Good Grief Gone Girl

30 / 10 / 2014

Karen Pickering provides a review of box office smash ‘Gone Girl’, an adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name, which, along with setting off some major feminist alarm bells, just didn’t cut the good film mustard for our resident ‘Culture Club’ columnist. It also “seriously tested” her Ben Affleck appreciation levels.

A warning – this review provides serious plot spoilers, so bookmark it until you have seen the film, if on your to-view list.

By Karen Pickering

I remember the energy when the book Gone Girl was released in 2012 and the frisson of excitement that shot through the literary and feminist scenes. There was great care and diplomacy not to reveal any hint of ‘The Twist’, only urging from friends “You MUST read this.” and the general sense that an important book had ‘arrived’. It was interesting to me because it was not only popular in the bestselling sense, but critically lauded and especially singled out by feminist commentators as having an original and searing take on gender politics in contemporary American society.

I never did get around to reading it – but when I discovered that the team making the movie was essentially the same one that had brought The Social Network to the screen; David Fincher directing, Trent Reznor working on the score, and that author Gillian Flynn herself was adapting the screenplay from her novel, I was thrilled.

The Social Network is one of my all-time favourite films – I loved how Fincher had taken a potentially banal story everyone thought they knew – the rise of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – and made a stylish, taut thriller that also provides cutting commentary on American capitalism, patriarchy and the toxicity of unchecked masculinity.

Gone Girl could’ve been this, and it isn’t. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ve read dozens of reviews, essays, rejoinders and analyses that credit it with everything from being a fantastic crime thriller (it’s not), to a subversively feminist text (it’s not, though the book may well be), to the most disgustingly hateful and misogynistic film to find success in a long time (it’s not that either, and not just because there are far worse). What it is, is confused, sloppy, internally inconsistent, incoherent, and occasionally unintentionally funny.

It’s ostensibly the story of a woman who vanishes from her (unhappy) home, in circumstances that point to foul play. A media circus ensues, driven by her famous psychologist-author parents, in which her husband comes under scrutiny as not only unmoved by her disappearance but possibly the culprit. We discover things slowly – too slowly for a purported thriller – like the extent of the couple’s dysfunction, his infidelity, and in a bombshell, that Amy is mentally unstable and yet acute enough to have masterminded the entire disappearance to frame her husband for murder. This twist is ushered in with the now-famous “Cool Girl” speech, in which Amy waxes furious on the expectations placed on women to please men.

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex … and are, above all, hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”

Amy’s violent rejection of the “Cool Girl” is both literal and metaphorical. Isn’t she the victim here? Of a society that offers her so little and yet expects so much? Hasn’t her husband abducted her into a marriage that rescued her only from the clutches of her abusive parents? Doesn’t his cruel dismissal of her needs mean that he deserves everything he gets? If only the movie had really committed to this metaphor, it might’ve worked. After all, Mary Harron took a sexist book in American Psycho and made an arguably feminist film, and Fincher already had a text with feminist weight behind it.  Hence, Fincher’s opting for washed out, gritty realism that is Gone Girl, over genuinely dark comedy – in the vein of American Psycho or even To Die For – represents both missed opportunity, as well as confusing aesthetic choice.

That said, there are moments of intended hilarity – if as dark as humour gets. Whenever Amy’s parents are onscreen, and especially when performing their grief and fear after her disappearance, it’s hard not to be overcome with convulsive laughter at the utter falsity of their mien, from their contempt for small town Missouri to their fixed smiles for the camera. They are diabolical characters (not quite fully) realised as comic villains, although I wish their obvious abuse of Amy as a child was more fully explored.

Then there’s Amy. She’s a cypher, to be sure, and this is not a criticism necessarily. She could remain opaque to the viewer and still serve the function of stand-in for every woman who’s been used and abused by a man who gets away with it and should know better. Amy is a creation of her psychotic parents, and barely exists as a full human, which is why she’s able to work for months? years? meticulously planning to frame her husband for murder without anyone noticing something is amiss.

But is she really a character to be celebrated by feminists? I have two ideas about this. One is that the book is clearly very different to the film, and perhaps the gender politics of the former are more pronounced. Perhaps the limitations of film, or at least the way it’s been made, mean that the stream-of-consciousness that allows insight into the minds of Nick and especially Amy, are lost and this renders the plot empty. For when the twist came and the bomb was dropped, I was disappointed. Not because I cared about Amy or Nick (I didn’t), but because it seemed such a cliche – not in a predictable sense, but more so unambitious. By the time the big reveal happened, I had given up on plot coherence and was ready to settle for some kind of denouement. I got one. And then I got another one, and another one – and by the time the movie was over I’d checked my watch a number of times and yet also felt deeply nauseated.

This is because of the second reason I don’t celebrate this story as a feminist – it’s a fictional representation of a series of crimes that happen with sickening regularity in the real world, and the twisted fantasy of many men (and women) is that victims are either unreliable narrators, making it up, or bringing it all on themselves. Amy is an amalgam of all these inventions, and I find it hard to see her either “just” a character, or as a powerful symbol of resistance and revenge. No film exists in a cultural vacuum and at a time when we are attempting meaningful social conversations about the revolting extent of violence against women, a story in which a woman fakes her own death, any number of rapes, and other physical assaults, doesn’t stand alone as a cultural product devoid of context. It matters that this story would be told at this time. And while the true gender equality we’re fighting for, in the world and in narrative fiction, remains so elusive, I don’t know how Amy functions as a ‘hero’ by employing the very same tactics of treachery and violent means we deplore in men who harm women.

Of course, there’s a great tradition in the crime, mystery and thriller genres of characters who are victims and villains, whose “true nature” shocks the audience by undermining our certainties about what those two categories signify. Movies like Primal Fear, Thelma and Louise and other rape revenge fantasies attest to this. But it was hard to be shocked about Amy’s “transformation” because the film had imparted basically nothing about her – that is, I didn’t feel like this was a narrative interested in Amy’s experience or motives. I felt like the film utterly privileged Nick’s perspective, especially after the big reveal.

In many regards, this film is just like so many others, with ambitions bigger than it can realise. I didn’t hate it because it was misogynist or not feminist enough – I hated it because I thought it just wasn’t very good. And it seems to me that it fits perfectly with broader cultural narratives about men and women – that men cheat because they are bored or hemmed in, that women lie about their abuse, that children validate marriages and existences, that getting married equals success and that bitches really are crazy.

FacebookTwitter