SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE MOVIE AND THE BOOK!
Coming out of Gone Girl, I was of two minds — appalled pearl-clutcher and delighted crime-fiction geek. On reflection, I’m inclined to side with the pearl-clutcher in me that sees David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller as a clarion call for misogynists and men’s rights loons everywhere, but I’d still like to talk about how the movie (adapted by Flynn herself) mashes together a variety of tropes from several decades’ worth of crime-fiction lore — all for a deeply hypnotic end-result.
The final act of Gone Girl also features a scene of such dark power that I was compelled to apply an unexpected word to it: magical, though I hasten to add that my use of the word “magical” in this context is an unusual one, packed with nuance. I’ll try to define the kind of magic I felt later.
First, let’s talk about Gone Girl’s ghoulish gender politics. There have been a number of think pieces written about whether or not the movie (and by association, Flynn’s novel) is misogynistic or — and I’m not making this up — feminist. I’ve seen the movie and read about a third of the book, so consider my opinion with that in mind, but I’m hard-pressed for a reason not to think it misogynistic. The only way I can engage with it as anything other than a laundry list of nutso men’s rights arguments is to accept the reality that women can (and should) be pressed into duty as villains in our stories occasionally, and that Flynn has in Amy Dunne a literary creation on the order of Hannibal Lecter. She’s that compelling a villain.
That said, I want to at least try to grok how any why someone might think of this as a feminist movie. To the Internet!
*Bob reads a whole lot of reviews and criticism about Gone Girl.*
OK, done! Phew! I just read and/or skimmed about a dozen different reviews of Gone Girl, taking special care to ingest all of the apologia supporting the notion that the movie somehow supports a feminist ideal. I couldn’t find quite as many of those kinds of essays as I thought I could, but here’s the general theme (as I saw it) that emerged from the “Gone Girl as feminist movie” side of the aisle:
Like many women, Amy is forced into a role that she doesn’t want and didn’t choose. Her parents pillage from her childhood to populate the pages of their Amazing Amy books, which give Amy an impossible standard of perfection to live up to. Furthermore, she comes from east-coast wealth and all of its attendant traditional expectations — she has to be beautiful, smart, accomplished, and (most important) married with children. Amy rebels against these roles, making her own choices and living her own life. While also murdering some humans. The end.
That’s a pretty inelegant summation of the argument, so let’s look at some specific nut-grafs to get a better read on it. Over at Time Magazine, Eliana Dockterman looked at both sides of the equation, using the novel’s (and now the movie’s) famous “Cool Girl” speech as the prism through which to view Gone Girl as a rallying cry for independent women everywhere.
When I first read the Cool Girl speech, I nodded my head. Out of context it contains a lot of truisms, and I identified with the pressure to pretend to be someone else at the beginning of a relationship. (A pressure, which Amy later points out, men do not feel, otherwise we’d see a lot of boyfriends learning to knit and pretending to like girly drinks to impress their girlfriends.)
This argument is echoed by Todd VanDerWerff over at Vox.com in an essay that achieved a mild amount of online infamy for its full-throated defense of Amy Dunne as a feminist firebrand. To wit:
But open up Gone Girl and dig around in its guts, and you find something surprising. This is perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want. Amy Dunne might be a monster, but she’s no sui generis psychopath. No, she’s Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together by a husband, parents, and a social order that demanded she be certain things, rather than who she really was.
And in destroying her husband’s life, she’s symbolically taking back power for women everywhere.
VanDerWerff got a lot of static for this piece, and rightfully so, I’d say. I can’t speak for everyone who found it distasteful, but here’s what rankled me: He defends Gone Girl as a feminist movie in terms of the movie’s cinematic vocabulary. In essence, VenDerWerff argues that Fincher uses the center of the frame as the seat of power, pitting Amy and Nick against each other in a game of King of the Hill (or King of the Frame). Whoever claims the center, wins.
