The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Gone Girl

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article In the many months I've spent putting off writing about Gone Girl, I've learned that Gone Girl is a hard movie to write about. It didn't help that most of the critical writing on the film has taken one of the two positions: either Amy Dunne is the non-ironic embodiment of every ridiculous patriarchal fear about "unruly women", and hence the movie is itself irredeemably misogynist; or Amy is a heroic feminist figure, breaking free from the patriarchal structures that have circumscribed her freedom and determined her social identity and finally taking control of her own narrative. Since the first time I watched it, neither of these interpretations has sat right with me, and I think that there being roughly the same number of smart pieces arguing each side is an indication that the power dynamics explored here are more complex.

Upon a recent subsequent viewing, it occurred to me that the central tension in the film may not be between men and women, but between individual and collective identity. The intra-filmic society it sets up is media-saturated and hyper-surveillant, with the forces of advertising and mass media constantly perpetuating these popular archetypes in commodified form. As an off-shoot, pretty much every character performs in an attempt to fulfil one of these categories while simultaneously perceiving everyone around them as genuine types. Of course, this practice of flattening a complex person into a pre-packaged role is inherently naïve and circumscribing. It's also a form of emotional self-protection rooted in deep insecurity: if a person feels that they won't be liked for being themselves, they perform to fit a type, and it's easier to see a person as a type with certain easy-to-categorize feelings and behavioural patterns than to accept their fundamental unknowability (Nick's fear of this is established in the very first, prologue-like scene, as he lies with Amy's head on his chest, fantasizing about unspooling her thoughts so he can totally understand and therefore possess her).

This theme of identity projection as a method of containment is established early on, in a subtle, off-hand way. During the flashback to their first meeting at a party, Nick charms Amy by fitting all the guests around them into broad stereotypes based on the slightest of physical markers: he refers to a group of men with long beards and pale complexions as "the Amish"; speculates that a thoughtful-looking young man in thick-rimmed glasses and tweed is boring his company by droning about his post-grad literary thesis; and pins a moustachioed, pork pie hat wearer as a hipster so addicted to irony that he can't say anything without transforming it into a self-reflexive joke. What they fail to realize is that others also have the power to project onto them.

Amy has spent the vast majority of her life being treated as an object onto which people - almost unanimously patriarchs or unwitting agents of patriarchy - could project their fears and insecurities. She's highly projected onto by her parents, Nick (who barely even conceives of her having an independent life) and the culture at large. Her parents used her as the inspiration for a series of kid's adventure books - Amazing Amy - thus using her visage as the basis for an idealized model she couldn't hope to live up to. Nick is trying to flatten her into an object, an object that only exists in reality as she exists inside his own head. She understands the power of this, she was charmed by lies, lies which were themselves born of insecurity. Amy lays out her grievances in the already infamous "cool girl" speech:

"Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. Cool Girl. Men always use that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Cool Girl is fun. Cool Girl is game. Cool Girl is hot. Cool Girl never gets angry at her man. She only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner and then presents her mouth for fucking. Go ahead! Cum on me! I don't mind, I'm Cool Girl. The window dressing varies. The personality's the same. Cool Girl likes what he likes and puts him first and does it all with a fucking smile. [...] When I met Nick I knew he wanted Cool Girl. For him, I was willing to try. I wax-stripped my pussy raw and blew him regularly. I drank bourbon and bantered. I laughed at my mistakes. I made fun of myself. I was game. Nick teased things out in me I didn't know existed: A lightness, a humour, an ease. And I made him smarter, sharper. I inspired him to rise to my level. I forged the man of my dreams. But Nick got lazy. He became someone I did not agree to marry. And he actually expected me to love him unconditionally. Then he dragged me, penniless, to the navel of the country and found himself a newer, younger, easier Cool Girl. You think I would let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No. Never. He doesn't get to fucking win."

Something significant about this speech that often gets overlooked is the fact that Amy acknowledges the extent that her own performativity has created her situation. For a large portion of her life, she was so indoctrinated in the viewpoints of a sexist society she didn't even realize that patriarchal viewpoints were shaping her thoughts and behaviour. Men have created the language and standards by which she's come to understand her whole world, and how she's come to understand herself. Popular fictions threaten to circumscribe her subjectivity, to transform her into a mere image to be manipulated by men, and she's intentionally been trying to fit these images in order to fit into society, to be seen as 'right'.

