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Review by Joshua Gibbs
For a film which depicts one of the more grotesque murders in recent cinematic memory, the most terrifying moment in Gone Girl is nothing more than the film’s hero being asked a few seemingly mundane questions about his missing wife by a pair of bored cops.
Shortly before noon, on his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home from the bar to find his wife missing and his coffee table broken. He phones the cops, they look around and make a few notes Nick doesn’t understand, then take him down to the precinct to discuss the missing person. Nick doesn’t seem particularly worried about his wife’s disappearance, and truth be told he spent the morning complaining to the barkeep about her, though he seems too hapless and lazy to have killed her. They ask about her friends and then her hobbies. Then her blood type… and at that point in the film, every man in the audience realized he didn’t know his wife’s blood type either and perhaps began to feel a little nervous. And further, what man hasn’t (on at least one occasion) been unable to keep in order the faceless Jens and Beckys his wife has mentioned over the last several months? One cop presses, “You don’t know if she has friends, you don’t know what she does all day, and you don’t know your wife’s blood type?” and the other cop asks “Are you sure ya’ll are married?”
The first act of Gone Girl is a fine, Hitchcockian whodunit which gleefully lacks a strong suspect. Against the story of Nick’s mild but troubled interest in finding Amy (Rosamund Pike), a series of flashbacks borrowed from his disappeared wife’s diary runs through the story of their meeting, courtship and first years of wedded bliss. Amy is a children’s book author who reimagines her elementary-aged disappointments as neatly-wrapped, cartoonish successes for second graders. Why the doofy, Midwestern Nick is interested in her, or how he ultimately wins a cool, rich blonde from upstate New York is anyone’s guess— though the flashbacks have Pike playing Amy like a young Stepford wife. Perfectly tempered, rarely blinking, barely emotive. When Nick loses his job and Amy’s parents drain her trust fund, the Dunnes get close to broke and move to a small town in Missouri to care for Nick’s ailing mother. About the third year of their marriage, Nick is racking up huge credit card bills and blowing his days on the couch playing video games. Amy remains composed, gently encouraging him to find a job, and he becomes increasingly remote, disinterested, and just the slightest bit violent.
Anyone in the theater who truly surrenders to the story will spend the first hour anxious, wondering how bad a marriage has to be before it is objectively bad. Fincher weaves the old diary entries in and out of the missing person story so smoothly, you nearly forget the diary is a biased, first-hand account. Reasons pile up in the present to dislike Nick, so believing Amy’s unflattering account of him in the past is easy. Director David Fincher has a knack for unsettling the places we thought safe. In Fincher’s world, cops can’t help us, monks can’t help us, sunny parks are haunted by black-cloaked psychopaths. A woman aimlessly adrift in space will just happen to end up on a planet inhabited entirely by male criminals. Not even random chance can save you in Fincher’s cosmos. Gone Girl aims to disturb our confidence that good marriages have problems. Good marriages don’t have problems, the narrative suggests. Why do you ask, though? Does yours? Reconciliation is always a foreign concept for Fincher, though he oscillates between finding the idea distasteful (Fight Club) and simply impossible (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The Game is Fincher’s genuine masterpiece, and it seems striking in retrospect that it is his only film which ends in an embrace between brothers formerly at odds with one another.
Games have more than once been central to Fincher’s films, though, and Gone Girl is no exception. The film opens with Nick bringing a set of Mastermind to his sister, the barkeeper, who sets it on a stack of other games Nick has brought her. After any possible relationship with the transcendent has been rejected, the only template by which peace can be understood is that of the game— an ultimately arbitrary set of rules players agree to for their own amusement. An hour into the film, the narrative switches from Nick’s perspective to Amy’s and we find that from the moment they met, she has been faking any genuine interest in him. For a time, she was amused to assume the same rules and expectations of a relationship which Nick possessed (trivial though they were), but as time moved forward she became bored with those rules and loathed his lack of culture.
Just as Amy’s love for Nick has always been a hoax, so is her disappearance. Nick is a slapdash, half-baked kind of fellow, so when Amy fakes her own abduction, she makes sure the culprit looks like a moron. The blood is mopped up quickly, the appearance of an abduction is thoughtlessly contrived. The police need about three days to gage Nick for the dope he is, and by then they’ve determined the kidnapper or killer is a novice, as well. When the first major turn comes and we see Amy driving away from the crime scene with the windows down, blond hair blowing in slow-motion, munching a candy bar, the film might have (somewhat) neatly concluded as a tightly-plotted twister. She blabs to the audience her plan to watch Nick burn as a pariah on national television for a few weeks, then to actually kill herself and let the cops find her corpse so that Nick’s guilt is confirmed. So Amy is crazy. Some people are crazy. If crazy people end up in movies from time to time, who is going to complain?
The problem is that the film keeps going for quite some time from the point we find out that Amy is certifiable. In case we haven’t understood how crazy Amy is while she narrates her suicidal plan, we see her smash her face with a hammer directly after the montage finishes. The problem with stories about crazy people is that they’re no less random and aimless than dreams. Believable characters are predictably unpredictable— we come to know their inner logic, then they surprise us, but their actions make a poetic sense in hindsight. I have often encouraged writers in my short fiction composition classes to create distinct characters, though their first drafts are often zany cartoons— amalgams of a dozen bizarre, disconnected personality traits hanging together by a thread. Discovering what is extraordinary in what is ordinary (St. Peter’s tears, for instance), what is tragic in what is common, what is unusual in virtue… this is the writer’s task. From the point Amy’s madness is revealed, though, every decision she makes is arbitrary, random, incapable of adding thematic depth to the story. Nick pulls through the second half of the film by scoring a fancy lawyer and negotiating with talk show hosts out to vilify him— not the kind of plot which repays a second viewing. A late developing subplot involves Amy revisiting an old boyfriend, though the whole thing turns laughably Basic Instinct, complete with edits which mimic flashbulbs going off. I don’t think it was meant to be humorous, though the film is thick with kitschy laughs elsewhere, so who can say?
The film ends inside the same shot, the same moment in which it begins. Nick gazes at Amy’s beatific smile and wonders what she is thinking. He acknowledges that he does not know, that he cannot know. We might all be married to fakers. Our priests might be faking. Our parents. Our children. The martyrs. But aside from a technical, logical possibility everyone is faking their commitments, the profundity of the thought terminates rather quickly. We walk by faith, not by sight. Nothing is certain. Christians have been making bricks from that hay for two thousand years. While Gone Girl is a film begging to be psychoanalyzed, beyond the first hour it's little more than a Rorschach test. It's a mystery story, then we find out one of the characters is crazy, but isn't marriage kind of crazy, too? Eh, maybe, but "crazy" is a pretty open term. Be more specific next time.
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