On its surface, such an argument seems to have merit. After all, one of the best feminist movies ever is a thriller that features the kidnap and torture of a helpless woman — The Silence of the Lambs — and it’s a feminist movie largely because of its visual style. Lambs director Jonathan Demme transformed Thomas Harris’ trashy novel into a longform experiment in inducing empathy in its audience by shooting a surprising amount of it in second-person. As an audience member, you spend most of the movie in Agent Starling’s shoes, experiencing every skeevy glance she does. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Fincher’s movie ain’t no Silence of the Lambs, and I respectfully submit that VanDerWerff was reaching in his review, and heck — I get it. It’s a catchy thesis. “A movie with a walking avatar of specious men’s rights claims as its villain is somehow a feminist one. Crazy, huh?” And I can understand the impulse to look so closely at Fincher’s direction as a way to bolster that thesis. Fincher’s a great director, but he’s also (by his own admission) a bit of a lurid one:
It pains me to sound like a rube, but arguments like VanDerWerff’s weary me. Here’s why: Of course, the technique of a great director like Fincher invites thoughtful criticism and inquiry. But sometimes the literal narrative of a movie is what’s most important, because that’s what we see onscreen, and that’s what most people — for better or worse — will most readily ingest and assimilate upon seeing it. For the sake of argument, let’s accept as gospel the premise that Fincher redirects all of Gone Girl’s power into Amy by ushering her to the center of the frame. That’s great, but you’re still watching a movie that gives oxygen to several pernicious myths about women, and which is populated by a parade of hateful, mean-spirited female characters. The other women in Gone Girl are, almost to a person, assholes. Most striking was the Barbra Walters-esque TV reporter played by Sela Ward. I swear she cackled like a witch before they rolled tape on her interview with Nick.
(Side note: On the plus side, Gone Girl featured some nice meta-casting. Ward played the dead wife in the film version of The Fugitive, and casting perennial clown Tyler Perry as a kickass Johnnie Cochran proxy was a masterstroke. Oh, and casting the incredibly wholesome Neil Patrick Harris as a creepily obsessive ex-boyfriend? Genius.)
Full stop. I’m building a bit of a straw man there, because I feel like VanDerWerff’s cinematic-vocabulary argument is the less common defense of Gone Girl’s feminist bona fides. More common — and palatable — is the notion that women by rites can and should be pressed into duty as villains.
Dockterman gamely describes this need over at Time:
What Gillian Flynn is doing is also extremely feminist. Because there are so few strong women in literature (or TV shows or movies) the burden falls on the writers who do write about women to make them represent all of womanhood. And that’s simply not fair. We should have all sorts of women in our novels — just as we have all sorts of men. Very few writers are creating complex, evil female characters with interesting motivations. Gillian Flynn is. It seems sexist to assert that female characters ought to be, at their core, loving and good.
There’s a lot to talk about here. I strongly agree with Dockterman’s assertion that writers who portray women very often feel a tacit need to represent women as a whole, and that can lead to some leaden, unrealistic female characters who lacks flaws, foibles or texture. I also agree that women in movies and books should be villains, psychos, wackos, and everything in between.
That said, I guess I can’t quite get on board with this: “It seems sexist to assert that female characters ought to be, at their core, loving and good.” I want to tread lightly here. I’m already deep into the thicket of “mansplaining,” so I want to present my viewpoint with all respect. Here goes:
One, to bemoan the popularity of an Amy Dunne doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is calling for all female characters to be saints; and two, while I understand the need for women to play a variety of roles in literature and film — do we really have start with an Amy Dunne? I mean, Jesus, I know we need to diversify our pool of female characters, but do we have to start with a completely remorseless psychopath who’s basically a distillation of every men’s rights wacko’s worst fantasies and myths about women? Can’t we start with, say, a lawyer? Or a schoolteacher? Or a pro volleyball player? How about any other kind of woman short of a totally deranged sociopath?
OK, I’m kidding. Half kidding. No, I’m mostly kidding because obviously Amy isn’t the first imperfect, non-saintly female character we’ve had — not by a longshot. We already have a great many well-rounded female characters, though when I try to think of a few, only characters from YA fiction spring to mind: Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, Meg Murry, and whoever the lead character in Divergent is. Other great ones include Ruth Cole, Elphaba, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, and virtually all of the women in the Song of Ice and Fire series. (I realize I’m leaning more on women from genre and YA fare than I am mainstream fiction. That says more about my sorry reading habits than anything else, and it’s a shortfall I plan to address ASAP.)
