[Note: We’re going to discuss Gone Girl here. That means there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen it (or haven’t read the book), this is a very dangerous place for you.]
Laughin’ With Fincher
Alex Pappademas: The TV spots would have you believe that Peter Travers called Gone Girl “the date-night movie of the decade,” which is a bold claim to make about a film that does for the institution of marriage what Fight Club did for the institution of fight clubs. Turns out Travers was mis-pullquoted — he actually called it “the date-night movie of the decade for couples who dream of destroying one another.” Which is true of basically all couples, at least some of the time, so it still applies! You’re not truly in a relationship until you’ve considered faking your own death to get out, and in its own psychotic way Gone Girl is grounded in that basic truth. I had a great time. I’m pretty sure Quentin Tarantino did, too. I saw him (and his date!) slip into front-row seats at the ArcLight in Hollywood on Friday night just as the usher began her silence-your-phones rap. So while I watched Gone Girl I was also watching Quentin Tarantino watching Gone Girl. His head is large and eye-catching. I couldn’t help it. He laughed really loud at “That’s what marriage is.” So did everybody else, but coming from him I thought it was weird. How would he know?
Tarantino has his own L.A. movie house now — this month, he took over programming at the New Beverly, the Fairfax District theater he has owned since 2007. He’ll be showing stuff from his personal collection of 35mm prints. You can probably guess what the calendar looks like: Grindhouse Tuesdays, Steve McQueen deep cuts, kung fu vampire films at midnight. “Films” means films; Tarantino had the digital projector ripped out when the theater was remodeled in August. The New Beverly will be a place where you go to appreciate the play of light through fucking celluloid, OK? It will also not be a place for snickering. “Look, there’s some wild, funny weird and silly shit that happens in some of these movies, and it’s okay to laugh,” he told L.A. Weekly‘s Amy Nicholson last week. “But laugh because it’s funny — don’t laugh because you’re just trying to show how superior you are to the movie … You get no points for laughing at an old movie just because it’s old. You look like an idiot.”
This has been a thing for a minute now, this question of when and how and for what reason we’re allowed to laugh during old movies, and whether a certain breed of filmgoer is ruining the revival-house experience for everyone else by performatively and ironically snickering at things in old movies that now seem dated or silly. I get where the anti-snickerers are coming from, but I can’t get behind it; laughing at some surface aspect of an old movie is still a response, and one of the best things about movies is that you can’t police the way an audience reacts to them or rebels against what it’s being ordered to feel. I thought about this during Gone Girl, and not just because Tarantino was there, laughing at things. Everyone in the Dome that night seemed to agree that they were watching a comedy. Everybody laughed each time the vise on Ben Affleck’s nuts got tighter. This was probably exactly the reaction David Fincher, builder of Trojan horses, was aiming for, but even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t matter; Gone Girl became an absurdist satire in that room, the way the old Sean Connery Bond movies now play like dark comedies about a misogynist alcoholic who goes on a lot of vacations. A movie isn’t finished until the ad-hoc community of a movie-theater audience decides what kind of movie they’re watching, and that process is ongoing every time the movie screens, forever. Why would you ever want to discourage that?
Emily Yoshida: That pen, though. One of the first standout visual hints we get as to who Amy Dunne is is the fluffy, Cher Horowitz pen she uses to write her diary. It’s too weird to be insignificant, and even better, in its first appearance we see it write the word “fucking.” The person who writes with this pen must have a strange sense of humor, an important view of the world, we think. It’s the first of many ultimately empty cues that seem to promise Amy as a representative of One Type of Woman’s Experience, that she’s going to give voice to some universal truth.
But by the end of Gone Girl, I have no idea who Amy Dunne is, and I’m not entirely sure if it matters. I never read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but it’s easy to get swept up in Fincher’s underlit moodiness and the amniotic droning of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score and assume that the twisty story they are in service of is more than the sum of its many plotty parts. In a best-case scenario, the combination of the pop-pulp of source material and Fincher’s clinical remove should have yielded something closer to Kubrick’s take on The Shining, but ultimately Fincher doesn’t seem to have much to work with besides a couple of fucked-up people and series of crazy-ass events. The much-discussed “cool girl” speech goes nowhere, because it comes from an individual whose relationship to reality we are allowed to completely write off by the end, due to her being — spoiler alert! — just a crazy bitch. Her observations are valid, but are never reflected in her actions. The cool-girl speech is just another fluffy pen, something that might mean more coming from another character, but here it’s just added to the pile of a series of disjointed character elements.
That pen gets chucked out a car window halfway through the film, and eventually, so does every other attempt to make us believe in Amy as a considerable human. I left Gone Girl appreciating it as a well-made thriller, but once the series of events it has been tasked with depicting has come to an end, there’s not much else to discuss. (Spare me any argument that it has anything important to say about relationships or marriage. Its ideas about news coverage and the media are worthwhile, though.) [Runs away, jumps, heel-clicks.]
Who’s Afraid of Amy Dunne?
John Lopez: My first reaction after the credits rolled on Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl: Why did I enjoy this so much? Fincher’s films have always delighted in disturbing his audiences, but I usually maintain enough distance to appreciate them as a clever magic trick at a sleight-of-hand parlor. This time, somewhere along the line, I gave in and had fun. In fact, the last time a marriage film gave me this much of a dark thrill was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the august predecessor in Gone Girl’s so-awful-they-deserve-each-other lineage. I’m guessing the book shares as big a psychic link with Edward Albee’s play as Fincher’s adaptation does with Mike Nichols’s film. (The film even benefits from the aura of Ben Affleck’s real-life public persona the way Nichols’s did from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s own publicly tempestuous marriage.) So, I’ll treat them all as a subspecies of dramaturgy and say that what I love about these examples of the subgenre is how each offers its own demented, twisted take on happily-ever-after.
