Heading to the press screening of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, I was, as usual, running late. But as I rushed from bus to cab to dashing down crowded Chicago streets, I reassured myself that even if I was five minutes late, I had a pretty good sense of what I’d miss in that opening: a series of blue-gray, pre-dawn shots of a quiet Mississippi river town in Missouri; empty streets, silent houses, shuttered downtown businesses, the blackish river creeping by, etc. All set to a low-key, subtly ominous score that forebode trouble on Main Street, Heartland, USA.
As it turned out, I made it to the screening on time, and sure enough, I was pretty close in my guess. (There’s also a chilling thematic aperitif just before the river town montage.) The opening is very well done, but how did I know what it would be? Because I’ve seen dozens of suburban tales of violent, domestic intrigue—Murder in the Cul-de-sac, Guilty by Suspicion, that sort of thing. I’ve read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-selling novel. And I’ve seen all of David Fincher’s films.
Which isn’t to say that Gone Girl isn’t a near-immaculate version of all that or that the movie doesn’t have plenty of devious pleasures. But it is to say that if you’ve read Flynn’s book, or seen a Fincher thriller, or really any tale of small-town murder and/or nefarious domestic scheming, you’ll have a pretty good idea going in of exactly what Gone Girl will deliver with impeccable, almost frustrating precision.
At Fincher’s hand, with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike starring and Flynn adroitly and economically adapting her own novel, the book’s Midwest Gothic tale gets the shiniest of Hollywood-noir glosses—visually and tonally, we’re firmly in Fincher-land, although for the sake of what Fincher knows is mass-market entertainment-value and artistic and thematic slumming, let’s call it Fincher-land Lite… FincherBurbia?
In Fincher-land the wood grains are rich and darkly polished, shot on rich, darkly polished digital by Fincher’s long-time cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). (Someday Fincher is going to fulfill his artistic dream and his cinematic destiny and make a Ken Burns-sized documentary entitled Richly Grained, Polished Wood in Shadow: A Chiaroscuro Study in Ten Parts.) In Fincher-land even the rust, rot, and moral decay is burnished in deep, evocative shades—heady, beautiful Platonic Ideals of rust, rot, and moral decay that form a gorgeous Pottery Barn Noir.
Flynn’s script is compact, tight, and efficient, and as in the book, the plot twists and puzzles are carefully parceled out to keep the viewer happily locked in for the whole trip, and Fincher’s direction is equally mannered, crafted to a fine hum. In diving into the eerie small-town Missouri tale of Nick Dunne (Affleck) and his suddenly missing wife Amy (Pike), the film Gone Girl (like Flynn’s novel) plays as a good old-fashioned Hitchcockian page-turner. Fincher has however, with his now-trademarked craftsmanship, created yet another of these “entertainments” that tends to feel as echoingly hollow as it is visually and narratively compelling—the triumph of the slick aesthetic.
That said, if you haven’t read the book or seen the flick yet, here is where we bid you a fond adieu. Because much from here on out is going to be spoiler-ish And as those who’ve read/seen Gone Girl know, on both page and screen, it’s a tale that rides and compels on its plot twists.
If indeed his intent is to create a satiric puppet show about the deadly domestic void behind most romantic tales, Fincher couldn’t have found two better actors for the endeavor than Affleck and Pike. Both have always given off a sheen of Old-Hollywood marquee-attractiveness while carefully cultivating guarded, even sealed-off personas on (and off) screen.
To be clear, I’ve always stood in full praise of Ben Affleck—he is and always has been a singularly talented and grippingly watchable actor, often using his paradoxical combination of natural, boyish charm and distant old-school poise to mask deeper currents. Hatas gonna hate, and over the past couple decades, prior to Argo’s Oscar success, it was cheap, easy sport to pick apart Affleck’s role choices and to fall back on lazy dismissals of him based on an artificially created tabloid-media shallowness. (To be fair, for a long while, Affleck had an impressive track record for picking stunningly crappy projects. Though the two usually hauled out against him for the sake of a lazy laugh —Gigli and Jersey Girl—are not nearly as bad as people like to pretend.)
As a long-time member of the Affleck Fan Club (even when it seemed membership consisted solely of Kevin Smith and myself), I can’t help but smugly sneer at everyone now putting aside their “Batffleck” Twitter jibes and pretending to be suddenly shocked the actor is so good in Gone Girl. (Even as they try to diminish his natural talent by suggesting that Affleck’s own guarded emotions and past history with the media neatly inform Nick’s own tabloid trials.)
