Gone Girl ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Part of Noir-November

“You ever hear the expression, ‘The simplest answer is often the correct one’?” “Actually, I have never found that to be true.”

Look through the viewfinder. What do you see?

It depends. On the lens, on the lighting, on the angle. On the aspect ratio, on the depth of field, on the framing. And, of course, on the subject matter. At whom are you looking? What are they wearing? What are they saying? What are they doing? What aren’t they doing? It’s a curious act, to look and to be looked upon. Neither party acts alone. Each one acts in concert with the other to produce meaning—a meaning attached to an agenda perhaps held by only one party, or perhaps by someone else altogether.

The same thing, when looked at from a different vantage, can appear vastly different. We see this all the time in courtroom dramas like Anatomy of a Murder, where opposing sides try to cast aspersions on a fixed set of facts and circumstances. The truth will set you free—but the “truth” depends on who is asking, and what they’ve asked, and of whom they’ve asked it. Watching someone smile because they are told to do so seems only natural. Seeing a snapshot of that person smiling in a context in which smiling is inappropriate seems callous. Moving home to care for one’s sick mother is noble and thoughtful. Dragging someone halfway across the country without even asking and setting them adrift in a sea of hostile unfamiliarity is blinkered and thoughtless. The facts and circumstances remain precisely the same, but their meaning is endlessly mutable. They mean whatever you want them to mean.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her best-selling novel, is about many things: marriage, gender politics, the media, image management. But, because it is also very much about the act of being looked at, it is a fascinating proxy for the act of filmmaking and filmgoing. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is constantly under surveillance—by the police, by the media, by his community. They want to know what happened to his missing wife, Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), as does he, but their watchful eyes twist his actions into many shapes. When an overwhelmed Nick takes a selfie with a boundary-challenged woman at a hotline command center, it becomes one more demerit, one more piece of evidence that Nick is clueless, unconcerned about his wife, a bad husband. Yet Fincher presents this to us two ways: first with the woman approaching Nick to flirt, demanding a selfie, an exhausted Nick obliging; second with the snapshot of a smiling Nick with his arm around the woman, the asshole of the week. Nothing has changed—except for the context, and the angle, and the agenda of those controlling the presentation.

Fincher’s approach to his material is curious. Though Gone Girl has the content of a domestic horror film or a mysterious thriller, he infuses the film with little in the way of traditional suspense (a wise move, since the novel was so widely read and widely discussed that at least some of its twists and turns were likely known by vast swaths of the audience). Instead, his concern is with his characters’ many battles to control their own narratives in the face of others attempting to do the same. To that end, Fincher eschews usual modes of suspense generation—especially the familiar Hitchcockian POV shot—in favor of observation. This is not to say that Fincher abandons POV shots. On the contrary, there are many to be found. But unlike, say, Rear Window (another film famously read as a metaphor for the act of movie-watching), Gone Girl contains far less of Nick looking than of Nick being looked at. Anyone would wilt under such close examination. That Nick is not just anyone, but a smug, duplicitous, unfaithful, inconsiderate, insecure tool makes the decay that much more rapid.

Affleck is the perfect person for this sort of role. Never an especially gifted actor—and a person whose glibness seems inextricable from his continued existence—Affleck is superb as the off-putting Nick. Described by his twin sister, Margo (the wonderful Carrie Coon), as possessing their father’s tendency to drink and be temperamental as well as a predisposition for slick, shit-eating ingratiation, Nick consistently makes the wrong choice in front of the cameras’ flashbulbs and the police’s questioning. He cannot convincingly pretend to care about his wife—a woman he and Margo openly loathe—or know anything about her life. He cannot conceal his insincerity or flirtatiousness. We see the extenuating circumstances for some of his incriminating behavior—the instruction that leads to his incriminating grin in front of his wife’s “missing” poster—but also the viewpoint of others, and how their restrictions (or the restrictions imposed by their informational gatekeepers) lead to very different, seemingly plausible interpretations. Fincher and Flynn offer us a deft media satire, but also an instructional guide in how filmmakers can manipulate audience responses by presenting material just so—one tweak here, another tweak there, and the story is completely different.

That Nick is, to borrow a phrase from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, a garbage person is one of Gone Girl’s many strengths. He may not have earned what Amy does to him, but he is not a good person by any calculation, a fact which adds color to his interactions with everyone else, from Margo to the investigating officers, Det. Rhonda Boney (the marvelous Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), to Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick’s high-priced attorney. (Perry, in one of the film’s best performances, garners big laughs from his wry bemusement not just at Amy’s audacity but at Nick’s general oafishness.)

