The Absurd Fiction and Uncomfortable Reality of Gone Girl

(Article contains spoilers.)

It’s been so long since a movie in theaters has looked worthy of your afternoon and $9 that Gone Girl should be a thirst-quencher.  After a disastrous summer that left audiences covering their eyes, the mere promise of a watchable film is enough to drag you out the door to a 10:00 AM Friday showing.

Written by Gillian Flynn, also the author of the bestselling book on which it’s based, Gone Girl begins intriguingly enough.  A couple of New York writers named Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have moved to Middle of Nowhere, Missouri due to family obligations.  Their marriage, once nothing but adorable smiles and matching gifts and library sex, has been decimated by financial decay and general life disagreements.  Nick considers divorce, but on their 5th anniversary, he gets a ruder awakening: Amy goes missing and is presumed dead.  Thanks to circumstantial evidence and his spectacular bungling of the situation, Nick becomes the primary suspect.  Naturally.

Twists and turns ensue.  Naturally.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

This whodunit murder investigation, which ultimately and unfortunately gives way to tangential subplots and a wildly different ending, is shepherded by the inimitable director David Fincher.  Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) imparts a foreboding, macabre tone to material that doesn’t deserve it.

Gone Girl’s ultimate flaw is how it loses resonance as it goes on. Not only is it 20 minutes too long, but its zany twists and convoluted turns encourage you to take it progressively less seriously.  Fincher’s professional, austere hand clashes with the increasingly ridiculous plot points and one-dimensional characters, to disquieting effect.  And the less of a real person its most important character becomes, the more you’re free to tune it out, to admire the craft and intent but recognize the needlessness of engaging with it on any sort of emotional level.

The structure also hurts, placing the shocking twist at the midsection.  When, say, Vertigo revealed its secrets long before the climax, it was a controversial move that at least added some suspense and energy to a story that needed them.  Here, because the twist is a) so damn far from the ending, and b) so nonsensical, it doesn’t work.

By the time the plot mechanics gingerly and painstakingly crank into place, they have obliterated all sense of normalcy and reality.  Rather than gradually making her more relatable and understandable, the film pushes Amy so far to the extreme, farcical end of humanity that she almost becomes amusing.  Yet, most fatally, you’re no closer to understanding her motivations or wishes than you were 2 and a half long hours earlier.  To quote the great Wesley Morris, “Nick finds himself wondering what’s in that head of Amy’s. I don’t think she knows.  What’s worse, I don’t think we’re supposed to care.”

Despite a powerful, memorable turn from Pike, Amy’s motivations—including the disappearance upon which the entire story hangs—elude us.  Her character is a mess, continually running wild with no regard for logic or coherence.  For example, she has the clever forethought and meticulous patience to execute the perfect staged murder, to allow herself to escape town while her husband burns…and yet she subsequently gets hoodwinked by a white-trash couple?

As many reviewers noted, the film shifts from a murder mystery to an exploration of a crumbling marriage, and any message it would have on that subject would surely be drenched in pessimism.  And it teases interesting questions about emotional manipulation and a partner’s expectations, but because its titular character is so far from representative, any potential insights become moot.  It’s difficult to impart a genuine message about anything when so few of your situations feel plausible.

What’s worse, Amy’s over-the-top portrayal also contributes to the movie’s most unfortunate implications.  This is a blatantly sexist film, and that attribute cheapens anything it might have to say about marriage or gender politics.

Even putting aside Amy’s lunacy, it’s hard not to notice that the other villains—the bumbling neighbor who implicates Nick, the TV personalities roasting him—are female.  Despite Nick’s notable flaws, we’re meant to sympathize with him merely for enduring someone even more virulent.  His cheating and moderate domestic abuse get conveniently brushed aside by Amy’s all-encompassing insanity, and that’s where a more nuanced portrayal of her would have elevated the flick.