Nick is a casual sexist who's managed to convince himself of his own decency. From his perspective, it helps that he's surrounded by more overtly misogynistic characters against which he can favourably measure himself, such as his father, who refers to an uncooperative police officer as a "stupid, ugly bitch", and Amy's ex-boyfriend Desi, who reacting to Amy dumping him by stalking her, threatening her, and ultimately attempting suicide. Nick's sexism is more subtle and harder to pin down, more down to apathy and complacency than active aggression. He has a deep victim complex (at one point, he muses to himself, "why am I always being picked apart by women?"), is dismissive of female authority figures, and views himself as the rational one in any situation he's placed in.

It's not until Amy discovers that Nick is having an affair with one of his students that she realizes the extent to which her persona has been circumscribed by the self-protecting lies of men and shallow conception of what she should be to him. This realization leads not only to intense resentment, but also paranoia, an undermining of her sense of identity. She thus sets about breaking out of this socially determined mould and becoming the author of her own identity - a process that literally requires a great deal of plotting, lying, and planting false leads, treating her life as a narrative that needs to be controlled and re-routed. She realises that social projection and narratives shape how people use her, and therefore, usurps this power to use it to her play her own game.

The problem is, she's become so embedded in the logic of patriarchy that her "breaking free" of her established identity doesn't involve the formation of an independent identity in opposition to these pop images, but merely a transforming into another archetype - one defined wholly by its opposition to matriarchal norms. Even though she now understands the logic of social construction, she's circumscribed by it; she hasn't formed her own unique perspective or shaken off the influence of men entirely, and she's no closer to truly expressing herself. She's finally able to self-consciously mould her public image, controlling spectatorship and the images that determine how others view her, but her freedom is restricted to picking and choosing between a number of elements from an existing vocabulary that circumscribes public feminine identity. It's not quite creating, not quite reclaiming agency.

Thus, Amy's public persona is cleanly split into two categories, both of which are highly affected, and both of which are patriarchal constructs - innocent/angelic Amy and evil whore Amy (who's a toxic embodiment of every common misogynistic, patriarchal fear - falsified rape accusations, forced pregnancy etc. - all of which, of course, reveal themselves under any sort of scrutiny to merely be projections stemming from male insecurity). This is the only kind of subjectivity that Amy can conceive of, with no acknowledgement that there's anything in-between.

This trajectory from object to active subject is one on which a great deal of feminist fiction is based, but what's odd about Gone Girl is it begins where most stories of this ilk end, with Nick - whose oppressed wife has finally escaped his grasp - now being placed in the feminine position of being an object of others' fantasies. After Amy's disappearance, he's thrust into the public spotlight, and all the surrounding characters try to fit him into a preconceived role, based on slight clues. Thus his slouchy body language, laid-back demeanour (making an awkward joke about feeling like he's in a Law & Order episode shortly after being taken to the police station) and general ignorance of Amy's personal life are largely perceived not as signs of everyday aloofness and self-absorption, but conclusive proof of his pathological callousness and lack of remorse. Every of one his tossed-off gestures and ill-conceived pieces of phrasing manipulated by those who are against him to reinforce their negative mental image.

The most extreme example of this occurs when Nick is pressured into taking a selfie by a volunteer during a search party, during which he off-handedly smiles, his action isn't taken for what it is - a misguided but ultimately insignificant gesture brought about by his disorientation - but a sure sign of his sociopathic indifference. When it circulates online and in the news media, it accumulates a myriad of negative reactions all trying to use it to suss out Nick's sadistic psychological state; a game of techno-Chinese Whispers that warps a person's image until it no longer bears any resemblance to the actual individual. As douche-y details from his personal life (i.e. the fact that he was having an affair with one of his creative writing students) increasingly become unveiled, these accusations increasingly seem less like logical conclusions and more fuelled by the already existing biases these characters hold towards the type of over-grown jock Nick appears to be.

