Gone Girl (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Gone Girl (2014)

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Nick gets up one morning, takes out the trash, goes to the bar, and when he comes home finds that his wife, Amy, has gone missing in an apparent struggle.  What happened?  Why does Nick seem barely concerned about his wife?  As the police investigate they find more reasons to be suspicious of Nick, but is the picture of Amy left accurate to how she really was?  Where is she?  More answers leads to more questions in Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and adapted from the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn.

Crocodile tears

"I've been here for you before you were born."

Margo (Carrie Coon), the drained sister of a man whose actions caused pain and shame to her family, says this in the closing passages of Gone Girl.  She speaks for herself.  "Of course I'll be here for you.  We're family."  But she is also speaking for David Fincher's films as a whole, and the savage debate surrounding sexism in digital culture we are presently enmeshed.  "Of course I'm here for you.  I am a reasonable member of this society and you, a well-meaning but flawed middle-class white man who just wants to play video games and have a beer, have nothing to fear.  I am yours.  The system is yours."

Gone Girl is the greatest validation for a specific subset of men who feel shame that anyone should criticize their lifestyle or the way they think and treat women.  Fincher's films have had this problem starting from Seven on, reducing women to symbols and tools to either prop up men, provide them with shallow motivations, or serve as easy suspects in conspiracy plots to rob men of their power.  Fincher women are Madonnas, or they are whores.  In Gone Girl they are Madonnas when dedicated to family or work, whores when they try to advance their economic or social standing in some way.

Because for all the talk of sex and manipulation that is sure to arise from Gone Girl, and I look forward to those conversations, the central problem in the story is not of a bad marriage but bad economics.  The marital conflict begins when America entered the recession of '08, and the marriage between Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck) reveals itself to be built on illusions of class - not romance.  Their attraction forms because of light jokes about consumables and culture, and when it finally deteriorates it comes with an unshaven Nick sitting in front of the TV, just trying to play videogames and forget about his troubles.  Nick married higher than his class and the system does as it does - funneling Amy's wealth and privilege down to his control.

The Amy of this billboard is just as real as the Amy we see in the rest of Gone Girl.

The Amy of this billboard is just as real as the Amy we see in the rest of Gone Girl.

My issues with Gone Girl begin earlier than that image, but the sight of Nick on the sofa just wanting to be left alone is crucial to the politics of the film.  Gone Girl presents two different fantasies - the first half of the film concocted from a conservative nightmare that Amy builds for Nick to fall into, and the second half a smug liberal vision of justice from those who recognize the system for what it is but do nothing to change it.  In spite of the imagined violence Amy paints Nick as capable of, he is still just a helpless guy who wants to do well but can't pull himself away from those digital distractions.  It's also important that the switch between these two fantasies is the woodshed discovery of trinkets and electronics worth a decent chunk of capital.  Her revenge builds on the fact that she realized that she married below her class too late and taunts him with the opulence he is incapable of gaining on his own.

Here is where I start to question just how Gillian Flynn, who wrote both the screenplay and novel, feels about what Fincher did with her material.  Amy's behavior is explained in one crucial voice-over where she talks about the pressures of being pushed into different roles and having to perform a specific way to please men.  Had Gone Girl continued in this direction it could have developed into biting satire.  Instead this is also the precise moment where the film switches from the fantasy Amy concocted for the media, to the righteous defense scenario Nick creates for himself.  Domestic issues and suspicions are blown up into almost cartoonish super villain levels, and Gone Girl the film allows very little time for Amy to explain herself before going back to poor Nick and his defense crew.  I am curious if the novel elaborates more on this, because the film hastily provides this justification over images of her scheming - not the indignity she supposedly suffered.

The crucial problem, and partly the point, of Gone Girl is that there is no Amy.  She is about as real in our perception into the film as Amazing Amy is to her family.  Which is to say she is a nightmare of wishful projection, the proof of insecure men that women are really out to get them, a noir-ish femme fatale who did not want to be married to someone of a lower class, and certainly does not want him controlling her wealth.  That her primary weapons are sex and manipulation makes this nightmare worse - a justification to those cowardly men that rape accusations really are just manipulative women out to get them for the tiniest slights.

Liberal faux-morality is sprinkled throughout Gone Girl as Nick's defense mechanism against any suspicion ("How can you suspect me when I care about the homeless?")

Liberal faux-morality is Nick's defense mechanism against any suspicion.  After all, how can you suspect a man who cares about the homeless?  But the system cares about saving them just as much as Nick does.

Media saturation into the color scheme of the first and second half of the films is key to this issue.  The Nancy Grace conservative caricature that leads the character attacks on Nick is clothed in subdued tans and deep browns that are saturated with shadow in the first half.  The liberal caricature is a welcome surprise, a Barbara Walters or Katie Couric type enters the story as Nick's world outside the media becomes draped in dark and light blues as the shadows recede.  Nick's fantasy is clear (crystal blue, as it were) versus the deep suspicion of Amy's media tale.  In both halves we get Nick's side as his character is assassinated and then rebuilt.  But in neither half are we privy to Amy's thoughts, even in that lake house where her deeds read more as the product of Nick's imagination than representative of her actions.  Because of his additional perspective Nick remains the victim, even when the Amy-infatuated media paints a picture of him otherwise.

