Note: The following review contains massive spoilers for both the novel and movie, because a) I’m going to assume a lot of people have already read Gone Girl anyway, and b) it’s simply impossible to dig into the movie in any meaningful way without giving away important plot points.
Let me begin by saying what I love about Gone Girl as a novel (apart from a truly gripping plot). Mostly what I love is its uncanny ability to identify and then amplify the tensions that underwrite many a romantic relationship. Its melodrama is always rooted in reality and, as such, it systematically exposes how very dysfunctional the underpinnings of these apparently functional relationships truly are. Everyone in Gone Girl is playing a role, but not just because they wish to deceive; they construct certain personas—become, to an extent, the personas they construct—because that is simply the way social interaction works. As Nick Dunne says at one point:
I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.
The vision of performativity that Nick offers is a particularly bleak one, but it proves truly catastrophic when it intersects with cultural norms surrounding gender. Nick and Amy do not encounter one another as two “actual people.” They do not even encounter each other as two people striving to be on their best behavior in order to impress. They meet as cultural types of masculinity and femininity, respectively. Nick is the “good ole Missouri boy” who woos Amy with “witty banter,” “clever games,” and a kind of aw-shucks, effortless charm. Amy, (in)famously, is the “Cool Girl”—the girl who “plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.” And where each partner exists only as a fantasy—a chimerical hybrid of societal expectations projected and enacted—disappointment and anger are almost inevitable. The grisly fallout of Nick and Amy’s courtship simply ratchets up to eleven a (perhaps the) central problem of so many relationships: how can the qualities we are told make for a successful marriage—honesty, open communication, and so on—even be possible when both partners are so weighed down by cultural baggage?
I say all this because, while David Fincher’s take on Gone Girl is good—maybe even excellent—as a stand-alone piece, it falls short where an adaptation truly needs to succeed; it fails to fully capture the spirit of its source, and Allison Willmore does a particularly good job of explaining why. Where the novel unfolds as a struggle for narrative control between two consummate performers and storytellers, the movie is largely split between first-person narration (Amy, played by Rosamund Pike) and third (Nick, played by Ben Affleck). The upshot is that Nick’s point of view becomes the film’s as well; as Willmore says, “We might doubt [Nick’s] trustworthiness as a character, but we never get a chance to do so as a narrator, which isn’t the case for Amy, whose sections are marked as subjective in a way that Nick’s aren’t.” And when we learn that Amy has staged her own death in order to frame her husband for murder, we begin to believe that Nick truly is the nice guy he claims to be. To be sure, the film gives a nod to Nick’s nastier side when it implies that he ultimately stays with Amy because he finds a twisted kind of fulfillment in the relationship. The Nick that we actually see, though, is at most mildly unpleasant rather than a truly manipulative person in his own right. Gone, for instance, is the off-the-cuff interview Nick gives, complete with fake tears, in an effort to get his wife back, and his inner mantra as he speaks: “Youfuckingbitchyoufuckingbitchyoufuckingbitch. Come home so I can kill you.” Added is a shot of Nick going down on Amy in one of the film’s few reliable flashbacks—a perfectly plausible scene in the context of a long-term relationship, but an interesting choice of emphasis in a movie sketching a quick portrait of that relationship (poor, generous, duped Nick). These apparently minor additions and subtractions continue to pile up over the course of the film, until we are left not so much with a pointed critique of contemporary gender politics, but rather with a story about a hapless man who can’t really be blamed for falling prey to the machinations of an evil femme fatale.
To be clear, I have no interest in claiming Amy as some kind of feminist icon. Amy is an unreliable narrator. She is willing to exploit the most vilely misogynistic beliefs imaginable if it serves her own interests. She is a liar, a murderer, and almost certainly a sociopath.
All that said, there is a rage to her now iconic “Cool Girl” rant that is too compelling to ignore. It’s more than the bitter diatribe of one wife against a two-timing, hypocritical husband; it feels like it’s springing directly from an untapped (and very old) vein of female anger. And it resonated with a lot of people. You may not like or understand what Amy does with her anger, but, at least at that moment of the book, you have no doubts whatsoever about the legitimacy of its source. Thus, in the novel, the turn from “Cool Girl” Amy to “Crazy Bitch” Amy comes across as, yes, extreme and unjustified, but bizarrely fitting; if enacting a fantasy of femininity is not enough to earn Nick’s gratitude, she will transform herself into a vision of femininity as nightmare, staging rape and abuse, faking a pregnancy, and using a real pregnancy to entrap him. (The fact that Amy is, even in her most unhinged moments, still reproducing a culturally-legible form of femininity just makes the social commentary that much richer.)