Maybe if everyone hadn’t been so busy enabling and feeding the tabloid distraction machine with the easy snark, they might have noticed the subtle depth of Affleck’s work in films like Hollywoodland, State of Play (a test-run for Nick Dunne’s pre-judged guilt), and The Company Men. As with those roles, Gone Girl stars Affleck the Dark Movie Star. His Nick is all dour disappointment and sullen disassociation, tucked tightly behind the glib politician’s need to please and be liked.
Likewise, Rosamund Pike has long quietly impressed with great work in good films like The Libertine, Pride & Prejudice, An Education, and Barney’s Version, and is often the best thing in other, mixed-quality films. Like Affleck, Pike sometimes seems hampered by her classical good looks—her face appears so pristine, so ideally proportioned that the actress turns up her haughty demeanor in hopes of subverting her own beauty. At other times, her porcelain-doll face and relentlessly clear eyes can start to drift into the Uncanny Valley—sliding from Grace Kelly into something more alien; a femme fatale-bot giving off the sort of low-register subconscious warnings that make the animal hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
On paper Pike is an obvious fit for Amy Dunne. That cold, other-worldly manner and the effortless shift from the pleading fear and vulnerably of a frail ice princess to the silent ferociousness of a cornered feral cat well-serve Amy’s squirming, seductive, and deadly duplicity. Unfortunately while Pike’s increasingly wild-eyed performance is (like most of the film) completely enjoyable, it further undermines the actual character of Amy, turning her into even more of a cartoon; a bottle-blonde Hannibal Lecter. First Flynn’s script, then Pike’s performance, and finally Fincher’s direction steadily strip away all the humanity from Book Amy, who at least felt like a real person (albeit a real crazy person). Movie Amy winds up yet another of Fincher’s unknowable freak-show ciphers, which, sadly, is how we prefer our movie villains.
(In fact, Pike’s portrayal of Amy in Gone Girl comes off so inhuman, so terrifyingly calculating even from the early halcyon flashbacks, that it reminds me of why I only grudgingly accept Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Lecter—I get a kick from its obvious, Gothic-fun value, but find it less interesting than the deceptive humanity and charm Brian Cox brought to his more subtly sinister Lecktor [sic] in Mann’s Manhunter.)
The rest of the film’s cast is equally well-chosen, face by terrifically appropriate face: Kim Dickens (Treme) and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as the investigating police (Dickens is especially good); Carrie Coon as Nick’s sibling support system; Neil Patrick Harris as a fastidious, fussy former Amy paramour; and Tyler Perry as superstar lawyer Tanner Bolt.
(The best thing about Perry’s genuinely great performance isn’t that he disarms the anti-Medea wags, but that Bolt is a refreshing change of pace in Fincher-land: a full-blown cynic who gleefully embraces, owns, and delights in his cynicism and the cynical world he swims in.)
But this is where my mild dissatisfaction with Gone Girl (despite having a decent enough time watching it) may feel churlish. Throughout the film, from the lighting to the direction to the acting in major and minor roles, all that seemingly laudable Fincher attention to detail takes what was already a rather shallow contraption to begin with in Flynn’s novel and shines it all to near blinding familiarity. There are surprises in the film (especially if you haven’t read the novel), and there are shocking scenes, and Affleck (and Pike to a lesser extent) masterfully holds our attention. But in the end, the film feels like the blandly beautiful McMansion Nick and Amy rent: clean, picture-pretty, and well comported, but devoid of anything interestingly sloppy.
Even when a hair (or drop of blood) is out of place in Gone Girl, it’s meticulously out of place—to be fair, that perfectionism suits a story in which everything, everyone, every event and emotion has been carefully crafted by some onscreen character to achieve a desired effect.
In fact, that’s the most interesting thing about Gone Girl: its subtext about the artificiality of not just present-day new media (professional witch-burner Nancy Grace gets a much-deserved pillaring), but of how nearly everyone in the film is constantly creating a “brand” or “story” about themselves, tweaking their persona and presentation to sell themselves to someone. Your life is a lie you first tell yourself, suggests Gone Girl, then you try to find other interested “readers” who will buy it. (In exchange, you reciprocate and agree to buy their lies.)
