Gone Girl

Dion Kagan Thursday, 09 October 2014
Published in ABR Arts

In David Fincher’s slick adaptation of Gone Girl, an attractive white woman, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), quickly becomes the prime suspect.

Left behind at their Missouri McMansion are signs of a violent struggle – glass coffee table smashed, antique ottoman overturned, a copious amount of blood mopped up haphazardly from the kitchen floor – although the evidence itself appears to have been at least partially contrived. The revelations and further fabrications this crime scene engenders become a metaphor for this couple’s relationship. Amy and Nick Dunne, both writers who met in New York but have since returned to Nick’s Midwest childhood home after ‘his-and-her layoffs’, are an immaculately curated scene of a couple: she a thin ‘Cool Girl’ too nonchalant to ever nag; he an adorable, corn-fed ‘Good Guy’. 

Closer inspection of Nick and the testimony of a series of diary entries penned by Amy (and delivered in flashbacks and voiceovers) begin to suggest ever more hostile and violent possibilities. The back-story to Amy’s disappearance and the dark heart of Gone Girl are the twisted convolutions of the Dunnes’ relationship. How did Amy disappear? Did Nick kill and dispose of Amy? The answer to these questions compels the drama as much as our prurient fascination with the noxious brew of passive aggression and sociopathic manipulation behind the veneer of this perfect couple.

gone-girl book

The mega-bestseller novel announced its chokehold on readerly imaginations in 2012. The book is a dazzling masterwork of crime writing structured around thrilling cliffhangers, twists, and counter-twists that turn on hairpins, and a domestic noir that see-saws between His and Her perspectives. Both voices, in turns reliable and unreliable, are credible. Its catalogue of clues, strange testimonies, outlandish characters, and trashy news reports magically coheres, in spite of its lurid implausibilities. Beyond the structural pyrotechnics, Gone Girl has also become the exemplification of something of a Zeitgeist of ‘chick noir’ – domestic psychological suspense narratives including Natalie Young’s Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband (2014) and A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife (2013), which autopsy poisonous intimacies, with the added frisson of a missing husband or a murderous wife. It is a well-heeled tradition from Daphne du Maurier to Alfred Hitchcock, buoyed once again by the shifting relational dynamics of our post-feminist, post-GFC, reality TV, and social network mediated universe.

‘The glossy screen adaptation takes careful note of everything satisfying about the novel and translates all it can into 149 minutes of expertly coordinated viewing pleasure’

Adapted by the book’s author, Gillian Flynn, the glossy screen adaptation takes careful note of everything satisfying about the novel and translates all it can into 149 minutes of expertly coordinated viewing pleasure. Rumours circulated about a newly conceived third act, but the narrative is quite faithfully reproduced (with a few small omissions). Its violations of disbelief are deftly smoothed over by skilful shifts in atmosphere and cinematic type: from crime drama to melodrama to erotic thriller to self-conscious satire of all of the above. These shifts are so smooth we may actually require a category beyond ‘baroque’ to describe what is happening to genre in Fincher’s film. Imagine, if you will, Revolutionary Road (2008) crossed with Basic Instinct (1992), and delivered with the suburban display home gloss of Desperate Housewives (2004–12) and the pace of House of Cards (2013–) (which Fincher produced and partly directed). Though it is far better suited to the big screen, this version of Gone Girl owes much to the editing conventions and the cool visual tone of many a quality DVD box set.

Ben Affleck in Gone GirlBen Affleck as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl

The genre cartwheels are also forgivable, because a hideously relatable relationship-turned-sour drama develops. The underside of the marriage plot is the marriage-as-war-sport plot, with a lineage dating back to August Strindberg’s Dance with Death (1900). If the erotic thriller has often brought violence and crime into the domestic realm from outside, the suburban noir turns unflinchingly inward. Gone Girl is a sour yet surprisingly thoughtful bourgeois tragedy for our times, however generously it languishes in our taste for the scandal of perfect couples who secretly hate each other.

