Gone Girl

Gone Girl ★★★½

The primary sensation here is that of bitterness. Spousal bitterness. It insinuates itself into the noir-derived dynamics (Laura's smeared all over this), the labyrinthine thriller plotting, and especially the sick jokes that are among director David Fincher's favored modes of expression. ("KILL SELF?" reads a post-it note on a calendar; sometimes this movie can get outrageously mordant!) Gone Girl is mass entertainment doused with satire and constructed with surgical technique—snipping here, suturing there, until it veritably purrs. The editing, the Ozarks-through-a-lens-darkly compositions, the staticky score: everything points toward a common, malign end point, toward a burlesque of TV, true love, and happy endings. (Had Fincher's collaborator Trent Reznor not already used it a quarter-century ago, Pretty Hate Machine would make a pretty apt alternative title.)

The film's plot points (numerous, dense) are whacked back and forth by its sour core couple. Each twist, playing out nationwide via tabloid journalism, is a stratagem. One half of this relationship is the dumbass, scumbag husband, eternally on the defensive, while the other half's the "bitch," the "cunt," the "girl" of the title. The husband is a tired-looking Ben Affleck, amplifying the film's comedy with his dazed reaction shots; the wife a mercurial Rosamund Pike, sometimes gobbling junk food and affecting a faux-southun accent, sometimes playing up the sex appeal. She's savvy, and Pike radiates predatory intelligence within each winning smile, though the film leaves no question that she's evil, too, in an intrinsically female way.

I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of audience identification, especially as it applies to female monsters like Pike's Amazing Amy. (Once upon a time, I wrote a senior thesis on the subject.) Gone Girl toys with it, as it toys with everything else, inciting audience members to dole out sympathy in measured doses. Her savviness itself, spilled out in a mid-film montage, might merit some affection, especially from those who know what it's like to be a woman in a world run by men. But then the film leans hard on her husband's victim status, which is initially framed as buffoonish before growing nightmarish, then finally thorough, emasculating. She games the system, she builds herself a family, and he's her casualty, left paying for sins she readily equates with murder.

So here is a depiction of a war that opts not to take a side. Terms like "neutral" or "wishy-washy" seem wrong for a movie as forceful as Gone Girl, though; maybe "prankish" is more appropriate? Whether viewers react negatively or positively, the film resounds with palpable glee that they're reacting at all. Each new parcel of plot is like an experiment without IRB approval: if you see Affleck's Nick running in circles with cops and reporters nipping at his not-guilty heels, how will that make you feel? If you hear Amy relate in flashback (echoing the end of Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) her snow-sprinkled discovery of Nick's affair, will that justify her cold-blooded crimes? Each scene peels back another layer of the film's surface and underneath finds nothing but malice.

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