Of course, no one’s happy in either film or Flynn’s novel or Albee’s play. But as anyone past puberty will tell you, happiness is overrated. Instead, they all end on the idea of marriage as an exhausted survivalist stalemate reached by the playing of games in an infinite loop of emotional brinkmanship (game-playing incidentally a theme central to Fincher’s filmography). In Nichols’s film, the game-playing is erudite and melodramatic; in Fincher’s film, it’s marriage qua slasher film with Ben Affleck in the role of coed victim and Rosamund Pike as the box cutter–wielding psycho. But in each, the false illusions of meet-cute get acid-stripped away — the sugar kiss moment from Gone Girl and the idealistic young couple George and Martha eagerly disabuse in Woolf — and what remains are relationships that have managed to reach, however disturbing the journey may have been, an almost unbreakable union between their respective couples. And maybe that’s what tickled me so pink amid the buckets of blood and ominous threat of physical violence in the air. Just like Nichols and Albee before them, Flynn and Fincher offer us a new pathologically functional take on romance. Nick may live in a state of constant dread, nothing new for a Fincher protagonist, but at least he’s learned to ask the right questions with regard to his wife and their relationship: Who is she? What is she thinking? What have they done to each other? What will they do?
Even if he has only the dimmest awareness of it, Nick has learned to communicate with his psychopath love — and she has succeeded, albeit through psychotically inhuman lengths, to get through to him. Whatever the future brings, you can bet Nick’s never going to forget to leave that toilet seat down. And body count aside, isn’t that supposed to be the key to a successful marriage?
My Brother’s Keeper: The Movie Inside Gone Girl
Sean Fennessey: Last week, Chris Ryan and I wrote about the little stories unfolding inside Fincher’s tidily composed picture shows of pain, cruelty, and postmodern architecture. And lo, there was another story-in-the-story in Gone Girl. Margo, Nick Dunne’s loyal but not uncritical twin sister, is among the movie’s highlights, a “What the fuck?” Greek chorus for viewers trying to process Nick’s dumbass life choices. Carrie Coon plays “Go,” and she is as fiercely funny, agitated, and weary here as she was emotionally deadened in this summer’s The Leftovers. And as on that show, she’s the best thing in this.
What happens between Nick and Go is one of the only relationships that operates on a human level — there are no operatic swings, no catastrophic gotchas in the storytelling. They own a bar together, they’re a couple of dissatisfied wiseasses, and then terrible things start happening to one of them. Go then goes through the emotional ringer with her brother, vacillating from support to rage to fear, then back to support and ultimately to tragic disillusion. Coon is so present in this movie, her performance so unfussy, that she grounds Movie Star Ben Affleck — at one point, I found myself examining their facial structures, identifying the subtle cleft in Coon’s chin. (It’s remarkable to think that this is the same doe-eyed girl from The Playboy Club.) Much has been written about Amy and the meaning of the kind of female character Gillian Flynn has created. Go is a minor inversion — her life isn’t full in this movie, but it is measured. She has a compass and a heart, and a biorhythm with her twin brother. Together, they make a smaller story about the inseparability of those of us who are born together. Brother and sister, through and through. When that bond breaks, it’s the only truly sad thing in Gone Girl.
Gone Girl 2: Happily Ever After
Mark Lisanti: That ending, right? Maybe you’re not onboard with it. Maybe it drives you nuts that Nick, after somehow surviving a 30- day ordeal almost perfectly engineered to make the rest of his cursed, post-Amy days on this earth as wretched as inhumanly possible, would grind the dazzling teeth inside that homecoming-king-gone-to-seed jaw of his into something approximating a smile and gutting his way through the inevitable reconciliation interview with Ellen Abbott. (Thanks for the robot cat, btw. Nice touch.) Then: mission accomplished. David and Gillian win, because it’s the kind of resolution that breaks out of the final frame and follows you home, daring you to contemplate the next chapters of this profoundly damaged partnership as you lie in bed, still stunned that Nick didn’t use his gift-wrapped moment to expose the psychotic machinations of his no-longer-gone girl.
There’s the first trip to the ob-gyn, with Nick’s probing questions to the doctor to make sure that’s actually a baby up there on the ultrasound screen, and his jokes about if there’s a way to tell paternity with the stomach wand. His week-to-week monitoring of the pregnancy to make sure she hasn’t figured out a way to artificially inflate her stomach. The way he grabs the scissors away from the nurse a little too quickly when it’s time to cut the cord. His weary response as he handles every late-night feeding, as a simple lift of his wife’s eyebrow asks him, “You sure you want me in there alone with her in the dark?” (Let’s make the baby a mini-Amy, for maximum dread.) The go-bag hidden in his gym locker. The uncomfortable interview with the preschool director, where Amy pivots from the disappointment of hearing about the long waiting list to an offer to buy their gatekeeper some nice ties, and Nick’s involuntary laugh that breaks the tension. The overheard playtime conversations between mother and daughter about how Cool Barbie should behave around Good Guy Ken. We could fast-forward all the way to the kid’s first day of college, when Nick might finally make his escape, but by then maybe he has settled into the paranoid prison of his life, walking the well-manicured yard of his confinement, finding existential relief in its inescapability. They’re still soul mates, after all. Maybe he even helps Amy pick out the ties. Something that won’t give too much on the bedpost, something with a nice, taut wristfeel. You can’t stress enough the importance of getting into a good preschool; you want that child to be every bit as amazing as her mom.
Anyway: That ending. Fun times.