Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a David Fincher kind of date movie. It begins with a disappearance—pretty wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), relocated from New York to the Missouri hometown of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a failed journalist turned career bartender, vanishes from the couple’s home one morning. There are signs of a struggle. The police investigate. As TV newscasts spotlight the mystery, Nick barely seems distraught. His devotion to his wife proves to have been less than complete, if you get my meaning. And it turns out the police consider him not just a grieving widower but also the prime suspect.

It’s hard to say more about the story without spoiling a serious shifting of gears that happens roughly midway through, when Gone Girl turns pretty abruptly from a wholly conventional murder mystery into a deliberately provocative examination of marriage itself. Suffice it to say that, through a combination of flashbacks and shifting points of view, Gone Girl expands its purview to consider the grittier side of long-term relationships—infidelity, stifling gender roles, and mutual resentment. It’s uncompromised and bracing and highly entertaining.

The adaptation on film automatically does away with one of my main gripes about Gillian Flynn’s best-selling source novel, which was prose style, and emphasizes my favorite aspect, which was the truly demented plotting. I had seriously expected the movie’s story to be transformed to fit a PG-13 template, and became oddly excited when I learned it had received what sounded like a pretty hard R instead. Despite his willingness to go totally Grand Guignol in a key scene, Fincher’s overall approach is perhaps even more clinical than ever — I miss the guy that made Se7en, which has a pulpy immediacy that I don’t think he’s ever quite recaptured — but it’s pretty well suited to the dissection at hand.

MVPs performance-wise are Pike and, even better, an incredibly charming Tyler Perry as Nick’s celebrity attorney. Frustratingly, Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t make much of an impact in an important supporting role, maybe because he never found a way into a character who had to be pretty much shoehorned into a very tight screenplay. Affleck is fine, as usual, but noteworthy mainly for the fundamental awkwardness of his undeniable charisma. None of these people, by the way (save perhaps Perry) is meant to be particularly likable. It’s a chilly movie.

My general feelings while watching the film followed the same rough trajectory they did when I read the book — annoyance at the coy “dear diary” structure of the long first section, grudging admiration at the first big reveal, disdain for the apparent misogyny of the whole affair, and finally a kind of awestruck respect for the bravado driving the whole sick enterprise. (Also, I’m a sucker for a woman in her underwear completely covered in blood, as long as it’s not her blood and especially if she has a really self-satisfied look on her face.) But calling this “sexist” is beside the point. Flynn is deliberately pushing the well-worn noir trope of the femme fatale as far as it will reasonably go in the service of dramatic irony—it pushes all the way past misogyny until it becomes something approaching feminist again. If you need to apply a label to the operative worldview, “profoundly misanthropic” might be a better place to start.

SPOILER TERRITORY:
Still, the scene that’s sticking with me is the one early on, fabricated by ye olde unreliable narrator, in which, during a marital argument, Nick Dunne unexpectedly slams Amy to the ground. Fincher flat-out nails that scene. The audience around me in the theater gasped. I got gooseflesh. My throat closed up. And I had read the book. I knew it was bullshit. And still it fucking terrified me. Thinking about that scene in reflexive terms opens up a view on the house of mirrors that is Gone Girl—Amy Dunne is a woman who has literally been driven insane by the husband who uprooted her from her home, spent the last of her money, and consigned her to forever making small talk among neighbors she loathes while her husband gets to take long walks on the beach in the morning before playing small businessman for the rest of the day. Yes, Flynn has created a monster—the archetypal crazy bitch who will lie about being beaten, being raped, and even being murdered in order to get her way. Some see that as fundamentally sexist fodder for men’s-rights types who feel that women are out to get them, but I read it in part as a twisted empowerment fable. Amy has made up her mind to destroy the man who destroyed her, and her story has to resonate with anyone who’s felt marginalized by their lack of capital in a relationship. While she may be fantastically psychotic, I can’t find it in my heart to condemn her.

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