Fincher-land’s icy aesthetic and philosophy often invites comparisons to Kubrick, but Kubrick always took a gods’-eye remove from humanity—his mis-perceived misanthropy was the unblinking, curious gaze of the alien observer. Fincher’s slick and shiny version more often feels like the lazy formalism and moral detachment of a one-time commercial director who, no matter how heady the subject matter, still prefers the surfaces and the suggestion of a vast hollow below. (When it comes to a lack of faith in humanity, Fincher makes his idol Hitchcock look like Capra.) In Fincher-land the human condition is dim and beyond that, unknowable–not that you’d want to. (Though his view of it is rarely dreary or dull—Fincher’s particular brand of artifice has little time for mundane naturalism).
In that sense, in Fincher’s Gone Girl Nick and Amy become yet another of his studies of someone consumed by someone else’s (often deadly) delusion/story: David Mills made a part of John Doe’s psychopathic tableau in Seven, Nicolas Van Orton caught up in The Game, Fight Club’s Narrator trying to sort out his role in Tyler Durden’s increasingly extreme narrative, Robert Graysmith slowly entrapped by his search for The Zodiac Killer in Zodiac.
Fincher doesn’t so much see hearts of darkness in his characters as a void. Humans are shells; playthings jerked along by a cruel fate born of deadly curiosity and troublesome ennui, trapped by their obsessions, cornered by the things they fear most.
Most Fincher characters look long into the abyss and find… just the abyss, all nothingness and nihilism. (We’ll leave out Benjamin Button because… well, because who knows what the hell Fincher was thinking there.) They’re maneuvered into hunting and fighting demons, but in the end the demons hold no special meaning, belong to no epic adversarial legions, impart no grand truths. They just are; we just are. Enjoy your popcorn.
It’s no surprise that Fincher’s most-lauded film, The Social Network, centers on Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a quizzical sociopath—exactly the kind of person who sees a massive social-media network as a legitimate replacement for actual, emotional human interaction. With Social Network and then The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Netflix’ House of Cards (which he executive produces), Fincher was finally able to move away from stories about protagonists struggling against nihilistic sociopaths and simply make the sociopaths his heroes. The giddy appeal of Gone Girl is you’re not sure which sort of Fincher film you’re watching—are some of these “heroic” characters manipulative, malicious sociopaths? Or all of them?
All of this doesn’t sound much like the sort of film “critics” are calling a great “date night movie” and yet audiences are flocking to it on date nights, making it Fincher’s highest grossing release. That’s understandable–both the book and flick Gone Girl do bang-up jobs of keeping the readers/viewers neatly skewered on that meat hook of omg-what-next fascination. But watered-down satire of modern marriage aside, Gone Girl is not constructed to get at anything other than a rippin’ good, gruesome yarn—yet another grim fairy tale about Our World Today, complete with a nutty-mean witch at its heart. Sure it’s a lurid funhouse, but just as you know all the spooky tricks going in, you can still get a hoot out of the ride.
(The glaring exception to all this clockwork thriller craft: the plot-spinning, head-scratchingly cheap, second-half pivot the film inherits from the novel. Amy’s sudden decision to return to Nick is silly on the page, but at least there it has plenty of motivational buttressing from previous chapters’ internal currents.
(On film, streamlined to keep things moving forward, the moment is played off by Pike as a clichéd literal “eye-opening” change of heart. You can feel Fincher, Flynn, and even Pike convincing themselves that by this point they’ve earned some cheat points and agreeing to toss their hands in the air and say, “Yeah, it makes no sense, but oh well, whatever!”)
But the main reason Flynn’s novel and now Fincher’s film succeed so well in the mainstream is their relentless plucking at our cynical chords about love and marriage. Nick and Amy’s tale peels back the fairy-book dream of the happy couple; of the heroic husband striking all the right brave, hopeful poses while desperately trying to get his beloved wife back.
Eventually in Gone Girl, love and matrimony reveal themselves as codependent addictions every bit as self-destructive as booze or smack in films like Days of Wine and Roses, Sid and Nancy, Drugstore Cowboy, or Leaving Las Vegas. (Best Sweetest Day date movie evah.) In Romance According to Nick and Amy, after the passionate battle of courtship, marriage becomes an uneasy detente in the face of mutually assured destruction, each side peering through binoculars at the other across a king-sized DMZ.
