From the moment it hit bookstands in 2012, Gone Girl was pegged as a 21st century battle of the sexes, its protagonists Nick and Amy locked in a murderous duet, fighting for control of their marriage. There’s still a battle at the heart of Gone Girl, but the field has shifted. There’s a new player on the board, and David Fincher always plays to be seen.
The “he said, she said” structure of Gillian Flynn’s novel has the familiarity of courtroom pitter-patter. Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators. They keep secrets from us, and Flynn teaches us to question their intentions, all the while masking her own. What looks like a fair fight from the outside, chapters divvied nicely into his and hers, is Flynn’s own deception, a lesson in manipulation she might have pulled off one of Amy’s journal pages. Flynn role-plays as both halves of the couple, but it’s Amy’s voice — vivid, metropolitan, funny — that jumps off the page. Nick might open the book, but Amy ends it. Flynn takes the tradition of misogyny within the crime genre and flips it, turning Gone Girl into a slyly misandrist assertion of women’s rights and their power within a marriage.
In Flynn’s version of Gone Girl, marriage is a battleground, and it’s a battle that women can win so long as they’re willing to use any means necessary, even if that means fabricating abuse, rape, and pregnancy. All of those head games make for a fun (if perverse) read, but for millions of women, Gone Girl was better than fun. It was satisfying. Amy’s famous Cool Girl monologue, wherein she dismantles the male fantasy of the Size 2 perpetually-in-the-mood dream girl who drinks beer and loves sports, who doesn’t mind changing for her man, became iconic, with Tumblr reblogs and breathless BuzzFeed articles hailing its insight and power. In the book, we watch Amy decimate Nick, and Flynn lets us pretend that what we’re seeing is a fair fight.1
It’s no mistake that the famous Cool Girl monologue falls flat in Fincher’s hands. In the novel, Amy evolves from one Cool Girl ideal to the next. She frees herself from the confines of men’s fantasies only to step into women’s. She’s the Cool Girl welcoming you to the table, better than everyone around you but you, her choice to share herself a confirmation of your own value. A Cool Girl for Cool Girls.
But Fincher, for better or worse, has never been interested in giving the people what they want. From the moment Rosamund Pike turns her perfect head to face the screen in that opening shot, her cool gaze flicking carelessly past the camera, past us — there can be no mistaking her for anything but Ben Affleck’s superior. And ours too. What was a battle of the sexes becomes a game of cat and mouse. Fincher knows the mouse can never really compete with the cat, and he doesn’t waste time pretending.
And that’s the difference between Gone Girl the book and Gone Girl the film: There’s still a marriage at the heart of the story, but it’s no longer a dysfunctional one. Amy’s found her match — not in her husband, but in her director.
It’s easy to see what drew Fincher to Amy. You only have to look at his luxury-lined, supermodel-chic music videos — “Vogue,” “Freedom! ’90,” “Express Yourself” — to see that this is a man with an appreciation for excellence. Amy is an icy intellectual, but not without a sense of humor. There’s a threat of violence just underneath her glassy surface. But above all, she is a director. Amy sets the scene, manipulating the lowly players of her life — her husband, her parents, her ex — with the confidence and rigor of a master. She wins over the fickle media. She earns her audience. Amy is everything Fincher is but better, improved with the magic wand of fiction.
Like all good partnerships, Fincher and Amy take time to grow into each other. Coldness is a criticism that has dogged Fincher through his entire career, and for the first half of Gone Girl it seems like he’ll coast on the same detachment that served The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that Amy Dunne might remain frozen the way his Lisbeth Salander did. But as Amy’s persona unfolds (and to her immense credit, as Pike’s performance unfolds with her), so does Fincher. By the time Amy has reached her second reinvention — back to fighting form, wrapped in silks, ready to kill — Fincher is ready to meet her. His compositions are more precise, his edits even more machine-gun-ready, and that final act is looser, funnier, and more relaxed than Fincher has been in at least a decade.
By all accounts, Fincher and Flynn’s partnership has been far too harmonious for them to be considered combatants — but Gone Girl feels fraught anyway. As feminism has become part of the routine in assessing media and culture, there has been an increasing demand for women to be the ones telling women’s stories, for women to escape the confines of men’s imaginations. But maybe we give ourselves too much credit. Maybe we overlook the ways that women hold each other down, the way we demand each other’s ordinariness. The way women want women to be good, but not too good — the way sisterhood can sometimes stand in the way of becoming our best selves. A great partnership is a survival tactic. Can our idea of feminism accommodate the times when a male gaze offers more power than a female one?
Gone Girl is that all too rare provocation that aims for the mind as much as the senses. As reviews pour in and viewers plant their flags in the sand, choosing which among the many sides of Fincher and Flynn’s film will be the one that they defend, it looks like Fincher has laid one last trap. On one hand he gives us Amy — his mirror image, his match. On the other, Margo, Nick’s kind, loving twin sister — appropriately horrified at her horrifying sister-in-law and ordinary in every way. One magnificent, the other average. Do you want to be moral? Are you satisfied with your mediocrity? Who do you choose?
Nick picks Amy. And for those who would choose otherwise, Gone Girl gets one last laugh.
This is Teo Bugbee’s (@tmibugbee) first piece for Grantland.