Digging Deeper: Gone Girl

Fresh off its narrow victory at last weekend’s box office, David Fincher’s Gone Girl has generated quite a bit of buzz and commentary. Adapted by Gillian Flynn, the author of the 2012 best-selling cultural smash, Gone Girl is just the sort of story that should appeal to FIncher’s narrative proclivities. His filmography is riddled with the lurid, especially the lurid with a male-dominated point of view and and a proclivity for the baser sort of sex and violence. Of all of his films, FIght Club is likely the prototype here, a dirty, scuzzy deep dive into a society where men find joy and excitement in beating each other nearly to death instead of going along with society’s expectations. Perhaps more famous (infamous?) for its legion of fans who almost certainly did not get the whole cautionary tale part of the narrative, it has become cult in many different aspects of the word. For, above all else, Fight Club is nothing if not cool, an energetically directed easter-eggy mindfuck of a film with a crazy twist and an infinitely quotable narrator. Of course, all of those people incessantly repeating “His name was Robert Paulson” and “I am Jack’s wasted life” are putting too much stock into Tyler Durden’s nihilism (much more so than even the film does), but they are a test case for the allure of Fincher. His movies have an undeniable cache, especially among disaffected youths, and his penchant for male empowerment fantasies and female sex objects like Marla (as damaged as they may be) plays right into that, regardless of what actual moral lurks underneath, sure to get lost among the T-shirt slogans.

To be fair, sketching Fincher’s narrative empowerment interests as strictly male is arguably unjust. Lest we forget he was the man behind Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video, and his first foray into features put him in control of science fiction’s most famous female empowerment figure, Ellen Ripley. Alien3 may have been a mess, but it was successful enough to make features into a career. Similarly, one cannot look at Panic Room, his 2002 mostly forgotten Jodie Foster vehicle all about making three male intruders tear themselves to shreds attempting to gain entry into a small box of a room. Alien3 and Panic Room point to the greater interest in Fincher’s film career: empowerment fables in general, regardless of gender. Sure, everyone remembers Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Seven, or Jared Leto being beaten to a pulp in sumptuous slow motion, or a particularly vile social worker having his way with Rooney Mara. But for each of those moments, there’s Sigourney Weaver defending a prison colony, Jodie Foster relieving Dwight Yoakam of his fingers or Mara taking revenge on that social worker in the most forceful of revenge justice. Even Marla, the herion chic pinup with her ever widening and inviting legs, retains some sort of agency in her travels with Project Mayhem. The men of David Fincher’s films may believe they have control of or dominance over their women, but that doesn’t mean the stories play out that way. Just as often, Jesse Eisenberg is reduced to endlessly refreshing his Facebook page, hoping beyond hope his ex-girlfriend, a woman who refused to allow him to define and control her, would deign to accept his friend request.

Which brings us to Gone Girl, a film that really is a natural fit for the trajectory of Fincher’s career. It provides him with two main characters that would appeal to the director, with the added spice of commentary on marriage and media and a host of other topics to kick things up a notch. Nick Dunne is demonstrably the dominant lead, the window through which we see the world. With Ben Affleck in his shoes, Nick is a flawed human being, but one who honestly doesn’t seem all that bad, especially in comparison to some of Fincher’s other leading men. He has an analogue in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist, a man who is not above making mistakes and has to live with the consequences of them. Nick Dunne strikes a darker profile; his infidelities and tendency to lie about them are harsher than those of Blomkvist, and he’s probably more than a little selfish in his personal life decisions and how they affect his wife and marriage, but he is still predominantly presented as a regular guy. And Affleck plays him as such; he’s a bit of a doof, and his actions do tighten the noose on the murder investigation, but there does not appear to be any true malice in his heart at its resting state.

As I wrote in my review of the film, Gone Girl’s flaws are rooted in the characterization of Nick, especially in the film’s pre-twist early moments. Fundamentally, Gone Girl is a mystery, a combination of a whodunit and a whereisshe, and it is necessary to the plot for Nick to be a suspect and a credible one at that. Right around the time Emily Ratajkowski slinks into Nick’s sister’s house for some late night adultery, the film is designed to call into question everything the audience has assumed about Nick to that point, leaving the question open that maybe he could have been capable of dishing out some blunt force trauma to the side of his perfect wife’s head. In practice, this new information pushes Nick across the line into son of a bitch territory, but not quite into capable of murder territory. Thus, the first act of the story is something more akin to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, a film about a man falsely accused of a heinous crime and how he must deal with untoward persecution of a small town. Replace the small town gossip-mongering of The Hunt with the bloodthirsty media (led by a Missi Pyle in Nancy Grace’s clothing) and the overlaps are extensive.

This is not immediately revealed to be a mistake; indeed, the frustration and desire for justice as seen in The Hunt is a perfectly worthy narrative device. But as Gone Girl chugs along and its central twist reveals itself, there are some unfortunate consequences to the characterization of Nick. Once we know what really happened, that his missing wife was thoroughly alive and had set up the entire scene as an elaborate (ceaselessly elaborate) ploy to frame her husband and send him to the lethal injection table, the morality of Gone Girl collapses. Yes, Nick made some mistakes, and he’s not a white hat, but taking one’s wife away from the city and cheating on her is arguably (certainly, really) not justification for sentencing the husband to death. Divorce, sure. But the attempted punishment Amy deals out does not fit the crime. As a result, the scales are tipped relentlessly in Nick’s favor, with mounting evidence that Amy is simply a psychotic individual, a pure villain.

