SPOILER WARNING: The entire film, including the ending, is discussed at length.
Gone Girl starts as a straightforward mystery with a dash of ambiguity. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), comes home on his fifth anniversary to discover that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone. As the cops investigate, clues point to the notion that Nick might have killed his wife, accentuated by his uncharacteristically friendly demeanor. As the cops dig into the case, it’s clear the marriage was in trouble.
Reinforcing this idea are flashbacks from Amy’s diary. It starts as a tale of two people deeply in love but then takes a dark turn into stories of physical abuse and an unborn child. Narrated by Rosamund Pike, these sections are easily the weakest portion of the film, almost pure exposition and where the film’s status as a book adaptation is most apparent.
The flashbacks are partially redeemed by down-to-earth performances by Affleck and Pike. The couple’s transformation from charming socialites to a bitter, resentful marriage works best because both performers are able to convey the conflicting emotional turmoil effectively in the little space each scene gives them. While these diary entries would have been compelling in Gillian Flynn’s source material, in the film, it’s a clunky device.
The audience and Nick discover that Amy isn’t missing, she staged her kidnapping and framed Nick for it. What become a simple mystery thriller (albeit, masterfully crafted) dives into the deep ether of marital and relational conflict. We discover that Amy weaves an entire fiction of fictional abuse amid a lot of general truths about their former affections for and then growing resentment of each other.
And perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Amy creates a fiction into her marriage. Her mother, Marybeth Elliott (Lisa Banes), is the bestselling author of the Amazing Amy children’s book series. These books take liberally from Amy’s own childhood, but embellish Amy’s own life into a series of extraordinary events. But when Amy finds her own life far too ordinary, she weaves it into tragedy to justify her drastic form of escape from this life.
These lies are rooted in seeds of truth. Nick and Amy were growing apart, but Amy is quick to displace all troubles onto Nick. This gets amplified as the media portrayal of events begins to demonize Nick as more of his faults emerge, especially when it’s revealed that his ongoing affair with one of his students emerges. Nick is a flawed human being, and the film never strays from that; by his own admission, he’s not a good person.
Later in the film, Nick also admits that he believes he deceived Amy into believing he was someone he wasn’t. He pretended to be someone he’d like to be, but was never actually that person. While an admirable effort to show the more complicated tensions at work in marriage, Nick’s deception doesn’t play as well in the cinema as Amy’s violent revenge which is a far more sensational, visually arresting story.
This mastermind plan of Amy’s to frame Nick for her death brings up some complicated notions. At times, it seems the film borderlines on some sort of fear of feminism. The anxiety of a man’s life being ruined by criminal accusations permeate the film once the audience discover that Amy is alive. Nick finds one of Amy’s old boyfriends and discovers she accused him of rape when he tried to get out of her controlling reach.
One of the interesting turns in Amy’s on the run narrative is when she encounters a couple of simple people. This story mirrors Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” a story where a highly educated woman attempts to seduce one of the simple, naive fools she looks down on: a bible salesmen. But it turns out that she is the one who is had when he decides to take advantage of her.
In Gone Girl, Amy also looks down on people she sees as the stupid and simple. However, it’s her own meticulous, brilliant scheme of evil that becomes undone by the simple evils of a white trash couple that decides to rob her. While being robbed the woman suggests Amy gets off easy because they’re are plenty of people more wicked than them in the world. And, much like O’Connor’s short story, it’s a reminder of how little control Amy actually has in the grand scheme of things.
It’s this that turns her into the arms of her long-time stalker Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), a rich socialite who gives her shelter in his lake house. But when he attempts to woo her, she hatches another revenge plan on another man who does not seem to deserve his fate. It echos strains of the final moments of Jeanne Dielman, but it’s played far more for sensational shock than narrative shock. While she’s also unknowable like Jeanne, it’s because Amy is an alien, psychopathic figure.
Because of Amy’s psychopathic, manipulative behavior, the film displays anxieties of women controlling, manipulating, and blackmailing men. In the final act, Amy returns home, tells a story of how her stalker kidnapped her and how she’s lucky to be alive. At a cursory glance the story doesn’t hold up, but just about everyone is quick to buy into the lie. Of course, Nick isn’t won over but find himself trapped in a marriage with a woman he fears.
It’s hard to come out of Gone Girl not having a terribly cynical view of women based on Amy’s psychopathic behavior in the film. Even other female characters’ come across as evil. Nick’s mistress is quick to victimize herself even though she’s the one who throws herself on Nick in one scene in the film. Amy’s mother is the epitome of arrogant and condescending.
There are some respites from the cynical view. Nick’s twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), serves as both his moral compass and emotional support. She’s quick to remind him that she loves him no matter what, but also quick to challenge him when he needs it. Also, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), the local cop working the case is one of the few people who seems to follow the truth to its ends instead of jumping to conclusions about Nick based on his unusual behavior.
It might be best to read Gone Girl as a cultural fiction that is stripped away. Amazing Amy tells the ideal story, one that Amy finds out isn’t true. As a reaction, Amy tries to weave two separate, incongruent stories. The first is a story of pure victimization where she is not culpable or responsible for any of the problems in her marriage. The other is a story of an idyllic, happy marriage redeemed through a steadfast love, one hiding the undercurrent of manipulation and control. Both fictions lead to nightmarish existences that pits men and women against each other.
The film bookends with Nick wondering, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?” While reinforcing Amy’s alien status as a psychopath, it also ponders over the damage both have inflicted, realizing in the final moments that it’s not so much who’s responsible for evil, but that there’s a mutual culpability for the damaged marriage. If the rest of the film could demonstrate that, Gone Girl might be a great film instead of simply a good one.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing