Hit me, baby, one more time
David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’, reviewed

(The following review of Gone Girl (2014) contains a necessary plot spoiler. If you're planning to see the film and have no knowledge of the plot, perhaps read this afterwards. – ed.)

David Fincher makes beautiful, ugly films. Films that look terrific – packed with audacious but not overbearing camera work; impeccably colour-graded; elegantly costumed and styled – and which sound even better. Fincher began his career as a director of music videos, and it still shows. Beginning with The Social Network (2010), his film about Facebook, Fincher has forged a creative alliance with the musicians and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who also give Gone Girl, his latest thriller, a suitably nerve-racking score.

But Fincher’s cinematic art turns on violence – acts of violence, dreadful intimations of violence – and, more often than not, women are its target. This in itself isn’t quite enough to make me suspicious of him, though it does make me irritated, and bored. What troubles me more are the ways in which that violence is subtly stylised, and subtly justified, so that the glossy visual perfection of Fincher’s filmic rapes and murders are presented at once as entertainment and philosophy. If Fincher is the Hitchcock of our times, and he has been described as such, what he lacks in the end is Hitchcock’s hallucinatory, entirely over-determined visual symbolism. The sexism of Fincher’s films is more insidious than Hitchcock’s, for appearing to be more sober.

Gone Girl might represent the tipping point – though, given the film’s generally rave reviews so far, maybe it won’t. The film is based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel of the same name, which has been a global bestseller. Flynn has also written the screenplay for this movie. This fact will, for some viewers, represent a first line of defence against the accusation – and it is my accusation, here – that the film is toxically misogynist. How can it be, if a woman wrote it? The question makes little sense, to me – as if women are incapable of internalising the kind of stories that the world wants to tell about us.

The story that Gone Girl tells is that women are manipulative, deceitful and very, very powerful. Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike) is a paragon of New York privilege: beautiful, cultured and the beneficiary of generous trust fund, thanks to her writer parents having turned a version of her childhood into a series of best-selling books. Amy marries Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a man of humbler origins, who loses his job as a journalist during the 2008 financial crisis, and persuades his wife to move back with him to his home state of Missouri. Their palatial suburban house is mortgaged in Amy’s name, as is the local bar, which Nick manages with his twin sister.

Nick is, in other words, emasculated – his wife has the most of the smarts and all of the money. Fincher specialises in emasculated men: men like the narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club (1999), Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) in The Social Network, or the nervy, lost Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Zodiac (2007), still Fincher’s best film. Women nag at these men and fail to believe in them. Worst of all, women go shopping. Gone Girl is, on one level, a satire on the narcissistic greed of our contemporary world, where media and consumption amount to much the same thing. Amy, we are asked to believe, is fundamentally damaged, in part because she has always been a product – the Amazing Amy of her parents’ books – before she is a person. Her husband is helpless in the face of this ultimate consumer object, his own wife. Pike doesn’t inhabit her role so much as levitate above it: her Amy is a kind of Barbie doll, unnervingly vacant in appearance and affect, yet somehow, in intent, a criminal mastermind. 

I haven’t read Flynn’s novel, so I can’t say whether or not it affords equal weight to its two unreliable narrators, Amy and Nick, and their wholly divergent versions of a crumbling marriage. The film is stacked in Nick’s favour. Its classical three-act structure begins and ends with his narration; his voice is the trustworthy one. On the morning of the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary he returns home from a self-pitying rendezvous at the bar with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon), to discover that Amy is missing, possibly dead. He quickly becomes the chief murder suspect, especially in the eyes of a rapacious, and largely female, tabloid media pack – “I’m sick of being picked upon by women,” he complains. But it turns out that Amy isn’t dead. She isn’t even really missing.

Gone Girl fails as a crime thriller in part because it is far too long – none of Fincher’s major feature films have clocked in at less than two hours, and several run closer to three – but mostly because the distribution of its sympathies are so uneven. It is impossible to discuss the plot without giving the game away, but I’m going to do it because the architecture of the story is bound up with its misogyny, so here goes: Amy faked it all. She faked her disappearance and murder because she resents her husband’s selfishness and dependency, and it turns out that this isn’t the first time she’s brought a good man down. In the words of an ex-boyfriend, “She’s graduated from faking rape to faking murder.”

The film’s depiction of Amy as, almost literally, a blood-soaked succubus, is so florid that I kept waiting for it to take another twist – to show us why and how this is the narrative that we want to fall for. Gillian Flynn has previously lamented the lack of “good, potent female villains”, which only tells me that she hasn’t looked very hard for them. Eve, Medea, the Wicked Witch of the West, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction – there is no shortage of female archetypes of evil. That women are responsible for bringing sin and suffering into the world is, thanks to the book of Genesis, a founding myth of Western culture. It is not that women are incapable of violence or evil, but Gone Girl tells us nothing about why this particular woman might be so bad, apart from suggesting that she’s deranged – and mad, bad women are hardly a new idea in literature or in cinema.

Gone Girl has sold more than 6 million copies in hardcover alone, and the film was expected to take $35 million at the US box office this past weekend. What does it say about us, in a society where domestic violence and rape are actually on the rise, that Gone Girl is so popular? I think it says that we still want to keep assuring ourselves that when women talk about rape and violence, they are making it up. That we are lying, scheming bitches. In one of the film’s closing scenes, Nick slams Amy’s head against the bedroom wall in frustration at her continued hold over him. We are invited, quietly, to wonder if he might be justified in doing so. And that makes me feel crazy. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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