Gillian Flynn’s bonkers 2012 novel, Gone Girl, opens with one of its two narrators, Nick Dunne, describing the head of his wife, Amy, and the violence he’d like to perform upon it. The book proceeds to make a case for why Nick would want to harm her. Every time I found myself wondering why David Fincher would want to film this book, I kept coming back to that head. Not only because Fincher oversaw (but didn’t show) the decapitation of a different man’s blonde wife in Se7en, but also because most Fincher movies are about mind games. The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, The Social Network, and the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: He likes characters who mess with each other. He likes to mess with us.
Even by the nutso standards of Fincher’s own fuckery, Gone Girl is a sick movie, but it’s a lumbering, anti-imaginative kind of sick. It’s certainly got a pull — you almost don’t realize that you’ve been bobbing toward a waterfall for two hours. Flynn wrote the script, and she’s pared down some of the book to bring it into the tighter alignment of a whodunit. One morning, Nick (Ben Affleck) is bantering with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), at the Missouri bar they own when he gets a neighborly phone call: The front door to his mini palace in a suburban subdivision has been left open. He heads home and finds the cat outside and the living room in disarray. Also: Amy’s not there.
When she doesn’t come back, the police get involved. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her younger partner, Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), lead the case, sweeping the home and questioning Nick at the police station. Boney is patient but discreetly ambivalent toward Nick. Gilpin is a skeptical imp. Amy has disappeared just in time for her fifth wedding anniversary, and Nick has a hard time explaining to the cops the semi-incriminating clues for the annual anniversary treasure hunt she’s left for him. One clue leads to a pair of sexy underwear in his office at the college where he teaches. They aren’t Amy’s, says Nick.
But damning evidence keeps turning up, and Nick keeps making foolish choices. Even Nick’s sister and forlorn in-laws (Lisa Banes, David Clennon) start to think he’s responsible for his wife’s disappearance. The national news media squat on his lawn, and a Nancy Grace–type legal watchdog (Missi Pyle) hammers at him on her cable show. Eventually, the water gets hot enough for Nick to fly to New York and retain the services of Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a legal magician specializing in defending the certainly guilty.
As the investigation unfolds, the movie deploys flashbacks that present Amy as a smart, self-amused Manhattanite, whom Rosamund Pike plays with a mix of salt, honey, and antifreeze. The flashbacks come courtesy of entries in Amy’s diary. The scenes in the present are interrupted by shots of Amy using a fuzzy pink pen to scribble with the phony alacrity of women in those General Foods International coffee commercials (“Celebrate the moments of your life!”). She meets Nick at a party, basks in a dusting of actual powdered sugar on one of their dates, and lets him go down on her. It takes an hour to lay out the whole history between them. The relationship was great until it wasn’t. The recession and a Changing Media Landscape cost them their writing jobs in New York. (She wrote quizzes.) Amy was forced to lend back most of her trust fund to her folks, money they’d earned by writing a series of beloved children’s books — Amazing Amy — that were not-so-loosely based on their daughter, but which were fictionalized just enough to undermine her. Then Nick’s mother got sick. So New York turned into Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, mirth into misery, and Nice Nick into a nasty dick. To wit: the cut of his quick, rough shoving of himself into Amy from behind, and his heartlessly casual exit.
There is a tonal incongruity to the assembly of the movie’s two sides. The would-be romantic flashbacks seem more foreboding than the scenes involving the investigation, which are pitched as satirical dramedy. Amy’s fluffy pink pen flying out of a car window gets a laugh. But long stretches of any kind of humor don’t work here. The comedy is used for telegraphing and judging; it doesn’t play to Fincher’s descriptive strengths. When Sela Ward shows up as a network newsmagazine star, she’s so commanding that you want to see where she’d take the part if there were more to it than two or three measly scenes.
There are parts for Casey Wilson as Amy’s dingbat neighborhood friend and for a smirking Neil Patrick Harris, who plays one of Amy’s exes. Banes parodies a mother-in-law snoot, and Pyle twangs up a storm railing against every turn in the case — she’s another blonde head in a box. Coon’s wounded sarcasm comes close to stealing the movie. And the cuts to Boney and Gilpin (aided by Fugit’s “whatever, dude” delivery and Dickens’s outstanding fusion of concern and insinuation) are vaguely like something out of David Cronenberg or late Robert Altman. Perry’s excellently subdued performance is one long “y’all white people crazy.” But the dark humor and broad caricatures feel wrong, because the dread here is more convincing. Fincher’s approach to comedy works best droll and deadpan, like in Dragon Tattoo. Almost everyone in his new movie is using italics and exclamation points.
