Gone Girl Dir. David Fincher

[Twentieth Century Fox; 2014]

Styles: thriller, sex thriller, comedy of remarriage
Others: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Eyes Wide Shut, Basic Instinct

I got to see Gone Girl once before it could become a topic of Cultural Conversation. My friends and I batted around claims of feminism and misogyny, of trash and brilliance, for about forty-five minutes afterwards. It was great fun. I watched it again last week, and again felt like a debate moderator, uncertain of where I land but thrilled to be a part of the discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation in essay and tweet form for the past two weeks or so, where plenty of our best critics have arrived at wildly different conclusions about Gone Girl. Some argue that David Fincher’s film is misogynistic, misanthropic, cruel, and/or hopelessly cynical. In this view, it’s a satirical thriller dulled by the film’s latent positioning of a “victimized” husband (Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne) at the center of its orbit of sympathy and information. Others claim rather the opposite. For this camp, Gone Girl is a supremely clever statement; Gillian Flynn’s script is feminist in its ultimate contempt for cultural institutions (marriage, the media) and its decision to allow an unknowable woman (Rosamund Pike’s Amy Eliot Dunne) to hijack the narrative. (These are simplified summaries, but the film’s structural frame tends to be a pivotal point on either end of the debate.) Both sides are equipped with formalists ready to back up their claims with discourses on shot composition and the use of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s simultaneously haunting and lurid score.

As those of us finding ourselves slightly detached from the fray have noted, this debate has played out in a manner akin to the obvious but still rather trenchant media satire depicted in Gone Girl. Like Nick and Amy, the film’s critics are forced to craft a narrative that adheres to most of the evidence onscreen, while overlooking or dismissing a few interesting counterpoints. Some have pointed out the gross, offhand nature in which the word “bitch” is deployed towards Amy throughout the film. I haven’t caught anyone rebutting by mentioning how many times Nick is labeled an “asshole.” In the context of Fincher’s recent cinema, it’s a definitive insult of some equivalence (see: The Social Network). Similarly, Nick’s muttering about being “so sick of being picked apart by women” is foreshadowed by an earlier comment by Amy, where she complains about having “strangers pick at [her] scabs.” I’m not trying to make a claim that Gone Girl exhibits a kind of radical, if ruthlessly negative, equivalence vis-à-vis gender roles. I would like to argue, though, that the film is calibrated to such a degree that any “it’s misogynistic”/”it’s feminist” debate can’t yield any satisfying answers. (Furthermore, I don’t understand how anyone can make a sober argument on either side about a film whose female protagonist has stickies labeled “Kill self?” on a calendar outlining the timeline of her devious master plan. Or whose male protagonists fucks a nearly-underage girl in his twin sister’s living room.) Flynn and Fincher know exactly what they’re doing, which is nothing more elaborate than convincing you to see Gone Girl, argue about it, and see it again and find still more to argue about.

Maybe this a sufficient response to the debate about Gone Girl, at least as it relates to gender politics. (Somehow I doubt it.) Surely, though, it doesn’t address the more powerful argument against the film: that its air of spite, misanthropy, and cynicism is stifling; that it lacks an emotional core; that it has nothing novel or worthwhile to say. There’s probably no great response to this. Gone Girl consistently undercuts its aspirations toward making a serious statement about much of anything having to do with The Way We Live Now. Socio-economic determinism pervades the proceedings: the film intermittently pretends to be meaningfully set during the economic recession, and suggests its fucked-up protagonists are the inevitable consequences of parents that are either craven or simply beyond redemption. The recession setting briefly leads us to a scene in an abandoned mall that has become a Hooverville in North Carthage, Missouri; it is complemented by a later sequence, where Neil Patrick Harris’s malevolently gnomic would-be lover delivers a “look at my shit” monologue to his beloved Amy. (Both of these scenes are patently ridiculous. The methheads in the mall are awfully clean and vaguely attractive. If there’s a true cunt in this film, the film wants you to know that it’s Neil Patrick Harris.) Nick’s father is, for his minute or so of screen time, a muttering and demented hater of women; Amy’s parents are media-savvy and opportunistic. Fincher and Flynn present these subtexts — these possible explanations for their characters — but don’t investigate any of them. The script frequently mentions that Nick could face the death penalty if convicted of Amy’s murder, a gimmick that lands as another running joke. The world of Gone Girl is an ugly, undeniably warped vision. (It’s a little haunting and perverse that the only scene in the film with any emotional resonance is Nick’s encounter with Scoot McNairy’s Tommy O’Hara, who hates Amy more than anyone in Gone Girl. We can probably credit this equally to Fincher/Flynn’s sick humor and McNairy’s consistently mind-blowing talent for playing sympathetic fuck-ups.)

