[Couple of spoilers ahead. Probably shouldn’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.]
David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) took the tone of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and transplanted it to the situation facing married couples today. (Another critic agrees with this view here.) In the earlier film, a producer on the verge of losing his job kills a scriptwriter in a fit of rage. The film ends with that producer attaining the American Dream. With inconclusive evidence against him, and a younger and better looking wife, he pulls up to his new home (complete with flag on the lawn) just as another scriptwriter pitches a fictional film based on the story of his successful murder. The movie is a guaranteed blockbuster and a further boost to the producer’s career – the name of the script is “The Player”.
Gone Girl gives us the same cynicism and similarly unlikable characters, but unlike The Player, we see two characters (read: two perspectives) duped into their prearranged and difficult to navigate societal roles. The shock of the narrative is its utter lack of a mystery. The movie was sold to us as a story of a missing wife, whose husband is likely responsible, and this is what we see in the first act. The plot then jumps from the husband’s tale of confusion and anger, to the wife, Amy Dunne, on the run. She had staged her disappearance and inevitable death to get back at her apparently awful husband. However, when that plan backfires and it is shown that she’s no better a wife (perhaps even Evil), she returns to husband Nick and forces him to keep up the appearance that he did, in fact, miss her. We learned in the first act that Nick was rather optimistic about his lost wife – his relationship with a younger woman need no longer be inhibited by the sacred vows of matrimony.
In the middle of the film the story leaps back and forth between Nick and Amy as they battle each other from afar: the former pretends to miss his wife on talk shows in such a way that when she watches, she’ll know he’s full of shit; Amy plants clues for Nick to hint at her evil plans to destroy him. Whether he deserves this treatment is never clear and I really don’t think it matters. Similar to The Player and its use of allegory (murder) to show us the dark side of Hollywood, Gone Girl develops this cat-and-mouse game of two (somewhat) ordinary individuals who simply don’t know what to do about marriage.
The final act has husband and wife reunite. Here the film turns into the darkest comedy we’ve seen since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The necessity for Nick to feign desperation over his lost wife, acted out to keep the cops and media from thinking him responsible for her disappearance, combined with Amy’s confabulated story about her disappearance in order to safely return to her (more) comforting life with Nick, is deeply unsettling. It attempts to draw a likeness between this tale and the many couples whom we know (but not ourselves, surely). When Amy and Nick then declare in a TV interview that the next step, now that they’ve finally found each other, is to have a baby, we can’t help but cringe and think of the times in which either ourselves or our friends adopted a pet or got pregnant to cover up boredom and prolong the relationship.
The telos of marriage is supposed to be Good, but what novelist and scriptwriter Gillian Flynn tells us is that marriage is everything except Good and good. Or, more interestingly, marriage ain’t what it used to be. And this distance from traditional marriage, allegorized as it is in the film, will eventually end up being a good thing. Gone Girl, like Blue Valentine (2010), suggests we’re not quite there yet and neither gender knows what to do with these shifting roles, the increasing ease of divorce, and the imperative to endlessly enjoy ourselves. Is it a surprise that the catalyst for the crumbling relationship is Nick’s refusal to commit and participate in monogamy? (What does Nick Dunne like about college girls? He keeps getting older, but they stay the same age.) And are we surprised that when Amy acts as the breadwinner, the equal balance of control and freedom between husband and wife catastrophically misfires? Amy shows us that she wanted the same amount of control over her husband as men used to enjoy over their wives.
The film is neither misogynist nor feminist – such a discussion misses the point. Gone Girl is purely descriptive, albeit in an allegorical and satirical mode. Elif Batuman suggests something similar in a review for The New Yorker:
“Gone Girl” is as much about the near impossibility of being a good husband as it is about the anguish of being a good wife. The bat-shit preposterousness of the marital “accord” ultimately reached by Nick and Amy is an indictment of the state of marriage, and of heterosexual relations more broadly.
Although I agree the film is damning of marriage, I propose that rather than condemn the institution outright, the description of it in the film is more ambiguous; perhaps, not all marriage is bad, but we’re no longer sure how to have a successful one.
Forthcoming, brief article on Affleck’s and Pike’s physicality in the film…