David Fincher’s latest, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, prompted the most robust, high decibel, and at times heated car-ride-home-from-the-theater-debate I’ve experienced in years, one that continued all the way back to the apartment and through dinner. This debate dealt not so much with quality, the aesthetics or performances (which are superb), but rather the very nature of the film itself and the intentions of it’s creator. The success or failure of Gone Girl depends so much upon how it’s read and one’s expectations of it that, as much as I’m bothered by hypersensitivity to spoilers, I can’t help but feel the need to issue Moving Pictures’ first true SPOILER ALERT. I’ll try to keep mention of specific plot points to a minimum, but if you plan to see this film and haven’t, and especially if you have not read the book (like me), you might want to save this article for later. So, that being said…
Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a self proclaimed corn-fed Missouri boy whose New York socialite wife Amy (the relatively unknown Rosamund Pike) disappears in the film’s opening minutes. The first act unfolds as a slickly taut thriller in the same familiar yet effective vein as some of Fincher’s previous efforts (see Zodiac), but that paradigm is soon radically shifted by several key narrative developments and what I saw as a deliberate tonal departure. The remainder of the film morphs into a Mexican standoff of sorts between numerous parties including the police, the local community, the media, a high powered attorney, a former boyfriend, Nick and his twin sister Margo, and surprisingly, the titular Amy. Physical disguises, playfully enigmatic clues, flashbacks and unreliable narrators all play a part and expectations are shattered at every turn. Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, Gone Girl builds to a seemingly unsustainable crescendo of ludicrousness that somehow manages to work, but only on a certain level.
There are several ways audiences might experience this film, the most obvious being as a complex, though stylistically and thematically straightforward crime thriller. Viewed through this lens, Gone Girl is pristinely polished garbage; not only because of its heinously overwrought plot, but also due to its offensive and borderline dangerous messages about women. This film (the “straightforward crime thriller” version) seems intent on justifying every misogynistic nightmare, every antagonistically painted dichotomy of men and women and every backward-ass barstool conversation about bitchy wives ever spoken in the most over-the-top, sensationalist way imaginable. It essentially portrays the shallow, philandering Nick as an unfortunate victim of the wrath of his scorned she-wolf of a wife, ultimately left cowering as a prisoner in his own home at the mercy of Amy’s twisted whims. This is the type of film that will only further entrench the wrongheaded views on gender politics held by the most medieval of ticket buyers.
And then there’s the way I read it: as a farcical send up of the above cited views, a biting satire of media culture, and a metacritique of the criss-cross-double-cross writing that has largely and persistently begun to take the place of real storytelling in American cinema. Though it has been brought to my attention by those close to me that I may be giving Mr. Fincher too much credit here, it’s simply impossible for me accept that this director, one of our finest working today, is unaware of the downright wacky tenor of this work. Filmmaking is a painstakingly deliberate process, truly unintentional mistakes are rare at this level, and to me it makes more sense that Gone Girl is a misunderstood sociopolitical statement rather than a genuine, monumental misstep by the director of The Social Network, Seven and Fight Club (another film that was incorrectly viewed by many as an endorsement of the machismo, rather than an indictment of it).
What’s clear about Gone Girl, regardless of one’s interpretation, is that it’s extremely well made on a number of levels. Affleck is perfectly cast, and I admire the way he capitalizes on his own shortcomings as an actor to create a wholly believable mark in Nick, turning in perhaps his best performance to date. The oft maligned Tyler Perry and perennial awards show host Neil Patrick Harris both shine in showy supporting roles, and Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens as the loyal sister and skeptical detective (respectively) belie accusations of Fincher’s mishandling of female characters in their display of depth and agency. Pike does a fine job as Amy, though counter to what many critics have written, I see Gone Girl, performance wise, as more of an ensemble piece than a clear breakout for its female lead. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created yet another perfectly calibrated score that progresses in lockstep with the jarring moves of the film, and the entire proceedings pop with the cool visual sheen that we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker.
Clearly there’s a high level of subjectivity involved in decoding this film. For me, the only real question remains whether Fincher acted responsibly in assuming that people would get the joke, risking the social consequences of his work being fundamentally misunderstood. My inclination, at this point, is probably not. There’s nothing wrong with challenging audiences; I respect that and we need more of that. But this filmmaker seems to have so subtly embedded his satirical message that it’s bound to fly over heads and under radars, and it’s at that point that Gone Girl takes on a truly damaging tone. And who knows, maybe I’m completely off! Is it more plausible that Fincher repurposed a bestselling airport novel as a feminist treatise, or is he actually playing it straight? If the former is true then I maintain the film’s genius, but if the latter is actually the case, it’s a sad and disappointing blot on Fincher’s otherwise exemplary catalogue.