With all this in mind, Gone Girl strikes me as more deeply Hitchcockian than its critics have realized. We marvel at Hitchcock for his ruthlessly efficient narratives, clever visual jokes and wordplay, and consistently disarming and controversial treatment of female psychology and homosocial relations. All of these, save perhaps curious relationships between men, are abundant in Gone Girl. What we don’t talk about quite often enough is Hitchcock’s occasionally glib, occasionally revelatory fondness for irresolution. Rope’s facetious moral debate is wrapped up in a tidy bow, but its homoerotic subtext festers and seems to take over the film. Marnie “solves” Marnie, to the satisfaction of a theoretical public but probably not to any individual viewer. Psycho, more obviously, writes off Norman Bates with psychology, but no one is buying it. Strangers on a Train disposes of its effeminate villain, but can’t foster any faith in the central romance traveling towards its future. In a similarly jokey but coldly calculated way, Fincher’s film insists that we’re drawn to the aberrant, that we’re not cut out to be normal. Gone Girl’s potential audience surrogates — Carrie Coone’s twin sister, Kim Dickens’s Detective Boney — are the only outwardly good people in the film. Both bear signifiers of a meta-textual self-awareness — Margo Dunne with her “Protect Your Nuts” shirt, the Detective with her comment about “The Bar” — but both prove to be ineffectual dupes. What we may end up being drawn to is, instead, reprehensible: Nick shoving Amy against a wall, or Amy disposing of her Desi. Or, more devastatingly, this awful couple remaining a couple.

Two quick, successive shots in Gone Girl’s opening credits depict a doe on a suburban lawn, and then a raccoon waddling along a civilized landscape. They are to North Carthage as Nick and Amy are to marriage, two foolish animals wandering around a landscape that can’t accommodate them. This is about as sympathetically as one can summarize their predicament.

Otherwise, it’s all nasty stuff. All claims to misanthropy and the like seem apt enough. The pivot point, for critics and audiences alike, becomes less about Gone Girl’s perspective and politics and more about how the viewer handles them. Those of us that admire Gone Girl beyond its apparent craft — we should pause in awe for just a moment at Fincher’s leonine camera movements, and his impeccable cutting — are drawn to its overwrought, kitchen sink approach to statement-making: its disposable jokes about television and New York’s print media culture; its battle-of-the-sexes speechifying; its shitty parents, gadget fetishists, recession porn, and product placement divided judiciously between Mountain Dew and Blanton’s bourbon. We’re drawn, nostalgically, to the return of the sex thriller, with its attendant playground of psychosexual tropes. We are, we should probably admit, drawn to a film of ultimately shallow nihilism. We’ll allow ourselves this hiccup in ideology because Fincher and Flynn’s maximalist approach to cultural issues is a rare event, and, for us, a genuine kick. Enough of our cinema can be relied upon to stake out worthy moral terrain, but very little of it plays out like such a pungent repository of perceived wisdom about contemporary culture and psycho-sexual relationships. It fits nicely on a continuum between Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, where high and low collide and come to seem indistinct.

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