There are, of course, moments when the rubbishy tabloid street party or the ironic suburban discontent descends into the ridiculous. But these moments are well distributed and genuinely funny; even in the preposterous final act, neither writer nor director releases the drama or the tension. The performance of Neil Patrick Harris as an ex-lover of Amy’s is a case in point: his work near the end of the film helps to propel it towards a Gothic, nightmare-of-misogyny turning point, but without falling into caricature.

gone-girl-1-600x421Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

There is a whiff of feminist backlash to the film that the novel is much more unresolved about, and this will undoubtedly spark further scrutiny. Fincher can’t quite do justice to the micro-aggressions of everyday domesticity that, in Flynn’s novel, deliver more of Amy’s motivations. Consequently, Affleck’s Nick is more docile. His doleful frustration is more ‘end-of-men’ than the Michael Douglas crisis-of-masculinity rage of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Disclosure (1994). That in itself is insidious: everyday husband sociopathy is much less spectacular than femme fatale manipulation, so we are accustomed to not noticing it. I would like to see Jane Campion direct another version of this film.

The happy couple pretence has become so scripted and overwrought in the Instagram era that perhaps the only approach to it is to keep going. Gone Girl is less about the mystery of what goes on inside your partner’s head than it is about what goes on inside an absurdly perfect relationship. It could be the ultimate anti-date movie, unless an unflinching cynicism about relationships is your seduction modus operandi.

Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. 149 minutes. Released 1 October 2014.

Published in ABR Arts
Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is an erstwhile lecturer in gender studies who is now a book editor and an arts critic.

Comments (4)

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    Kagan's review leaves too many of the deeply troubling aspects of the film untouched, and makes light of its narrative unevenenss. Particularly distressing is the insistent misogyny that frames every element of the film, not the least the depiction of mothers. Mothers in Gone Girl are either vicious and conniving (mother-to-be, Amy, and her own high-achieving mother) or dumb and uncritical (the suburban mothers). The film trades on American popular culture's tolerance for violence towards women, in this case inverting the real homicides - violence committed by men on women - to the unreal (if 'entertaining') spectacle of Amy's vendetta. The homicidal blond was portrayed far more incisively by Sharon Stone all those years ago in Fatal Attraction - and as Kagain points to, the male anger more passionately by Michael Douglas in that same film. Gone Girl's use of the c-word is soon adolescent: said half a dozen times it shouts out to us, this film isn't afraid to transgress with language. Ho hum. Yes, the final act is 'preposterous' as is much of the film: as a psychology driven plot it just doesn't make sense unless you think 'okay Amy is a psychopath created by bad, selfish mothering'. If she is not a psychopath, then the violence arising from the fact her husband had an affair and their marriage has taken a dull turn, defies suspension of disbelief. The twists and turns to viewer sympathy with the protagonists are fun to engage with, but obvious. I was steadily aware that now I was being asked to believe this, or to dislike that. Does the film say anything about hetrosexual relations between men and women, as Kagan believes it does? As an uncritical representation of misogyny, no.

    Wednesday, 15 October 2014 18:55 posted by Jane Messer
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    I found the film's finale so ridden with ridiculous plot holes it ruined my appetite for the book, which I haven't read and won't now. Regardless of the super sophisticated interpretations some reviewers will make of this work, the inconsistencies of character and illogical latitude taken in the film's climax leaves the entire story sadly wanting of any real meaning or purpose.
    Amy gets away with murdering a man on 'framed' evidence provided by cameras that would also have recorded her arriving with him unbound and wandering freely on her own over a day or two? And, as is pointed out but never addressed, how does a woman bound for days get a hold of a box cutter? Sorry, I don't buy it as clever. I buy it as not being clear on how to end what should have been a terrific story of pretence and manipulation behind a seemingly perfect marriage.
    But then, I'm not an expert film critic, so what would I know?

    Wednesday, 15 October 2014 18:30 posted by Kate Belle
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    I loved the writing of gone girl, the way we got to know the characters. They were both good and bad it was very dark and edgy. How, at one point you woul be on Amy and you wanted her found, so you could point a finger at Nick. Then all of a sudden Nick was the good guy. Amy was evil or was she? The film was true to the book.

    Wednesday, 15 October 2014 17:58 posted by Kristine Rothbury
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    For me, as a crime writer, Gone Girl had errors that one could have driven a Mack truck through - mistakes that should have never been allowed to happen. I won't give spoilers, because that could ruin the movie for people who are looking forward to it. There were aspect of the movie which were great and scary, and then several errors that should have - if the policing was "spot on" never be over-looked. If you see the film, watch the diary instances, the murder scene and its lead-up, the press conference and the conversation with the leading detective at the end. Jane Campion may well have done better job with the devil in the details!

    Wednesday, 15 October 2014 17:11 posted by Diana Hockley

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