And we love it, gleefully smirking over how effed up the characters are, even as we see a bit of ourselves in them. Like Clarice and Hannibal, Mills and John Doe, the Narrator and Tyler Durden, Greenwood and the Zodiac, or the viewer and Frank Underwood, we’re not just drawn to dangerous characters because of some easy bad-boy, bad-girl flirtation with danger or desire to be scared, but because fictional characters like these, and like Nick and Amy in Gone Girl, allow us to simultaneously pass judgment on “evil” (or at least naughtiness) in fiction while secretly embracing the nastier impulses and desires within ourselves; our own brokenness. We have met Nick and Amy, to paraphrase the opossum, and they is us. We are Nick, willingly laying down to an uneasy sleep each night next to not only a creature that might kill him but his own murderous impulses.
At his best, Fincher is fascinated by this never-ending, oft-denied dance within us all—even when his explorations of the darker side of the human condition fall short of really saying anything (as in Gone Girl). Despite its sometimes gory, sometimes sexy shenanigans, Gone Girl never feels truly transgressive, subversive, or satirical in the ways Fincher’s films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac reached for. But at his most commercially opportunistic, the director still milks the shadows for entertainment value and cheap thrills.
One of the major changes from page to screen is in the film’s final scene, bookended with its opening, in which Nick, through troubled voice-over, muses over what’s going on in his wife’s head (more specifically, he speculates on smashing her skull open with a rock to peer inside her brain). Both the book and the film alternate between Nick and Amy’s versions of events, and its Nick’s unraveling of the missing-girl puzzle that drives the story.
But when it comes right down to it thematically, the book is primarily Amy’s tale—she carries the written narrative both forward and backward as she speaks directly to the reader; it’s her psychosis we find so mesmerizing. And it’s Amy’s voice and her unsettling, threatening concerns about her future with Nick that closes the novel.
But the film Gone Girl is all about Nick; his trials and tribulations in the public eye and the media court; his quest for the truth; his take on the bizzare events unfolding around him. As it becomes yet another of Hollywood’s Man’s-eye Movies, it’s naturally Nick (and Affleck the Hollywood Star, not Pike the British indie queen), who gets the film’s final word, speculating on what may come for Amy and himself. Once again, Amy, a fascinating character on the page, is shoved into the “Movie Villain” Tupperware.
Flynn’s book also stirred controversy over its perceived misogyny—after all, it can be argued Amy is purely a fictional validation of every “my ex-girlfriend is a crazy bitch!” argument; a femme fatale for the Internet Age. Though a case could be made that she also functions as id catharsis for some female readers/viewers enjoying a little anti-cheating husband payback: “Sure, she’s insane and horrific and goes too far, but…” (
And yes, Flynn’s script preserves a condensed version of the novel’s famous “Cool Girl” soliloquy, even if Pike’s Movie Amy is a very different kind of “cool” girl; emphasis on the freeze, not the fun.)
As is so often the case with these sorts of pop-cultural concerns, the problem isn’t so much the character of Amy, but the eventual popularity of the book and film. As I’ve said before, we can’t praise the power of film as art, especially as popular art, and not accept that powerful, popular art can and does have an effect—a slow, steady drip drip drip into the cultural subconscious.
Gone Girl is silly, sick-fun pulp noir and is easily enjoyed as such—as is intended—but as popular as the book and film are, and given that—like Fatal Attraction more than 25 years ago—they will be with us in the pop-culture firmament for many years, the character of Amy sadly reinforces some guys’ (and gals’) stereotypical image of the “crafty, unhinged, deadly woman spurned.”
Pike’s Movie Amy is so much of a cartoon villain, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking her seriously as a gloss on real human female behavior, any more than we think Hannibal Lecter is an accurate representative of British psychiatry. (Oddly, this year’s other popular film about what motivates a villainous female, Maleficent, attempts the exact opposite, showing the maternal, loving, and caring side of a cartoon villain.)
But then, for all his evil, Lecter is still a privileged white male character, and as we once again wade through toxic filth like currently raging online controversies, we’re reminded that when it comes to villainizing women in our current pop culture landscape, we (especially stupid young white males soaked in a warped sense of victimized entitlement) don’t always shower ourselves in glory.
Such hand-wringing aside, both Flynn and Fincher know what their tale is, what it needs to be (a wickedly fun night at the theater), what bells need to be rung, what strings need to be tugged to keep a mainstream audience not just on the hook, but enjoying hanging there.
The writer and director know this is trash, but it’s never allowed to be messy. Instead, its carefully packed into securely tied garbage bags and placed neatly on the suburban curb. What happens to it after that is someone else’s problem.