But here’s my larger point: I just don’t think it’s productive to defend Gone Girl on the grounds of it being a feminist work. It doesn’t need to extol feminist ideals to stand on its own as a book or a movie, but even more important is this: if anything, Gone Girl may just be the spectral opposite of a feminist work. Both Fincher’s movie and Flynn’s script are a survey of kooky men’s rights arguments. First, if you’re not familiar with the world of men’s right activists — congratulations! You live in a happier, less insane world. I’m not the one to explain the movement to you, but essentially, it’s a reactionary conglomerate of a lot of men (and some women) who congregate on websites and message boards, all of them purporting to advocate for the “equal” treatment of men (whatever that means), when in reality they spend most of their time and energy hating on women and feminism.
The Men’s Right Advocacy (MRA) movement has a few signature hobby-horses, including (but not limited to) propagating the myth that women regularly file false claims of sexual assault and rape, as well as the far more risible claim that women steal men’s sperm to make themselves pregnant and trap men in loveless, financially draining marriages. (There’s reams of other insane claims and shenanigans perpetrated by the MRA movement, but I’ll leave it to you to Google around for the worst. Off the top of my head, MRAs also claim that the wage gap is justified, and the flagship website for the MRA movement once spoofed a domestic violence support website. No bullshit.)
Listen, I understand that we need all kinds of women in our movies and books. We need female heroes as well as villains. And I can almost, almost grok the notion that Amy Dunne is a brawny, hopped-up, super-villainous reaction to the societal pressure exacted upon women to look, act and be a certain way; she’s a living, breathing fuck you screamed at men who tell women to be their Cool Girls. I get it.
But at the same time — damn. She also has a history of falsely reporting rape and sexual assault. The second half of the movie tracks Amy’s efforts to frame her husband for her own murder. When her plan goes belly-up, she escapes from her own contrived narrative by setting up a patsy as her rapist before murdering him, returning home and revealing that she stole some of her husband’s sperm to make herself pregnant and trap him in a loveless marriage with a lunatic. Did I miss anything? Are there any other fevered men’s rights narratives I missed?
OK, OK — I know. It’s only a book. It’s only a movie. And yes, there are crazy women out there, and the women in our books and movies don’t need to be angels. I get it. All the same, these kinds of narratives have power, and I respectfully submit that they can have an insidious effect on the popular consciousness. They’re hateful rumor-myths made real and given form, all to be delivered into the stream of whispers that falsely accuse women of being maniacs who cry rape and get themselves pregnant on purpose.
Critic Megan Kearns gives eloquent voice to this concern over at the fully stupendous website Bitch Flicks:
The biggest problem with Gone Girl lies in the tactics Amy utilizes to punish men — by faking intimate partner violence and rape. (…) Amy convincingly plays the role of an abuse survivor. It’s scary because this is the kind of bullshit people believe — that women lie and make shit up to wreak vengeance on men.
Moving on: If you want to enjoy Gone Girl, there’s ample reason to, but in this geek’s humble opinion, Flynn’s novel (and its film adaptation) shouldn’t be used as a load-bearing member for feminist theory. I just don’t think that dog can hunt. But like I said, it doesn’t need to be a feminist movie to be a good one, and despite the real damage I think it’s done to the cultural conversation, it’s still a pretty damn canny throwback to 80s and 90s hetero-dude nightmare thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, as well as a satisfyingly shocking mashup of classic noir tropes culled from the pages of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. There’s even a little bit of Hitchcock thrown in there.
I can’t quite call Gone Girl a pastiche, because it doesn’t all look or feel like any one of the genre-categories I just mentioned. It’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster, I guess, largely due to the curious nature of its literary origins. Flynn does a nice job of boiling her novel down to a fairly nimble screenplay, but in order to deliver a movie with a sympathetic lead, she jettisoned most of Nick’s latent misogyny and aggression. The primary side-effect of this choice is that in place of the novel’s more even-handed portrayal of evil — though to be clear: Nick’s aggro nature and infidelity pale in comparison to Amy’s murder and mayhem — we’re left with a story more in line with Fatal Attraction, where a sort-of-a-kind-of-an asshole guy gets annihilated by a monster.