Pike's performance is fantastic as it assembles pseudo-noir fatales of the last 20 years, relying heavily on Nicole Kidman-like artificiality from Gus Van Sant's To Die For or Park Chan-wook's recent Stoker.  This, again, is both problem and point.  Amy is not an individual, but a collection of media fragments derived from recent stories where women scheme to derive men of power (of the three, Stoker's is the most nuanced).  Gone Girl draws from noir and thrillers both modern and classic just enough to create a plausible mask, reflecting those post-Recession male fears in a chillingly mannered way without commenting on them.

This is the great moral failing of Gone Girl in spite of Fincher's previously noted masterful use of color and command of the tone.  Fincher's editing rhythm, especially in those opening scenes, has the camera cut away just short of a revelation.  Trent Reznor's soundtrack is eerily on point here, letting the beats fade away or cut in violently when the revelations do come.  Together they create a brilliant pastiche on the anxiety of almost knowing the answer, making the audience feel like if they juts stick around for that one extra second or the music continue for that last measure it will all make sense.

Moments of bleak comedy are littered throughout Gone Girl, but I especially appreciated Lisa Banes emphatic line-readings.

Moments of bleak comedy are littered throughout Gone Girl, but I especially appreciated Lisa Banes enthusiastically insincere line-readings.

Fincher's Gone Girl is brilliant and repulsive in a manner similar to Michael Bay's Transformers films.  Both are master classes in giving the audience exactly what they want - in the former it is ammunition that any perceived failings of men is because of a deep-rooted shadow conspiracy against them, in the latter that America is a psychopathic murdering villain with illusions of heroism.  But Bay's films have one thing over Gone Girl, they do not pity their protagonists.  Nick is pathetic, yes, but almost always in the protection of the system Amy tried to subvert because she's crazy.  No nuance, just ugly conspiratorial reflection of male suspicion and potential castration.  Fincher's mastery of this reflection is worthy of praise in terms of craft, but morally it is as repugnant as films can get.

Are there heroes in Gone Girl?  Yes, but not in the likely sources.  Nick's sister, much like the dedicated cop, are too enmeshed in protecting either Nick or the system of justice designed to keep him safe to take any real actions.  The heroes are the outsiders - the drifters that Amy meets on the road who see the class conflict for what it is and immediately disrupt it, or the brilliant character portrayed by Tyler Perry who also recognizes Nick and Amy for what they are and is able to manipulate their struggle to his advantage.

Perry's character, bleakly funny though he is, grasps the terrible reality of Gone Girl.  There is no changing the system  - no means of destroying it.  There is only manipulation and, if you're lucky, momentary advancement for those who can work the system best.  Despite all the evil, the manipulation, and the violence - Nick is still the victim, the man who just wanted to play videogames and drink some beer, and now he'll have everything he wanted.  He is a coward, and Gone Girl is the justification for his cowardice.

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Gone Girl - TailGone Girl (2014)

Directed by David Fincher.
Screenplay written by Gillian Flynn.
Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Finally saw the film last night and I must say that I really enjoyed it. It plays more like a suburban horror film rather than a typical thriller, which is partly why I found it so appealing. I can see how the “fear women” angle would rub you the wrong way, you make some very valid points, but it was not as pronounced for me. In fact, one of the things I loved about the film was that the women were the most interesting characters in it. Outside of Tyler Perry, who is surprising wonderful in the film, all of the men are weak compared to their strong female counterparts. This is actually rather refreshing to see considering that women are usually the ones fighting for their lives in horror films.

    Having said that, I like that both Amy and Nick are the makers of their own hell. There are points when you genuinely are worried for both of them, despite hating that they have manipulated those around them a few scenes earlier. This is especially true when Amy realizes she is in over her head with subtly psychotic NPH. Like any good horror flick, the terror comes from exaggeration of the familiar. In this case it is the way Fincher and Flynn exploit how some marriages go from the honeymoon phase to strangers living in the same house. Though it is outrageous in overall execution, there are plenty of nuggets of truth that married folks can identify with.

    As for the satire on people like Nancy Grace, I thought it was spot on. It really nails how we have evolved into a primarily reactionary society. Our decisions and opinions are formed now by sound bites from pundits who never truly investigating the facts. Again, I see where you are coming from in your dislike of the film. However, this one played extremely well for me.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful commentary Courtney. The suburban horror elements are especially well used when we see the abandoned mall – another diseased from the inside-out relic of the kind of consumerism Amy and Nick bonded over. Also effective, as you mentioned, are the two moments where Amy realizes that she is in a bad situation, and both of them play back into the class and economic issues that put the marriage down a bad path.

