Heavy Weight Champions of 2014: Gone Girl

David Fincher is probably Hollywood’s most high-brow mercenary. A new Fincher movie is exciting because regardless of the script-work, we’re always going to get some highly beautiful aesthetic work on […]

David Fincher is probably Hollywood’s most high-brow mercenary. A new Fincher movie is exciting because regardless of the script-work, we’re always going to get some highly beautiful aesthetic work on all fronts. Unfortunately, Fincher’s last two projects before Gone Girl were disappointing because of the material he chose. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network are succesful movies, but they felt weak and overeliant on Fincher’s aesthetic work to carry out stories that most of the time felt generic and whenever they veered out of generic territory, they went into outright insulting and bizarre territory. This is especially jarring in the light of the fact that Zodiac proved to be a highlight in Fincher’s career.

So, when Gone Girl was released, I was apprehensive. On the one hand, this was another adaptation, not unlike Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I had serious issues with the book in terms of its characterization of its two main leads, which by the end of the book felt less like people and more like plot devices in constant contradiction. On the other hand, Gillian Flynn’s structure really fit the flights of narrative fancy that distinguished Fight Club and Se7en from the pack. And it’s important to remember that Fight Club was also a barely-above average book before Fincher turned it into a turn-of-the-millenium grenade of a cult film.

And then we had the final product. Gone Girl is probably the strongest Fincher release in a career filled with modern thriller classics and it’s all due to the fact that when it comes to Gillian Flynn’s script, Fincher understands that while her characters could be strong and compelling in the page, they do not come across as humans unless someone imbues them with life. Cue Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, taking both roles and turning them from simulacra into living, breathing individuals. Pike, in particular, is a complete stand-out as Amy Dunne, switching from kind and sweet to conniving and menacing in the blink of an eye, she’s the ultimate femme fatale, taking her cue from the Lauren Bacalls and Veronica Lakes of old Hollywood and then ultimately giving them the chance to redeem themselves outside of the narcissist and misogynist narratives that defined them and blossom as the forces of nature they were meant to be.

2014 proved to be a year of two-handers and thrillers. Whiplash, Foxcatcher and Gone Girl were all released the same year and they were all about the abusive relationships that people formed in their desperate need for connection. Unlike Whiplash and Foxcatcher, however, Gone Girl was not about the relationship between two men and the societal intoxication that we call “masculinity”. Instead, Gone Girl examined one of our oldest institutions, marriage and then took that examination to a ridiculous pulpy boiling point.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation surrounding Gone Girl and so many people’s dismissal of the same was the idea that the film was trying to say something important about marriage in and of itself. While the evaluation is correct, many critics dismissed what it had to say by virtue of how pulpy the plot is. But all fiction is about humanity and the way we build our relationships. Gone Girl’s commentary is no less valuable by virtue of being a genre film. It just crystallizes its point of view in a way that makes it immediately accessible, not to say entertaining (that’s why we go to the movies, right?)

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Murder and Marriage

Gone Girl’s greatest accomplishment, therefore, is its focused approach. The movie approaches marriage in today’s world and the many many affectations and outside forces that get involved in what is, according to the ideal fantasy, a bubble, unaffacted by the real world. This is especially seen on its commentary on the economy. One of Gone Girl’s cleverest affectations is that the Dunne marriage goes downhill with the economy as they are forced to retreat to the South. Effectively, this ties into the central idea of the movie in regards to marriage.

Marriage is many things to many people, but the one thing we can agree on is that it involves a commitment that fundamentally speaking, the partners like who they are and they would like to share their lives with each other. But what people in the present can’t account for is who they will become in the future. Thus, there’s an inherent promise of “we will always be who we are and we will always tolerate and respect who we are”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for the sheer entropy that governs life.

This isn’t meant as a cynical analysis of marriage or as a doom prophecy for all marital unions. It is meant simply as a statement of how goddamn hard it is to be married to someone. It involves a degree of emotional honesty and adaptability that most people take decades to accomplish. The Dunnes are a couple on their thirties when they get married and then the whole universe slowly builds an assault on any peace they could find, and it does not take into account the very real fact that the Dunnes do not fully know each other.

Marriage is the ultimate exposer of truths. By truly intertwining your lives with someone, you become one with another person, and they become privy to your ways of thinking, your ways of speaking, your ways of being. This is Gone Girl’s true brilliance in its portrayal of the Dunne marriage: by the time we have gotten a full picture of the events that shaped the Dunnes into the couple we see on the epilogue, we still feel like outsiders. We still feel like we’re witnessing a level of intimacy we are not fully allowed to witness, let alone understand. And this intimacy has become a weapon they use against each other. It’s obvious by now to the average reader that the central conflict of Gone Girl does not involve outside forces. It is all about how these two people use the people in their life to hurt each other. In a very real way, while Amy and Nick hate each other, they don’t understand anyone else unless said understanding could lead to making their conflict a victory.