In a trope seen far too often, our characters must enlist the help of a man (a lawyer nicely played by Tyler Perry) to help another man—a philandering, abusive one—deal with problems created by a female.  And, in the process, all of Nick’s behavior gets lost, swept away by the overwhelming hurricane of A Crazy Woman.  If the book’s author wasn’t female, you’d just view this story as a male’s insular, worst-case-scenario vision of marriage.  The fact that she is a female doesn’t get this material off the hook.

Additionally, there’s already been talk about Fincher’s mishandling of Amy’s famous monologue, in which she calls out men for demanding that women be “cool” (read: flawless).  As is mentioned in the article linked above, the film flips the magnifying glass away from men onto the women themselves, a distinction that shouldn’t be lost.

[pullquote] This is an uncomfortable experience, and not in any sort of curative way.  I’m a fan of David Fincher and his style, but watching Gone Girl makes you want him to never take on anything like this again.[/pullquote]

And that’s without mentioning the movie’s disturbing contribution to the national conversation about rape.  In other words, as Morris put it after outlining the reasons why these conversations are reaching a boiling point: “And then along comes a major work of Hollywood fiction based on a huge best seller written by a woman about a woman whose greatest power is to cry wolf.”

Yeahhh.  This is an uncomfortable experience, and not in any sort of curative way.  I’m a fan of David Fincher and his style, but watching Gone Girl makes you want him to never take on anything like this again.

There was an early moment, with Affleck at the bar talking with his sister, where Fincher wowed me.  Affleck mentions that it’s his 5-year anniversary, to which his sister replies, “That came fast.”  He sighs back, “and furious” as he slides his glass across the bar for a refill, and the way Fincher fades that shot into a flashback is unexpectedly gorgeous in his distinctive way.  But the rest of the time, the story’s inelegant absurdity seems to confuse and/or neutralize him.

(Another example of the film’s tonal inconsistency and poor characterizations: when we first realize that Nick has been cavorting behind Amy’s back, it should be a serious moment that makes us hate him.  Instead, notice how it’s pitched: Nick, staying at his sister’s place, believes he hears a dangerous intruder outside.  When the suspense dissipates upon seeing just his nubile girlfriend at the door, we’re placated, comforted, mollified.  The cheap horror trick portends a scene that stays a comedy, with Nick trying to avoid detection from his sister.  Meanwhile, the entire purpose of the revelation gets swallowed up.  Oh, and let’s not forget that the actress playing the girlfriend became famous in the “Blurred Lines” video, which could open up a whole separate can of worms, but which I won’t link to for obvious reasons—those being that it’s a horrendous song.)

The casting of Affleck is fascinating.  At this point, it seems clear that he is who he is as an actor; his general inability to emote hasn’t much improved. (There’s an amusing meta moment when Perry asks him to repeat a line in a less wooden manner.) However, in the movie’s more procedural first half, when you’re contemplating whether he might be an empty sociopath, the blankness fits.

But that’s pretty much damning with faint praise—hey, Ben, I guess they cast you because they needed someone who can’t emote well, eh?—and the nagging sense of wanting more keeps building.  When I learned that Nick was much sharper and crueler in the novel, my yearning for a different lead actor—imagine this role played by DiCaprio, Norton, Spacey, many others—only grew.  It makes you wonder whether casting someone who conveys ‘likable doofus’ a lot more easily than ‘severe cad’ was done intentionally, to get the audience even more on Nick’s side.

Finally, because the story just doesn’t work on an overall level, you can’t help but notice the irksome details.  Like Nick hiding a critical clue from the cops, which doesn’t make sense if he’s innocent.  Like the way we can’t possibly take the couple’s financial problems seriously when they’re still living in a house that could comfortably sleep 12.  Like that early line from Nick’s sister, in response to his exasperation with Amy, that he should just nail her good.  Because, you know, that’s the only way to deal with a difficult woman, I suppose.  (But, of course, since the line is said by a woman, it’s not inappropriate, right? /eye-roll.)

Gone Girl is just not entertaining or believable enough to withstand all these problems.  And that, more than any deeper discussions of direction and philosophy and meaning, is the most important attribute for a movie.  Most troublingly, the deeper discussions won’t comfort you either.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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