhaps Amy is too bright of a beacon to examine the film’s gender politics, because she blinds everything else around her. So let’s look to the other characters. Among our other female characters we have Nick’s sister (Carrie Coon), who is co-dependant and also controlling of her brother, albeit in a way he seemingly minds less. We have a female cop (Kim Dickens) who reaches the wrong conclusions, but logical wrong conclusions nonetheless. A later scene in the film where she questions Amy about her story perhaps shows a women-hating-women dynamic, but the film doesn’t stay on it long enough to give us any insight into why some women hate some other women. A good scene, but not enough to draw much gender issues on. We also get Nick’s mistress (Emily Ratajkowski) who is dumb as bricks, clingy, and disloyal…not too mention phony, as shown in a later press conference scene where she dresses like a Mormon schoolgirl despite having, as Amy puts it, “cum-on-me tits”. Oh, and also the pregnant, nosey, idiotic neighbor lady (Casey Wilson). Except for perhaps the police officer, there are no likeable female characters in this film. I haven’t even mentioned the groupie women (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who wants a selfies with Nick, Amy’s mother (Lisa Banes), or the redneck woman (Lola Kirke) who plans to steal Amy’s money.
In contrast, how are the men portrayed? Well, Nick’s lawyer (Tyler Perry, who is surprisingly good in his role) is portrayed as competent, and less sleazy than he is in the novel. The film deletes the character of his wife from the book, one of the very few ways in which Flynn’s screenplay deviates from her novel. Aside from Nick, we get a cop (Patrick Fugit) who jumps to an obvious conclusion about Nick, a former flame of Amy’s (Neil Patrick Harris, playing a character unlike anything I’ve seen him in) who is obsessive, controlling in a way he thinks is innocuous but is really creepy. His character, named Desi, is the film’s version of the type of GUY who frequents that Men’s Rights subreddit. Think a rich guy who thinks he cares about women but is really an asshole and in a different life would have been that kid who shot up that sorority a few months ago. The film punishes him in its most gruesome scene, shot like David Fincher trying his hand at a full-on horror movie, with copious amounts of blood, quick cuts to black, and a great musical cue by Reznor and Ross (who have now scored three of Fincher’s films with wonderful results). Plus, we get another old flame of Amy’s who is branded a sex offender and had his life ruined after she falsely accuses him of rape and he pleads out. His sin? Trying to distance himself from her, though he originally was only with her because he found her hot, so shallow.
Okay, so many men in this film are assholes too. The difference seems to be that their punishments do not fit their crimes, and their crimes are run of the mill for men, whereas Amy’s reactions to them are bugnuts wild. The other negative women more or less operate in a realistic but stereotypical fashion, but at best we can say that the film has elements of misogyny and misandry, perhaps stressing the former a bit more because the film has more room for sympathy towards the men than the women, and Amy’s insanity draws the audience to focus on her in a tractor beam-like fashion. The result is that the message of the film with regards to gender issues is, at best, muddy and unfocused.
I view this as more of a plus for the film than a minus, though. The film already has some clear messages. The media critique is easy to grasp at. Also, the film clearly has a dark and pessimistic view of marriage, which is possibly the reason Fincher was attracted to the material. There have been other movies dealing with the theme of whether anyone can truly know another person, and the limits that places on the capability of human beings to truly be intimate. After all, our entire knowledge of another person and what they think and feel can only be discerned from their actions and the words they speak to us. We will never truly and objectively know what goes on in another person’s head, and the other person doesn’t have to be homicidal and manipulative for that concept to be scary as hell when one pauses to reflect on that. Nick tells us at the beginning of the film how he wishes he could crack open Amy’s brain and see what’s inside, and that’s not just telling us he’d like to bash her brains in. What this film takes to the extreme, the inability to truly know someone, is something real couples deal with all the time. We all make cosmetic changes or do things we wouldn’t normally do for the people we love, or at least are with. This film shows us an over the top extreme. I hesitate to call the film a satire, because if the film’s over-the-top portrayal of Amy and marriage is satirical, this is an even darker satire than Fincher’s “Fight Club”, and that puts us into very nihilistic territory.
Fincher, if nothing else, loves his darkness, his nihilism, and letting the audience leave the theater disquieted. From the Weather Underground-esque bombings of “Fight Club” to the killer winning in “Se7en” to the not truly knowing the killer in “Zodiac”, to Zuckerberg continually refreshing the page in “The Social Network”, Fincher does not want us leaving his films happy, except of course for the happiness of having seen a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Well, “Gone Girl” isn’t the TOP of Fincher’s game, of which the aforementioned four films make up, but it’s another strong effort from a continually brilliant filmmaker.
The super-to-disappear opening credits, the Amy’s diary too quickly edited and too precious shots and edits, the elevator music gone LSD score, and many other stylistic devices beef up the film, adding to the story Flynn has created. Seeing the characters come to life undercuts the tension of what is real and who to believe (it’s easier to peg the diary as fake in the film than in the novel), but what it does add is a different level of commentary, about how we can spin completely true events into fairy tales with emphasis and omission. Like in “Zodiac”, Fincher loves playing with the limits of objective knowledge and how far evidence can take us. The line between usefulness and uselessness of clues and investigation (the cops would have never caught the killer in “Se7en” if they hadn’t illegally gotten a hold of library records in pre-Patriot Act America, or if he hadn’t shown up top the police station and given himself up, as the killer himself points out. “Gone Girl” continues the Fincher motif of well-meaning but ineffective cops, and the limits of law enforcement to prevent the world’s evil (“Dragon Tattoo” was concerned with other forms of institutional protection, and “Fight Club” and “The Game” only briefly deal with this).
One day, when Film Studies programs have classes on the films of Fincher, we’ll be able to properly analyze the role of “Gone Girl” in his filmography, how Amy fits in but also detracts from Fincher’s love of off-kilter and obsessive main characters (Zuckerberg, Narrator from “Fight Club”, Lisbeth Salander, Robert Graysmith). Until then, “Gone Girl” feels like not like Fincher slumming or doing an easy B movie like “Panic Room”, but rather his stab at talking his usual bag of tricks and common themes and applying it to a topic he hasn’t really gone after yet, which is marriage. What we do and do not or can’t know is something he has dealt with in regards to serial killers, business, and Marxist domestic terrorism, but not to something as simple as human romantic relationships. Like the internet business in “The Social Network” or the 70s killings in “Zodiac”, marriage is the new vehicle to explore Fincher’s old concerns. Having not seen his “House of Cards” series I don’t know how he translated to covering government, but the pattern seems to be taking his predilection for exploring the line between the knowable and the unknowable, and showcases the difficulties of knowing where the line is to different aspects of life, both common (business) and uncommon (Fight Clubs).
“Gone Girl” works on a surface level, works on a pedestrian entertainment level, and is murky but fascinating on the deeper levels, which giving you plenty of delicious Fincher-quality eye candy to look at and a haunting, spare score to heightened the experience. It is extremely faithful to the source material for fans of the novel, but Fincher still adds his touches to make the film an experience worth sitting through if you otherwise felt the novel was all you needed to experience of this story. It’s one of 2014’s best films so far. A.