Earlier I comparied Amy Dunne to Hannibal Lecter. Well, she also reminds me of Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, played so memorably by Sharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s classic 1992 thriller. Here’s my most vivid memory of Basic Instinct: My high school buddies and I somehow bamboozled the local video-store clerk into renting it to us, all of us a-tremble over the reality that we were about to see a real, live vagina onscreen. (Never mind that Verhoeven pretty much tricked Stone into performing the scene bottomless, prompting her to slap the director across the face at an initial screening; meaning that this iconic scene is a form of assault captured on film for all time. Phew! Good thing rape culture’s a myth!) In any event, we popped in the movie — and the room quickly fell silent. We were engrossed. Yes, the movie’s titillating, but not in a way that the brains of a bunch of high-school chuckleheads can rationally process. Verhoeven’s movie (from a famous script by Joe Eszterhas) has some nudity — maybe the most valuable coin of an undersexed teenager’s realm — but its portrayal of sex is resolutely adult. And awesome. When I revisited the movie as a grown-up, I appreciated the daring and bravery of the cast. The most famous (or infamous?) sex scene is probably the one with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone — y’know, the one where she leaves a bunch of bloody claw-marks in his back — but the one that really lingers with me is the first one, which features Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Check it out:
Holy shit, that’s hot. Wow. Ahem. Oh, and I read that Verhoeven filmed a rehearsal of this scene without telling the actors. Christ. Anyway, the sex in Basic Instinct fried my high school brain, but the storyline fascinated me. I wouldn’t discover great crime fiction until I got to college, but Basic Instinct was one of my first and best introductions to the genre. It’s a top-notch work of crime fiction, inviting us into a seductive and deadly underworld, all of it populated by an array of tangy and spicy characters with quirks and kinks. It’s also one of Gone Girl’s most esteemed literary ancestors. Both works feature a pissed-off white guy and a manipulative blonde babe out of the Hitchcock mold as their two leads, and more important, both works — especially Fincher’s movie — take place in worlds where women call the shots.
That’s an important distinction, and now that I look at it that way, I suppose it lends a bit of credence to Gone Girl as a feminist response to patriarchal demands and expectations. When the power of a privileged group is challenged, the group in question usually responds in some kind of violent or aggressively defensive manner, either literally or figuratively, but one common ploy by the privileged is the tone argument, which goes like this:
1. Non-privileged group or party calls out privileged group or party for some of their privileged bullshit.
2. In calling out said privileged group or party, the non-privileged group or party phrases their grievance in some way other than a laboriously polite missive delivered on a silver platter and whispered in appropriately reverent tones by a duly appointed butler or manservant and immediately followed by 20 minutes of abject apologies for troubling the privileged party during their thrice-daily butt massage. Said missive is immediately cast into the incinerator and forgotten. Usually, the non-privileged party has the temerity to phrase their grievance in a rude, coarse or otherwise impolite way. Typically, this phraseology is shocking in nature, often resembling a clearly written or spoken sentence delivered in a declarative tone.
3. In response to this affront most egregious, the privileged party rightly chastises the non-privileged party, benevolently advising them to meter their tone, wisely reminding them that they can catch more flies with honey and that by presenting their position in such an unpalatable way, they’re actually doing harm to their cause.
Was that snarky enough? I can never tell! Anyway, I want to pause and make a couple of things clear:
• As I alluded to in my list above, being “rude” to a privileged party is (more often than not) nothing more than simply saying what you mean without apology.
• But it’s also worth reminding everyone that non-privileged parties don’t have to be nice about it when they’re calling out the privileged on their horseshit.