Like Amy, he longs to break free from these constraints by gaining subjectivity, and, like Amy, the only way he can do this is not by asserting his true self, but by self-consciously embodying a different kind of archetype. Tanner Bolt, the lawyer Nick hires after hearing of his stellar reputation for clearing men accused of murdering their wives, acts less like a legal advisor than a PR manager, or even an acting coach. His techniques mostly focusing on coaching Nick on what to say and how to carry himself when conducting public appearances; culminating in the moment where he teaches Nick how he should act on an upcoming talk show by asking him a question, then throwing a gummy bear at his head whenever he appears "smug or annoyed or tense", as well as elaborately instructing him on what information to divulge and what to selectively leave out. Nick also seeks out testimonies from Amy's ex-boyfriends pertaining to her villainous nature; all of which, as it happens, are likely coloured by resentment, bitterness and self-interest, but none of which are interrogated by Nick at this point because they flatter his perspective.

And the turning point for both characters occurs when they accept the impossibility of living a life in which they're not transformed into a type by an omnipresent audience, and instead of trying to assert their individuality commit to taking on the appearance of personas that are thoroughly fake but will help them to accomplish their end goals. Crucially, these lies don't even have to be even particularly convincing or well thought-through, what matters most is that they flatter the on-lookers' desire for easy narratives and pop psychology. The film then transforms into an elaborate power-play between a group of individuals who are trying to control the narrative they see their life as being in order to obtain some vague goal. Whereas, at first, Nick tries to assert his own innocence by amassing concrete, objective evidence, and is continuously undermined by the media, who twist every piece of evidence into signs of his guilt, he gains control by embracing moral flexibility.

For Nick, this ultimately means making a public apology - admitting to lapsing into destructive behaviour in the past but absolving himself of any serious crime, and pinning his and Amy's disaffection on a simple narrative of a guy who pretended he could live up to his outstanding wife's standards during their early period, then devolved into apathy. The ironic consequence of this is that when Amy views the broadcast she perceives his affected guilt, ridiculous aggrandizing of her, and grovelling promises that if she comes home he'll "be the man that [he] promised [he] would be" as being genuine, and hence sets about finding a way to return to her previous home.

Desi is chronically insecure to the point of being controlling and possessive, to the extent that he forces Amy to wears the clothes she used to wear while they were dating and resents the idea of her even watching a broadcast of Nick being interviewed. All this makes him an easy target to be pinned as a sadistic kidnapper and sexual predator, particularly coupled with his documented history of being committed to a mental institution. The fact that Desi's publicly-constructed image of the bitter, sexually repressed, beta male psychopath is the diametric opposite of the entitled jock-player turned sadist image that Nick was burdened with is an added irony.

Of course, Amy's story is filled with gaps and inconsistencies, which the public wilfully overlook because this lie tied together all the loose ends in a neat package - a messy reality is transformed into a simple fiction (a slightly stale but more-or-less happy marriage was intruded upon by an extremely unstable psychopath, who was then disposed of so the marriage could be reconciled) that justifies all their paranoid fears while simultaneously re-assuring themselves of their moral superiority.

As with every film Fincher has made since Zodiac (with the exception of Benjamin Button), Gone Girl is also - in part - about the shift from analogue to digital systems of information. In Fincher's worldview, digitization has rendered every piece of evidence disposable, short-lived and easy to manipulate; grounded not in the permanent physicality of analogue, but the plastic flexibility of digital, it's quickly forgotten about as soon as a more appealing one appears that appears to efface it. Instead of taking a typical procedural approach (one clue leads to another, which leads to another, gradually accumulating small truths until the wider, objective picture is revealed), the characters of Gone Girl simply utilize clues to try to convince others of their already-conceived version of events.

Furthermore, Gone Girl's vision of a society characterized by perpetual surveillance and self-objectification, in which the boundary between private and public have dissolved entirely, is intrinsically linked to the rise of digital culture. Individuals imagine themselves as the subject of their own grand stories in order to lend their lives neatness and meaning. Everyone is hyper-self-consciousness and always in a state of putting on a performance in an effort to mould the views others hold of them to match their own idealized self-image. And everyone has their own network of public information which they can control in order to carry out this manipulation.

