David Fincher is an artist with dark and disturbing material, and Gone Girl is no exception. It’s easy to see that Fincher was the right choice to direct an adaptation of this popular thriller; he makes an engrossing film that pulls the audience along from one twist to the next with a steady, inexorable flow. But, for all of the technical brilliance on display from cast and crew alike, it’s a great movie made from some extremely problematic subject matter.
The story starts on the fifth of July, 2012. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) leaves his house early, stopping by the bar he owns with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). When a neighbor calls to let him know the cat’s loose outside, he returns to his house to find signs of a struggle in the living room and his wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), missing. He calls the police, and two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) begin the investigation.
This story is intercut with selections from Amy’s diary. She tells about how she and Nick met, and how their relationship developed. She tells about the inferiority complex she developed as her WASPy parents published a popular series of children’s books starring an idealized “Amazing Amy”. It’s not that she’s not smart and capable; she seems to have earned her Ivy League degrees. But that sets the stage for the degeneration of the marriage.
Things get tighter when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. When Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer they move back to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. They drain Amy’s trust fund to buy the bar, and Nick grows distant, and even violent, all documented in Amy’s journal leading up to the last entry: “This man of mine may kill me.”
When the police find this diary, they take an understandably hard look at Nick, who it seems has been having an affair with one of his college writing students (Emily Ratajkowski). The talking heads on cable (Missi Pyle and Sela Ward) — clearly patterned after Nancy Grace — go into a feeding frenzy. Nick, still insisting that he has nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance, enlists the aid of a high-powered attorney (Tyler Perry) and begins searching for the real story, starting with other men Amy has known before him (Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy).
As a film — a technical work of cinema — there’s almost nothing to complain about. The whole cast does a fantastic job. Affleck and Pike each play their part to perfection, and the tiers of supporting characters are all great. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver their third score in a row for a Fincher film, and it should easily get another Oscar nomination if not a win. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography is every bit as good as his Oscar-nominated work on Fincher’s previous two films.
To discuss the huge, looming problem unfortunately requires spoiling the first of several major twists in the plot. I can’t simply not address this, but I can avoid giving too many details about this one, and assure you that there are plenty of further surprises. But this is your warning: if you want to avoid all plot spoilers, stop reading here until you’ve seen the movie; it is worth watching, though it has some hugely problematic aspects.
Everybody gone who wants to avoid the spoiler? good. Somewhere around the one-hour mark we find that Nick in fact did not have anything to do with his wife’s disappearance; Amy staged the whole thing. McNairy’s character tells us how she previously staged her allegations of rape against him, as well. And that means that the what-really-happened here hangs on the poisonous cultural myth of false report — one of the most damaging to women, especially in situations of domestic violence.
Over and over, whenever statistics on rape and domestic violence are reported we get attempts to shout them down. Date rape doesn’t really exist, we’re told; women who have regrets after the fact just cry rape in order to punish men. They say that women allege abuse in order to win divorce settlements and custody fights. It’s not just wrong, it’s actively harmful to undercut women’s stories. Not just because it blames and gaslights the victim of a crime, but also because it discourages other women of coming forward lest they too be accused of lying. As Anita Sarkeesian said at the recent XOXO Festival, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”
Worse, the false-report myth highlights the gaping hole at the heart of author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s story: what was Amy trying to gain? In a long monologue, she speaks of how she crafted her entire relationship with Nick and formed him into a better man, and that this faked abduction is somehow intended to punish him for his infidelity. But she never really explains what she wanted from him in the first place. Nick might easily have just wanted a beautiful wife, but Amy seems to like nothing about him; why did she work so hard to land him as a husband? I can spitball possible explanations, sure, but the book and the movie never really answer this question with anything more satisfactory than “women are crazy”.
And there are other side-effects on the story. Nick isn’t a very nice guy, and does have some pretty misogynistic attitudes. But as soon as Amy’s machinations are revealed, it justifies them rather than holding them up to the light the way The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did. This speaks to the regressive heart of every Men’s Rights Activist, telling him “you really are the victim here, constantly henpecked by a bunch of selfish harpies.”
Fincher has handled problematic material before, as in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or even Fight Club, and in those cases he’s managed to use the problematic material to highlight its own problems. But in those cases the critical light was present in the source material: for all his misguided fans, Chuck Palahniuk was calling out Tyler Durden’s fight-the-power machismo as ultimately self-destructive; Stief Larsson’s novel was originally titled “Men who hate women”.
Flynn’s novel, on the other hand, is a mere page-turner. She’s perfectly content to play on the culture-wide notion that women are crazy, vindictive liars without undercutting that poisonous myth. And Fincher, sadly, doesn’t take this opportunity to improve on the source material. Nor does he deflect it into, say, a critical analysis of a cancerous media system that produces tumors around splashy controversies. For all its technical brilliance — and I have to admit that it is brilliant — Gone Girl is the kind of story that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass, but barely.