This is to say that Gone Girl is not Fincher at his frozen-lake smoothest. He seems off, imprecise. Fincher is a director of space and a conjurer of atmosphere. He can make a scull pulling itself along an open river as remarkable as men chasing each other through alleyways in a downpour. He can balance whimsy and lamentation, as he did in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by using an old-timey deathbed flashback that explained the construction of a backward station clock. But Gone Girl’s opening hour is antsy and looks dulled. It’s strange how little any of the Midwest’s flatness and sameness — the hills, planes, parking lots, anonymous faces, the corporate Americana — seems to interest Fincher. In time with the doomy pump-scratch-screech score by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the opening title sequence flips by, the way you would flip pages if you were skimming them for something. He fails to bring Missouri even to dusty life. That could be intentional. Nick and Amy had come to North Carthage in defeat. There was nothing to celebrate. Even so, the first half of the film has the drab flatness of certain television Lifetime movies. Only once this film has lost its mind does Fincher recover his lurid, horror-movie composure.
Flynn’s novel was out to critique one fiction genre and help consecrate another. The structure of the first part of the book relied heavily on Amy’s writing. Every other chapter was a diary entry that told a darkening single-girl-finds-the-man-of-her-dreams story. Amy whipped up chatty, involved tirades against men who expect too much of women and the women who change personalities to suit a man. Flynn appeared to be mocking the moony, plucky, desperate heroines of so-called chick lit. She bleeds the genre into a grisly crime thriller, a genre that she — and Fincher — seems to trust more. But to get from Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Last Seduction, Flynn can’t simply twist the plot; she has to break it. The book never achieves the right angle on Nick and Amy’s marriage for true social satire to take hold. It gets riled up and turns psychotic. You keep reading in a kind of stunned shock. You can’t believe this is where Flynn has decided to go. What drew Fincher to it feels obvious. It’s as if the novel had been crying out for his sinister talents, trolling for them. Baited and reeled in, Fincher complies. His moviemaking falls under the spell of Flynn’s mercurial deviancy. He is Nick. She is Amy. He is Amy. She is Nick. I can’t quite tell.
Fincher’s filmmaking is like Amy’s obsessive-compulsion, carrying around a disinfectant and a lint roller. At some point, she rants that all advertisers think women do is “bleed and clean, clean and bleed.” Fincher’s movies do the same thing. Yes, Gone Girl the movie tries to hold on to the book’s attempt to satirize chick lit and put Amy at the center, but part of what’s off about it is that Amy never seems like an actual character. And to get at why, you need the freedom to go into what the movie actually is doing; and to do that, you have to talk about the second hour, when the plot breaks, when we go over the waterfall.
So, unless you’ve finished the book, stop reading this, go see the movie, and come back. There are spoilers ahead.
For a good stretch of Michael Douglas’s very successful persecuted-white-male streak, he played men who made bad choices, often with blondes he couldn’t resist — Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone and Gwyneth Paltrow. (Demi Moore in Disclosure was a lone brunette exception.) Maybe he’s trying to kill them. Maybe they’re trying to kill him. He gets desperate and takes things too far. The most exciting of these movies turned immoral extremity into a ride, and sometimes the ride made the news.
1987’s Fatal Attraction was enough of a smash to start a national conversation about marital infidelity. Careful, boys, she will come after your daughter and the family rabbit. It was a “blank from hell” scenario, emerging from some private place of universal paranoia. What if my roommate is a stalker? What if my mistress visits my wife? What if this crime writer I’m fucking while investigating for murder is, indeed, a killer? Douglas was a perfect avatar for entitlement, risk, and their self- and societally inflicted discontents. Usually, someone or something — his lovers, his country — was trying to confiscate what he’d built.
Douglas starred in a version of one of these films with David Fincher: 1997’s The Game, in which a San Francisco tycoon spends a couple of days and nights running for his life. He’s caught in a prank set up by his brother (Sean Penn) that requires the participation of what must be half the city. Fincher’s a more sophisticated filmmaker now; he’s got Reznor and Ross’s funeral music and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, and Flynn’s screenplay has more going on. Still, Douglas and The Game crossed my mind while watching Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. It’s not just that Douglas is playing a Nick, or that the conniving blonde in The Game (Deborah Kara Unger) bears an uncanny resemblance to Pike. It’s that the movie has bogus ideas about femininity and marriage. As a movie character, Amy feels like a composite of women who terrorized Michael Douglas.
Pike’s performance is not the problem. She throws herself into this part. You can feel her trying to gather all the twists and use them to break into something coherent. Hers is a better Amy than what’s on the page, her voice deeper and her manner less flighty. Pike is more like Faye Dunaway playing Renée Zellweger than I was prepared for.
The trouble is the way the film’s portrayal of Amy comes across in the current political climate. For reasons known only to Flynn, Amy tries to frame her husband for her murder. Rather than divorce him for his imperfections, she wants him to suffer. Suicide was part of the original plan, but her severe narcissism leads her, murderously, back to him. She needs both to see his suffering up close and to feel his bewildered love. On her way, we learn of the other people whom she has made suffer. We watch her manipulate that ex that Harris plays, Desi, with stories of how Nick abused and degraded her, only to watch her abuse and degrade Desi. Nothing about Amy is real except her psychosis.