Throughout his career, Fincher has displayed an intense interest in the inner workings of sociopaths - which is why when a person thinks of Fincher's oeuvre, the moments that tend to come most readily to mind tend to be Tyler Durden's nihilistic tirades, John Doe's meticulously organised murder mechanisms, and Mark Zuckerberg's misanthropic rants. Even Fincher's more conventionally heroic protagonists often exhibit traits (such as the all-consuming obsession and emotional isolationism of Zodiac's Robert Graysmith and Seven's William Somerset) that are faintly sociopathic. However, Fincher's usually restrained by the more conventionality of the source material he's working with (Fincher is a very old-school auteur, in that he's managed to maintain a striking thematic consistency even though he's never written an original script), which tends to give the central sociopath a violent comeuppance, thereby re-establishing the authority of the good (Seven); "correct" the central sociopath (Fight Club); or explicitly re-affirm the loneliness and dissatisfaction of the central sociopath in contrast to the happiness of the more well-adjusted characters (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and to a certain degree Zodiac). Gone Girl, however, sets up a moral system where everybody is roughly as spiteful, conniving, narcissistic and mean-spirited as one another, and sympathy is aligned with certain characters not because they're morally just, but because they're intelligent and opportunistic enough to get what they want.

This may sound a little over-simplified, but if I was going to compartmentalize Fincher's oeuvre, I'd pair Gone Girl with The Social Network (I'd also pair Zodiac with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that's a different matter altogether), and not only because they both document sexual neuroses being played out on a global scale. The Social Network connects Zuckerberg's gradual cutting himself off from everybody around him to feed his narcissistic self-regard with the web's compartmentalize of space, endowing every one of its users with a page that can be carefully manipulated and edited to put across whatever self-image you want to perpetuate. This, of course, is the ideal mode of expression for Zuckerberg, whose intelligence, self-consciousness, and erudition make him extremely awkward in person but great at producing online content, and the physical gulf allowed by social media also provides distance from emotional pain (it's hard for him to express his still-lingering romantic feelings towards Erica in person but easy to send her a friend request). The ambiguities and uncertainties of person to person contact is done away with, flattened into the concrete exchange of information that marks digital interaction; logical thinking and careful articulation overtaking the need for emotional connection and in-the-moment living that the Zuckerberg was unable to commit to. The system may have been created for the purpose of justifying Zuckerberg's own narcissism, but it also fostered it, in a perpetual feedback loop. The Social Network is essentially a geeks-vs-jocks college comedy writ extra-large, and its central joke is that Zuckerberg's mode of thinking is no longer considered marginalized or abject, but now dominates our increasingly tech-mediated culture. While The Social Network charts the origins of networked sociality and digital self-commodification, Gone Girl - which is set roughly a decade later - explores the ways in which its language has bled into society at large, shaped our inner lives, and coloured the way we view ourselves and others.

Gone Girl ends on a downbeat note that's designed to leave the viewer with a bitter taste in their mouth. The ending that immediately came to mind was Eyes Wide Shut; like Kubrick's film, Gone Girl is a twisted riff of the traditional "marriage melodrama" subgenre. A film of this kind typically begins with its protagonists feeling stifled in a long-term relationship that's lost its lustre. These tensions arise from pretty conventional, mundane problems - commitment to professional role, stress of children, boredom with domesticity, etc. Their desire to flee is usually represented in the form of an opportunity to literally escape from the situation, often the introduction of a new romantic interest one of the leads gravitates towards. Most of the time, the stability of the familial institution is temporarily shaken, but is ultimately becomes re-patched: secrets are disclosed, long-simmering problems gotten to the bottom of, new vows made, and the characters' love is re-vitalized.

Both Eyes Wide Shut and Gone Girl take this basic form and stretch it to existential extremes: both revolve around the paranoia that arises when one spouse's sudden realisation of the other's fundamental obscurity, their ability to have desires and thoughts that exist totally independently of them. However, the final reconciliation at the end of Eyes Wide Shut is framed as optimistic, as both parties come to an acceptance of the wilfulness blindness on which all substantial romantic relationships have to be built - wilful blindness may be a lesser off-shoot of trust, but this decision is still portrayed as being, in its own way, heroic. Gone Girl, on the end, explicitly resigns its couple to a lifetime of unhappiness, seemingly united by a mix of mutual miscomprehension, societal pressures, a fear that they won't find anybody else who'll be willing to accept them, and an implied degree of mutual, perverse admiration. If in the typical melodrama, both characters undergo a trajectory that involves realizing their own individual flaws and mutually bettering themselves, so they may once again come together in a peaceful and content union, Nick and Amy only realize the depths of their own sociopathy.

This Alternate Take was published on March 08, 2015.

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