What’s a little queasy about her villainy is the motivation she provides and the actions she takes as part of her journey toward reaching the point where she is perfectly comfortable taking a hammer to her own face in a gas station bathroom to aid in her attempts to continue living her life without being recognized and giving up the ghost on the whole missing persons thing. It is difficult to know how purposeful these specific traits were, but they line up distressingly with the anti-feminist movement often referred to as Men’s Rights Activism (MRA). Amy is a woman who fakes the physical evidence of rape multiple times to destroy and control her men. She excoriates her husband for spending too much time and money on video games. When she does not get her way, she ruins the life of her former lover, tries to get her husband executed (to the point that she was entirely willing to drown herself to seal the deal) and slits the throat of her high school sweetheart cum stalker in the middle of sexual intercourse. She is a vindictive, manipulative and murderous. She is a monstrous hellbeast, the sort of woman MRAs assume feminists will create in everyone they do not manage to subjugate and control first. The gender war is front and center in Gone Girl, and one side is clearly not playing fair.

Had Fincher and Flynn played the narrative straight, it would be nigh impossible not to see Gone Girl as an MRA cautionary tale, with that thought of Nick Dunne trapped in a marriage he cannot escape keeping them up at night. And indeed, much like the legions of proto-Nietzschean Project Mayhem nutjobs born into this world by seeing Fight Club a touch too young to appreciate the satire, there will be plenty of people who will take Gone Girl at face value and use it for all sorts of justification for their crackpot opinions. Fincher and Flynn, though, are shooting for something more subtle, and for them subtlety is a dish best served absurd. By the film’s final act, Amy is a cartoon character, soaked in the blood of the man she just murdered as she drives back into Nick’s life as if she hadn’t tried to frame him for her murder. Those unholy spurts of blood (scored with a Psycho-esque flair by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) managed to miss her face entirely, leaving her impossibly beautiful features unblemished. Act three of Gone Girl as presented cannot be taken seriously. It is full of lapses of logic and dramatic irony. It does not even bother trying to exist in reality.

The most fascinating aspect of Gone Girl is this tonal trickery. As established in the first half of the film, Nick Dunne is a regular guy. And adulterer and a liar, but that’s not entirely uncommon in this day and age. As established in the second half of the film, Amy Dunne is a psychotic murderous super villain who is perfectly happy entrapping her husband into a volatile, blackmail-heavy loveless marriage with the threat of psychologically scarring their impending child to taste. There are some heightened moments in Nick’s half of the film, but it is played straight. There are a few grounded moments in the second half of the film, but despite its wild events, it’s also presented straight. The narrative tone of Gone Girl shifts wildly from its open to its close, but these shifts are driven by the events much more than the filmmaking. Fincher’s style remains unchanged as the narrative spirals out of control, which makes for a notably bizarre viewing experience. Adding to this otherworldly sense of the normal is Reznor and Ross’ score, with its stolid, cold, disjointed and impersonal lack of melody. It is their most impersonal and least melodic Fincher score, and it could not fit Gone Girl better had they tried.

Gone Girl, from a filmmaking, tonal and narrative perspective, is quintessential Fincher. But at the same time, there is quite a bit of Blue Velvet percolating underneath its icy veneer. It would not have felt out of place had the camera panned past one of the idyllic Missouri manicured lawns and found a severed ear hiding underneath its serenity. It makes sense, as the central conceit of Gone Girl is a marriage gone to seed, this idyllic union rotting under the surface and the small town with a number of hidden secrets, overlaps more than a little bit with Blue Velvet. Fincher is less interested in the surreal than Lynch, and Gone Girl is less gonzo by comparison (try as it might in act three), but this type of story, this setting is new ground for Fincher to cover. It is safe to say, from a filmmaking perspective at least, that he is up to the task. Make no mistake; the narrative has its issues in the first half that hold the film back from being a top tier Fincher film, but the quality of delivery, the quality of the cinematography and the score, the quality of FIncher’s tonal restraint to keep things quiet and level in the most violent and depraved of times is masterful. It is certainly among his most accomplished directorial efforts, on par with his work on Zodiac and The Social Network. It is certainly one of his most intriguing at the very least.

Much of the sturm und drang surrounding Gone Girl has revolved around feminism. Is it feminist? Anti-feminist? Is Nick as bad a guy as Amy is a girl? Are they truly destined to be together? Do they deserve their shared fate? Many of these questions are far too reductive considering the complexity of this little enterprise of Fincher and Flynn. It is one of those films that lingers in the mind despite not being among the best films of the year, something akin to The Master (which was considered by many to be among the, if not the, best films of its year among critics), narratively weak but filmically peerless. I look forward to revisiting Gone Girl again in the future. It is possible that, much like the infamous Fight Club, it is a different experience when the twist is known ahead of time. Perhaps Nick works better as a character under the magnifying glass of a second, more relaxed critical analysis. Only time will tell. Regardless, Gone Girl is an experience not to be missed.