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Amy Dunne, The Patriarchy’s Golem

Of course, all of this is anchored on one of the most delightful character creations of 2014: Amy Dunne. Rosamund Pike, Gillian Flynn and David Fincher all infuse Amy Dunne with power and life. I’ve mentioned this before, but a character like Amy is hard to convey through the page, especially because of the many layers of deception involved on her personality and plan. So in order for her character to work, there needs to be a connection from the audience to her core. Pike achieves that by letting the mask go at the appropriate times and committing to the actions that show us effectively who Amy Dunne is. A little happy dance here, a little spit into somebody’s else drink there. Pike is a revelation as she commands the screen in every scene effortlessly, effectively conveying why her character is such a nexus for the ensemble that surrounds her.

While she’s clearly the antagonist of the piece, someone whose methods of fighting back are truly ruthless, her anger is not impossible to understand. In many ways, she’s the heir to Fight Club’s Tyler Durden: an antagonist whose philosophy is truly heinous, but which is based on contradicting a fundamentally hateful aspect of our society, so it leads to many an audience member to walk out of the experience fully identifiying with (or even aspiring to be) Amy Dunne. It helps a lot that Pike is deceptively charming in her cruelty and that her motivations are understandable.

A comparison I’ve seen before is Todd VanDerWerff’s comparison to the Frankenstein Monster. Admittedly, I don’t think the analysis is perfect, but the general point about how Amy was a monster created by the patriarchy is entirely correct. Amy Dunne’s story is a revenge tale, similar to the ones that Tarantino usually spins. However, of course, it’s not as morally clear-cut as Shoshanna’s quest to burn the nazis to the ground. This doesn’t mean that Gone Girl’s commentary is less or more valid, but it’s simply a different angle. In the end, however, Gone Girl goes a long way towards illustrating the very real truth that women are often imposed narratives and stories. Because she’s a woman and because she’s the child of child story writers who modeled their big character around her, people effectively expect her to be Amazing Amy. Upon this narrative, Amy decides to rebel and take back the rights to own her story, regardless of who is destroyed in her path.

I mentioned, somewhat implicitly the golem. And the reasoning for that is that as much as Amy Dunne’s goal is to liberate herself from the margins that the patriarchy that defines her, her character is a very specific conjuring by the dreams of males everywhere. I don’t mean her true nature, but simply the person she pretends to be. The Cool Girl who is OK with following her man everywhere and is willing to eat shit because she’s liberated.

A lot of the dismissal in regards to that particular Vox article comes down to this perception that the article (and the movie) extends empathy towards Amy when they don’t. They do extend sympathy, however. Specifically, sympathy of the nuanced kind. The pain and suffering that drive Amy do not justify her actions. But they do go a long way towards elaborating on the issues that define what it is like to be a woman on the 21st century: liberated, but not too liberated. But none of this is an endorsement of the monster that is Amy Dunne. In fact, Gone Girl goes a long way towards establishing that Amy’s interests are not activist-like. She’s just interested on her own survival and thriving. This is one of the many fundamental mistakes that has been made in terms of reading the film as pro-patriarchy. While it seems like another bunny-boiler drama, the difference is that there’s an aim towards understanding the motivations behind Amy’s violence. Where movies like Fatal Attraction decide that it’s good enough that a woman is “bananas”, Gone Girl decides to illustrate that the pressure that society puts on all women can’t be healthy and that some, like Amy, would eventually break and become something other than human.

Of course, if Amy’s a monster created by the patriarchy who ends up attacking it, Nick is the Patriarchy incarnate, in all of its bumbling and silly glory. Affleck brings his A-Game to this one, constantly making you doubt who Nick Dunne truly is. He’s at times charming and foolish, silly and lucid. But the thing that makes Gone Girl tick throughout it all is that Affleck is committed to the idea that Nick Dunne is a terrible individual. A person who takes a long time to see how his actions could hurt other people and who lacks the most basic empathy. But in the case of Amy, there’s is a constant premeditation and calculation that goes into every act. In the case of Nick, it is simply a general lack of self-awareness that defines his place on the plot. While this lack of understanding of his actions does not make him deserving of some sort of Over The Top Vengeance, it does make him deserving of the purgatory hell he lives on by the end of the film.

Gone Girl is a fascinating experiment in the examination of gender roles in film mostly because it asks one very simple thing and it is to examine the Other Side of the “bunny-boiler” dramas that followed on Fatal Attraction’s track. Where Fatal Attraction was completely willing to forgive everything about its bumbling and offensive male lead, Gone Girl is willing to go all the way to both question the Male Lead and his values as well as extending long-due sympathy for the female. However, Gone Girl’s brilliance is that it never flips the formula. It never turns it into “Men are The New Bunny Boilers”. Instead, Gone Girl dedicates itself to the why and the motivations that drives these two people to hurt each other in the way they do. In that way, perhaps, Gone Girl’s greatest achievement is in portraying the emotional truth of a relationship fallout.