The problem, in the movie, is that the Cool Girl speech is the only glimpse we get of angry, vengeful Amy. Pike grinds out the speech with admirable bitterness, but for the rest of the movie, she’s cold, cold, cold. The problem isn’t that she’s calculating—novel Amy is that as well—but that she’s remote. She might say she’s angry at Nick, but ultimately, her actions seem to have little to do with rage, simply because she so seems untouched by any emotion at all—except, perhaps, for a kind of petty vindictiveness. So while Anne Petersen might argue that Gone Girl’s “problem” is its lack of Cool Girl Amy, I’m personally inclined to see this as part of a broader gap; ultimately, we simply have very little sense of Amy as a character. Jaimie Etkin gets it exactly right when she says that the movie’s opening shot invites us to share in Nick’s bewildered attempts to comprehend his completely unfathomable wife, and it’s an invitation that the movie extends again and again as the story progresses. Setting to one side the Cool Girl speech, our only windows into Amy’s mind are a handful of diary entries that turn out to be entirely fabricated, and, of course, a string of increasingly immoral actions. A good deal of Pike’s screen time is devoted simply to lingering shots of her pristine, icy beauty. There’s relatively little that’s sexual about these scenes—the camera glides across Amy’s skin as if it were marble—but there’s also very little sense of Amy’s interiority; she’s all surface. Compare this to the rageful, cutting, but perversely relatable monologues we get in the book:
I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. He truly seemed astonished when I asked him to listen to me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That I did mind when he didn’t show up for drinks with my friends…Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?
Ultimately, of course, the disjunction between book and movie has less to do with either Affleck or Pike’s performance than it does with the writing and directing. Even then, I’m inclined to give Fincher the benefit of the doubt; I suspect that the apparent one-sidedness of Gone Girl as a movie is much more a problem of stylistic discordance than of unconscious sexism. Gone Girl is a messy, histrionic book, but the movie, in keeping with much of Fincher’s work, is almost clinical in its detachment. It’s an effective approach so long as the movie is dealing in the more mundanely sordid details of Nick and Amy’s life—Nick’s affair with a college student, the dead-end Missouri town in which Nick and Amy live, etc.—but it fails to work for an over-the-top villain like Amy. To truly know Amy—to see in her not just a sociopath but also an embodiment of pent-up female rage—we need to see her not so much at her darkest (she’s always pretty dark), but at her messiest and most vitriolic.
In fact, it says a lot about Gone Girl that the scene that is quite literally the messiest—Desi Collings’ murder mid-coitus—is also among the most polished. Technically, aesthetically, it could very well be the movie’s finest scene; the slight stylization—buckets of crimson on white sheets, white clothes, and white skin, the grating, groaning soundtrack that blares in time with spurts of Desi’s blood—gives the scene a surreal quality that makes it all the more nightmarish. And Amy too is nightmarish. Despite Pike’s near-nudity in the scene, Amy herself is de-eroticized; instead, there is something deeply, viscerally unsettling about the way Pike’s long, pale limbs are filmed. She looks—and certainly acts—mantis-like, and if I were Alison Willmore, this scene would have been at the front of my mind when talking about the movie “absorb[ing] the edge of misogyny shown by some of its characters” (remember when Nick says that sleeping next to Amy is “like sleeping with a spider”?). This is not to say that Desi’s murder is justified in the novel—it isn’t—but at the same time, Amy’s account of it is laced with such caustic wit that you can’t help but begrudgingly admire her insight:
[I am] faking quick oohs and ahhs, gentle kittenish noises. I try to work up some tears because I know he imagines me crying with him the first time.
“Darling, you’re crying,” he says as he slips out of me. He kisses a tear.
Nick wants Cool Girl, Desi wants to play knight in shining armor by faux-deflowering a woman he’s been keeping locked in his house for a month; even given Amy’s less-than-reliable narration, there is something decidedly unsavory and obsessive about Desi’s attraction to her—he has, after all, kept a specially-designed house ready for her for years—so it’s tempting to share in her disgust, however grotesque her actions. Unfortunately, it is these kinds of nuances that largely fall by the wayside in Fincher’s crisp adaptation, and in the process, Amy herself becomes something mysterious and alien—a vision of femininity as both Other and dangerous.
In the end, then, Fincher’s Amy is both too realistic and not realistic enough. As a character, she is muted enough not to jar in so cool and precise a piece. But in the novel, Amy’s realism lies not in her character (always wildly over-the-top), but rather in her voice. Without this, she lacks the qualities that make the book such an uncomfortable—but fascinating—experience; we don’t want to relate to a character like Amy, but her grasp of the world around her is chillingly convincing. That it is Amy’s anger that ultimately drives the plot of the novel compounds the problem even further; it is not simply that the movie is less trenchant in its social commentary, but that it is simply less entertaining without her beyond-all-bounds, retributive presence looming over it.
Ultimately, though, I can’t be too upset with Fincher’s Gone Girl. It may not do the book justice, but it’s already sparked an almost unprecedented amount of discussion about gender, and that can only be a good thing.
There has been so much written about Gone Girl that I couldn’t possibly link to every article worth reading. However, in addition to the links I’ve included within this post, you may want to check out some of the following:
Other Information: Gone Girl was published in June 2012 by Crown Publishers. Find out more about it on Goodreads. The movie Gone Girl is a 20th Century Fox film directed by David Fincher, starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, and Tyler Perry. Its soundtrack was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Visit its official site, or find out more about it on IMDB.