So what am I driving at here? I suppose if you squint really hard and scrunch up your face and don’t think about it too much, Amy Dunne’s maniacal actions in Gone Girl are a sort of “impolite” response to a world controlled by men. (Note: I’m basically playing devil’s advocate — a practice I abhor — with myself here, so don’t take any of this section too seriously.) But if we look at works like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Gone Girl as presentations of worlds controlled by women, we see that in all cases, it takes extreme measures by the women to even get the attention of the men, and in response, the men react with some pretty extreme violence to the upending of their status quo. (Fatal Attraction is a bracing depiction of this.) In addition, all three of these works owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock, who perfected the use of robotic blondes. (And I don’t mean that as a knock on Rosamund Pike’s acting — I feel like her stilted monotone was very much in line with the Hitchcock tradition. Part of me wonders if Fincher guided her to perform that way on purpose.)
Moving on: OK, have I embarrassed myself enough yet with my blathering about feminist theory? Good, because now I can finally talk about Gone Girl in the one territory where I feel the most comfortable: noir. More than anything else, Flynn’s work made me flash on the works of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, specifically Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Getaway. Noir fiction and movies are well know for that grand old literary device, the femme fatale, and in Gone Girl, Flynn pulls off a fascinating thought experiment; she imagines what the life of a femme fatale might look like.
I’m moved to remember something my acting teacher once said while directing a classmate in a scene as Clytemnestra. He was trying to coax my classmate away from her naturalistic delivery and get her to really go for it onstage. To that end, he took pains to get her out of her head by saying, “No one cares what Clytemnestra’s childhood was like or what her favorite color is. She is a revenge machine.” Aeschylus’ heroine was one of our first femme fatales, and Amy Dunne has a lot in common with her, but here’s the problem: Amy doesn’t inhabit a Greek tragedy, where she can exist solely as an assemblage of elemental outbursts and grand gestures. She’s a creature of modern literature and cinema, and as such, she’s required to exhibit at least some of the outward signs of human life. She has to passably register as a person — even a sociopathic one — and not a cartoon. In this sense, Flynn took on a slightly greater challenge than Cain or Thompson, whose femme fatales are somewhat elemental in their presentation, as well. For example, if we were to go all Tom Stoppard and imagine a fantastical parallel realm where literary characters exist in the same spirit as Fantasia from The Neverending Story or the kooky blockbuster world of Last Action Hero, I submit that more elemental characters (such as those from Greek tragedy) would exist in this realm solely as automatons, as soulless apparitions doomed to repeat the same phrases and carry out the same vengeful actions over and over again for all eternity. By contrast, our more fleshed-out characters would exist in this realm as recognizable humans, building lives and commerce and a full society. These two provinces — elemental characters versus fleshed-out ones — exist in a tense detente. The fleshies have pledged never to disturb the boundaries of the elementals, lest they alert them to their presence and incur their wrath.
But Amy exists on the boundary between these two realms. Hell, she’s probably lived in both realms. When Flynn conjured Amy, she sprang into existence next door to Phyllis Nirdlinger, another shrieking, scheming harridan that stalked the rocky foothills of the elementals’ homeland. But as Flynn built out her life, the essence of Amy slowly felt more and more of the world coalescing around her. Sentience took hold in her skull and coated her R-center with a cerebral cortex capable of processing complex thoughts and emotions. To be sure, Amy remained a sociopath, cunning enough to escape her hostile homeland undetected, and escape it she did, stealing into the realm of the fleshies. She even went so far as to fake her own creation, springing to life alongside famous fleshies like Rosalind, Viola and Elinor Dashwood. But after saying her hellos, Amy absconded to the shadow-realms of the fleshies, where she was granted audience with Hannibal Lecter and Lady Macbeth, her new high-rulers — and mentors.
Anyway, the point is that Amy’s a fascinating creation.
Last, I want to heap praise on my favorite scene in Gone Girl: Amy’s return, and specifically the shower scene. (Side note: As I write this review, I’ve read about a third of the novel, so I don’t know if this scene goes down exactly the same way in the book as it does the movie, though I’m told it’s very similar.) Everything about this scene — the music, the dialogue, what was happening — transfixed me, but I had a hard time figuring out why.