Gone Girl’s other great strength is Pike, who plays the nearly impossible Amy as well as can be imagined. (Pike’s deep, affected patrician voice is just right for Amy’s manicured sense of self, and her wide eyes and beautiful-yet-slightly-alien face suit Amy’s quality as an outsider, both in terms of small-town Missouri residents and on the spectrum of mental stability.) The gender dynamics of Amy and the plot are complicated at best, touching on subjects like misogyny, the shrewish wife, false allegations of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and the use of pregnancy as a manipulative tool. But is Amy intended to be a stand-in for all womankind? The dearth of complex female characters in film is constantly and rightly decried, and Amy is nothing if not complex. Is Amy a confirmation of all the terrible fears that men have about women, an anti-feminist monster, or is Amy a wronged woman who just happens also to be a psychopath (like so many male (anti-)heroes also happen to be psychopaths) and so uses the tools at her disposal—the tools of sex and marriage and pregnancy—to wreak havoc in the way that a similarly deranged man might use the tools inherent to his social station? I am not altogether confident that the answer is one or the other, but I think the latter is at least partly the case. In any event, I am altogether confident that Amy is a much more layered and fascinating character than another half-dimensional long-suffering girlfriend, along for the endlessly supportive ride while her man gets to drive all of the action. The entirety of Gone Girl is, for good or for bad, driven by Amy—she is the rare woman who sets the story in motion and steers it for the duration, and the rare monster movie villain who survives. She is the Michael Myers of the domestic melodrama.

Pike plays Amy as supremely intelligent—far smarter than anyone else in her circle—as smug, as a perfectionist, as icy and distant, but also as sympathetically damaged. Amy’s parents, Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth Elliott (Lisa Banes), “plagiarized” her life (as Nick commiserates) by writing their Amazing Amy children’s book series, whitewashing and “correcting” all of the real Amy’s shortcomings. No wonder that such rigid, unforgiving people would create a rigid, unforgiving daughter with a constant fear of subpar performance, whether real or perceived. And Amy has been wronged by Nick. He has cheated on her with the nubile, almost-jailbait Andie (Emily Ratajkowski)—his most obvious offense—but even when accounting for Amy’s lies and manipulation, it is clear that Nick has been distant, that Nick did not try to ease Amy’s transition from the writerly brownstones of Brooklyn to the gauche McMansions of Missouri. One gets the distinct impression that Nick and Margo joined forces against Amy, leaving her as the outsider. It does not justify Amy’s egregious behavior, but it does give welcome shading to her character, and to Nick’s, and to their relationship.

Amy’s brains and sense of aggrieved entitlement manifest in ludicrous ways, but little of Gone Girl seems intended to be taken at face value. Instead, Fincher and Flynn admire the lengths to which Amy is willing to go to secure her desired end, to continue her parents’ lifelong mission to craft an “Amazing Amy” whom the world will worship, regardless of her relationship to reality. Like filmmakers, they are all storytellers, altering details, shifting perspectives, carefully manicuring the image until it is buffed to a flawless sheen. Pike’s face as she listens to Nick pleading his case to national network figurehead Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward) is brilliant in its communicative subtlety—the rekindled affection she feels seeing that Nick has figured out her scheme, that he has conceded her victory, and (most importantly) that he is again pretending to be the person she wants him to be is horribly warped, but makes its own sort of sick sense. Amy wants to tell a perfect story, but she also wants to be told a perfect story, and much of her dissatisfaction with Nick arose from the laziness that comes with years-long relationships. He stopped spinning his image for her—he put down the klieg light and removed the girdle, leaving a swollen gut and imperfect skin and a leaden disinterest in place of the bohemian, witty New York writer she thought she had married.

One can hardly feel sorry for Nick—he may not deserve Amy, but he doesn’t deserve much better. They are quite nearly a perfect match. Two uncaring people, relentlessly self-obsessed, interested in each other only as lights that might shine on one another in the most flattering ways. Nick begins and ends Gone Girl stroking his wife’s lovely blond head, considering the damage he might do to it. Her hair shimmers softly, beguilingly—and then she looks up, her face a feline mask of haughty menace. In an instant, the power dynamic shifts, and so does the story. Look through the viewfinder. Who do you see?

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