Sunday, October 5, 2014

Unpacking the wild and brilliant Gone Girl

I have a weird love-hate relationship with the David Fincher films I've seen.  The Social Network and Seven are both excellent, Zodiac is pretty good, Panic Room is fine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mediocre.  But Fight Club?  Fight Club is a piece of garbage, and I hate it so much that it brings down my overall opinion of his oeuvre.  (It certainly doesn't help that many people my age consider Fight Club one of their favorite films of all time, which just baffles me.)  There's something about his cold, precise style that makes his work hard for me to fully embrace.  Even his best material, I respect it more than I love it.

To me, his films work best when he's paired with a screenwriter whose dialogue can liven up his sometimes suffocatingly clinical technique.  It's no surprise, then, that the high point of his career so far is the Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network.  Sorkin is another auteur whose trademarks aren't always for me, but his union with Fincher managed to cancel out each other's worst impulses.  The former's crackling, volleying dialogue is exactly what was needed to make the latter's directing less sterile.

Gillian Flynn seems to be another perfect fit for Fincher, if Gone Girl is any indication.  Adapting from her own 2012 novel, Flynn's script may not be Sorkin-level, but it's clever in its own right.  It finds a lively way to tell the dark story of the crumbling marriage between Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliot-Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  On the morning of their five anniversary, Nick goes to the bar he owns and comes back home to find a glass table shattered on the floor and his wife missing.  When the police begin to investigate her disappearance, they find an envelope in her underwear drawer with "Clue One" scrawled on it, the first stop on a complicated and mysterious paper trail.

Assigned Narratives
In the process of showing us this investigation of Amy Dunne's disappearance, Gone Girl examines how events like these cause the media to assign narratives onto others.  As soon as Amy's case becomes public, Nick's neighbors are quick to treat him like a minor hero, the doting husband.  But the media is willing to villainize him just as quickly.  Everybody over-analyzes and projects their own issues onto Nick's actions, criticizing him for not reacting in the way that they want him to.  The ease with which the consensus sways from one opinion to the other is telling of the hivemind mentality that the 24-hour news cycle fosters.

But the movie also plays well to our own readiness to jump to conclusions.  The moment we find out Nick has been cheating on Amy with a former student (Emily Ratajkowski, of "Blurred Lines" fame), we're supposed to react with a, "yes, of course"!  That's how eager we are to think of men as the wrongdoers in these scenarios.  (And, to our credit, most of the time that's the correct assumption.)  Likewise, when the tables are turned and it's revealed that this is all a part of Amy's effort to frame Nick for her murder, it taps into our competing desire to think of women as vindictive harridans.  Society, Gone Girl posits, is so determined to find types in our stories -- the loving husband, the lying husband, the cheating husband, the perfect wife, the crazy wife, the creepy rapist -- that we'll settle for an approximation and fill in the blanks on our own.

Not even Amy and Nick are above this obsession with narratives, which is fitting, since they both are writers.  In the flashbacks we see of their relationship, they're constantly talking wanting or not wanting to be "the kind of couple that..."  in their fights.  "You're making me be the kind of nagging wife I hate," Amy says at one point, desperate to not fit a type she's seen over and over.  And who can blame her?  One the most important pieces of backstory we get in the film is that her parents became famous from their Amazing Amy collection, a popular series of books inspired by events in their own daughter's life.  Amazing Amy grows up as real Amy does, Amazing Amy gets a dog when real Amy requests one, Amazing Amy even gets married before real Amy does.  All of Amy's life has been foregrounded by a narrative trajectory she can never quite match.

Dark Comedy In a Thriller's Clothing
Though they may be divided into separate subgenres, Seven, Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can all be considered thrillers.  Clearly, Fincher has a penchant for that mode of storytelling.  It's not out of left field to assume that Gone Girl would be a thriller as well, and there's certainly a great deal of that in there, all of which is done exquisitely.  New twists and turns are unlocked with the elegance and panache of a master, and there are sequences where several moving pieces come together with dizzying results.

But if you view the film as solely being a mystery thriller, you run the risk of being disappointed with its absolutely dotty third act.  Amy's plan shifts and wrinkles in ways that come off as goofy if you come at them with a straight face.  If you're looking for a conventional resolution to the story, then what we actually get may be a step or two too far.

However, Gone Girl is actually a pitch black comedy.  The first humorous line or character might strike as comedic relief in a mystery thriller.  But then you realize that almost every element of the film is a co-conspirator in this hilarious, insane work of art.  The detectives working the case becoming popcorn-munching audience surrogates, Flynn's floral dialogue, Casey Wilson's over-the-top pregnant character, the way Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor's score swells during the flashbacks of Amy and Nick, the cheeky nature of Amy's diary -- individually, they're amusing; together, they're a riot.

The outsized comedy's purpose is in service of Gone Girl's ultimate metaphor, which is that it's...

...An Honest Examination of Marriage
It's crucial that even when we learn that Amy's diary was all a part of her plan to frame Nick, it's emphasized that the early entries are truthful.  Those confirm that Nick and Amy were once a real, genuine couple.  There was a fire to their relationship, and they seemed truly convinced that they weren't like the other marriages they knew.  But then they crack and tear in the same ways lots of people do: he loses his job, she loses her job, he spends a little too much money, she's forced to move away from her parents.  And on and on and on.

People always talk about how marriage takes work and that it's full of compromises, but usually in a way that emphasizes how it makes you a better, fuller person at the end of the day.  Gone Girl examines the flipside of that viewpoint.  It's about how much of yourself you can lose in meeting the other person halfway.  You're tweaking yourself to be the person your mate wants until you're somebody else entirely, somebody you may not even like anymore.

It's easy to get caught up in the cat-and-mouse plotting and the surrounding media blitz in the film and lose what's at the center of it all.  The straw that broke the camel's back is that Nick cheated on Amy and it hurt her.  Yeah, she may be a psycho, but he messed up too.  That's what makes Gone Girl so brilliant: Nick is not just the victim in this situation.  He contributed to the downfall of their marriage.  It's no coincidence that Nick going on national television to admit that he's a bad guy is the moment that Amy has her turnaround and decides to go back to him.  (Nick is doing it mostly for show, but a part of him is also coming to terms with the fact that some of this ordeal is his fault too.)  So Amy has to improvise and come up with a new outgrowth of her plan, deciding to kill Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), the ex-boyfriend with whom she's hiding, and return to North Carthage as if she has escaped a kidnapping.  Nick can't even leave, because the media is convinced of Amy's story, and abandoning his wife after she's been through so much supposed strife would turn him into a villain all over again.

Though the two of them getting back together and putting on a show for the cameras is played for laughs, it's also a devastating metaphor.  Not all couples who are unhappy decide to make a run for it.  They stick it out for no other reason than that they feel trapped and without other options (in this case, Nick actually is kind of trapped).  You've done wrong and the other person has done wrong and you've warped each other so much that you're not even sure anybody else would want you.  You stay for the kids (fittingly, Amy reveals that she's pregnant), and you put on a brave, happy face for the public.  Inertia is the only thing keeping you together.

Gone Girl understands that sometimes marriage can be a prison, but hey, at least it's a familiar one.

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