There’s some stuff in the book about women turning their men into trained monkeys, and in the film, every time Nick signals his goodness to Amy, he puts two fingers over the cleft in his giant chin, and it’s like watching Caesar calm the troops in those new Planet of the Apes movies. Nick, calm. Gone Girl would seem like an ideal prism through which to see Affleck. He spends the movie trying to seem less like an asshole. He’s had a lot of practice. Now’s he a star with some gravity as an actor. This is a passive, reactive part. He colors it with rage, volatility, and foolishness, but there’s something gentle and failed about him here, too. He’s got a paunch, and he has puffed out his big frame so that his arms never fall parallel at his side. In his T-shirt and sweats, he’s like a lapsed football player.
“I’m tired of being picked apart by women,” Nick says. The difference between this movie and one Douglas starred in is that this one doesn’t provide the thrill of violent closure. Gone Girl is a murder mystery, but it’s also a perverse, yet limp, comedy of remarriage. When Amy returns into Nick’s life, his part of the relationship is barely consensual. Successful remarriage comedies involve two equal partners consenting to sublimate their differences. Amy simply intends to mete out passive-aggressive punishment until death do them part.
The movie doubles as a snide contradiction of the serious conversation Americans have been having lately about men, women, exploitation, and violence. Gone Girl isn’t complicating that conversation. It gets off on thumbing its nose at it, using a vengeful false accusation to exploit an old trope of the terrifying femme fatale.
One of the ladies in Nick’s life happens to be played by Emily Ratajkowski, a model made notorious for appearing to enjoy herself while frolicking nude in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video. Ratajkowski doesn’t have a large role here, but it’s significant to the plot. Her presence reminded me how much of the song and the video, like a whole strain of rap and R&B, hinges on a woman being a “good girl,” which in turn hinges on a kind of permissiveness toward the performer who’s paying the compliment. In the music, the good girl is also a “bad girl.” There’s virtually no difference.
The debate about rape and “rapeyness” in pop isn’t a new one. But it has new resonance on college campuses, where protests, vandalism, and lawsuits have challenged the long tradition of silence and slow action in issues of sexual assault. A Columbia University senior named Emma Sulkowicz has become a symbol of the refusal of assault survivors to be cowed: She’s been dragging an actual mattress around campus and vows to continue to do so until the school expels the classmate who raped her. This isn’t the first time that female student activists against assault have insisted on being heard (one need only recall the Take Back the Night rallies of the 1990s), but the protests have gained broader resonance. They’re more confrontational and less tolerant of what can seem like patriarchal or, at best, bureaucratic foot-dragging and opacity. They’ve swelled beyond campuses to include criticizing even the conduct of once-untouchable professional athletes. The release of the Ray Rice video brought men into a conversation that for so long happened mostly among women. Recent investigations into domestic violence and assault in the military, police force, and even small-town Alaska have created a feeling that maybe, just maybe, the country is turning a corner on a serious and divisive issue. 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.
It’s probably the case that Flynn just wanted to tell a fun story about a “complete psycho bitch,” to mock the shallowness of some chick-lit heroines by having all of that frivolity and idle time and man-hunting mutate them into film-noir monsters. It’s also possible that there’s a strain of ideology that could locate the heroic feminist in Amy’s master plan, an argument that the most radical thing Amy can do to avenge her sex — or just herself — is to make a man spend the rest of his life with a woman he despises and distrusts. I just don’t see Camille Paglia asking to get an Amen for that.
It’s not as if the history of the movies isn’t full of iconoclastic representations of women that involve sex. Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way up a skyscraper in 1933’s Baby Face still feels like a conquering act of empowerment before it seems retrograde. And no matter where you fall on Thelma and Louise’s crime spree and their speeding into the Grand Canyon, they at least rode and drove for a kind of truth. However absurd, that movie presented its last shot as liberation.
In this movie, the predator bares talons by pretending to be prey. What more is in it for Amy? What does she stand for? In bewilderment, 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.
No movie can undo what the attention and activism have achieved. But Flynn and Fincher are presenting a glib and facetious alternative provocation in the name of entertainment. The movie isn’t smart enough to think around the problems it superficially engages with. Amy turns abuse into a romantic fantasy for her amusement and for ours. This is a messy, messed-up film about the funny games of coupledom — Nick and Amy’s, but the filmmakers’, too. Together, Flynn and Fincher just get sharper and nastier as they go, a set of claws creeping out from within a paw, two freaks speeding down the highway to hell, bones dragging at the rear of a hearse, the wedding announcement whipping and warped in the wind: just married.