Until now. The scene is magical, but like I mentioned earlier, I’m using the word magical in a very specific sense. Let me try to unpack exactly what I mean:
There are times in life where we experience harrowing ordeals, and we come out on the other side of them unscathed. Those after-times — after we’ve survived or otherwise weathered the test given us — are bathed in a sense of amber-toned unreality. We’re moved in those times to mumble to ourselves, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Sometimes these ordeals are good, sometimes they’re bad, and sometimes they’re both. Here are examples of all three from my own life:
Here’s a good one: In ninth grade, I played on a really shitty football team. Good grief, we were awful. We lost our first six games, most of them by embarrassing margins. I played terribly, too. (I was an offensive lineman, and I got at least one touchdown called back for holding. I think it was two. If you don’t know anything about football, that means “I fucked up really bad. Twice.”) But we won our last game of the year, and I remember feeling especially happy that night. It felt magical. The game happened in mid-November, as I recall, so the air smelled like leaves and chimney-fire and Thanksgiving and autumn. It was an away game, played against an old junior high that was housed in what looked like an insane asylum from the 1920s. (Imagine a lot of crumbling red brick and rusted cyclone fencing.) They played on a sunken field down a hill from the school on a gridiron that was mostly dirt. (I remember having a hard time finding any traction with my cleats.) I know talking about a junior-high football game sounds like a silly example of this kind of magic, but when you’re 13 years old, winning one game seems like the most important thing in the world.
Here’s a bad one: In the summer before my senior year, a friend of mine got into an awful car accident, and a mutual friend of ours — a young girl — got killed. I remember pulling up to the wreck with some other friends of mine. It was on a narrow road that led from a midsize highway into a more wooden, suburban area. It was a misty night — my friend had lost control of his car on the slick pavement — and the wet haze was ablaze with the red and blue flash of emergency vehicles. Another friend of ours who lived in the neighborhood came up to us and told us what had happened. Later at the hospital, we happened to walk in just as the mother of the girl who died was given the news. I’ve never, ever forgotten her screams. I can remember every detail, every smell, every sensation of that night. It was fucking awful, but again — a sense of magical unreality saturated the night.
Here’s one that was both bad and good: My senior year of high school, I got into a car accident. I fell asleep at the wheel, slammed into a telephone pole and rolled my itty-bitty escape-pod car down a ravine. I lost about 10 minutes of memory before the crash. The first thing I remember is coming to by the side of the road. The feeling of unreality settled over me quickly this time. I remember thinking, “I’ve been in a car accident, and this is what it’s like.” I was hyper-mindful, intensely aware of every sound. (I couldn’t see because my eyes were closed; one of them was blackened pretty badly.) The paramedics told me not to move my head because my neck and spine might have been damaged. Holy shit. I’ve seldom been more frightened. But later at the hospital, I got scanned and cleared and congratulated for being such a nice, brave kid. My mom showed up, having only received a terse phone call summoning her to the hospital. What she arrived to see was me sitting up in the emergency room, leaves stuck in my hair, one eye blackened shut — and I was smiling my ass off. She looked like she was about to barf, she was so worried, but all was well. I’d weathered an ordeal and emerged in one piece. The significance wasn’t even lost on me and my idiotic 17-year-old brain.
In all three cases, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening.” I said it in different ways, in different tones and with different intentions, but I meant it every time, and in all cases, I sensed the magic that attends an important life event. Sometimes these events are pretty small in the grand scheme of things — a junior-high football game, for example — but other times, they’re life-changing.
The bloody shower scene in Gone Girl made me feel that same dark magic. It’s an audacious ending in the Grand Guignol tradition — gory and bold and fucking bonkers. If you haven’t read Jim Thompson’s novel The Getaway, do yourself a favor and read it right away. Not only is it a crackling crime novel, but it also features one of the most surreal, disturbing endings to anything I’ve ever read. When it dawned on me that Nick was going to be trapped with Amy for all time, I flashed on The Getaway and the existential hell Thompson cooked up for his two crooks. But getting back to Gone Girl: Up until the shower scene, I was pretty disgusted with the movie’s gender politics, but that scene … damn. It just washed over me. I fell under the movie’s spell.
I can’t get on board with everything in it or everything about it. I feel like the novel and the movie have done some damage to the national conversation. But I have to admit — it has real power.