      I’ll be chewing on Gone Girl for a very long time, and my extreme distaste of the film is by no means a warning to steer clear. The NPH scenes you also discussed are precisely why. There’s a ton of indication that, yes, Amy may have had a hand in creating the issues she later exaggerated but does that excuse him setting up what is essentially a beautiful prison to hold her in? Absolutely not, but the question of who caused what behavior is really troubling because of Amy’s extreme level of plotting. We have no reason to really trust the exes that Amy is exactly as bad as she says, but they way she’s presented doesn’t give her much credit either.

      It’s a nearly perfect film that I hate. I hope everyone who sees it comes out with as nuanced thoughts as yours because this could be one of the most important films of the year if so.

  2. Good review Andrew. Honestly, though it wasn’t Fincher’s best, I still had a great time. However, bits and pieces of this that are supposed to seem funny, do come off a bit strange, all considering Fincher’s tone. But to me, that’s just what made it all the more of a bizarre watch and hence why I loved it.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. When Fincher and co employ the bleak humor, like in just about all of Tyler Perry’s lines, it works damn well. Nothing really came off too strange to me, which is mostly why the flick hit and bothered me so much. It’s the ultimate distillation of Fincher’s gender issues in film.

  3. Solid review, once again. I only just saw the movie (literally just got back 10 minutes ago) and I had to go straight to your review and see how it jived with what I thought. I haven’t necessarily had the time to compile my thoughts as eloquently as you, but I like your thoughts here. I do agree that Nick is given too much pity – the movie did a good job of showing that all parties were at fault for most of the movie but we are made (or implored to) feel more sympathy for Nick as the film progresses. Adding to that is the fact that I never once was convinced that Nick killed his wife. I don’t know if that was purposeful or not, but having never read the book I was very intrigued to see how he would get out of his predicament but nothing made me question his innocence.

    Part of the issue that is causing your distaste for the film lies in the source material, I think. If the NPH storyline was absent and the film ended with her returning for a different reason than her being a sociopath, then the idea that husband and wife created their hells together would have been better established. But the crazier that the wife was revealed to be, the more that concept bled away and we as an audience were more willing to forgive Nick his infidelity and general terrible-husbandness because he obviously married a freak show. I wish that Nick’s character had been a little worse, a little more unsympathetic. As an audience member, I feel like we should struggle between detesting Amy’s actions and feeling like they’re justified based on how Nick has conducted himself. That balance tipped pretty heavily in Nick’s favor by the end.

    What I latched onto more than anything was the way that society at large treats these types of situations. How easily people are swept up in the tide of the fickle news media and whatever minute detail they decide to blow out of proportion. I have to say that the Nancy Grace character is not a caricature at all, sadly – watch her show for 20 minutes and tell me if it’s not identical to what was filmed in Gone Girl. The sad thing is that the behavior of every character, from central to supporting to background, is realistic and could easily happen in real life (aside from the convenient “this wife is a crazy, murderous bitch” part).

    I don’t know that I think it reinforces gender stereotypes/bias or enables men’s objectification so much as it comments on the depravity of human behavior, but that may change when I have more than 10 minutes to think about it. Thanks for the review!

    • Thank you for your comment and the thorough, thoughtful reply. On reflection you’re right about the media portion, Fincher had to do very little to make the talking heads media figures overblown in this film. What I really liked is that it showed both “sides” complicit in the out-of-control narrative that Amy got started, and I loved that even the supposedly well meaning liberal journalist is no better than her counterpart. It’s admirable in a way that the Nancy Grace-ish character is so open in contrast.

      I’m going to be chewing on this film for a long time, and I think there’s enough decency on display that the film isn’t a general treatise on depravity. Even though they technically committed a crime I couldn’t pass judgement on the lower class folks Amy encounters, for example. She treated them horribly and they smelled the deceit on her from the get-go. Then there’s the Tyler Perry attorney character, who is probably the only completely decent person in the film, and is able to cut Amy, Nick, and everyone else involved in the circus down to size with hilarious and succinct honesty.

      “Elvis has left Missouri” indeed.

  4. This is a late comment, but this site giving this movie a negative review has made me sort of interested in watching it, which I hadn’t been in all the time it’s been in release. A clear-eyed (if somewhat extreme) view of marriage that ends up being sympathetic to the husband’s experience is uncommon in movies, and I wonder whether the director added that himself in an attempt to subvert the intentions of the source novel’s female writer. But then I remember that it’s David Fincher, who directed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which from what I’ve read sounds like a pretty extreme celebration of female-on-male violence), and I’m less optimistic; I may watch the movie hoping to see the themes this reviewer saw and end up disappointed. However, I’m still intrigued by the idea of seeing Neil Patrick Harris in an apparently sinister role (which kind of reminds me of Charles Fleischer’s casting in Fincher’s Zodiac) — but on the other hand, there’s the casting of Tyler Perry. WTF, Fincher?

  5. Addendum: Further reducing the possibility that the movie might contain a male-sympathetic portrayal of marriage, checking out a few semi-spoilerish pages about the movie suggests that it ends with the husband choosing imprisonment much like the protagonist of Fight Club — which would make it of a piece with the Fincher canon’s gender views after all.

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