Monstrous? The trouble with GONE GIRL

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Gone Girl - 2014

A brother and sister, twins, complicit, arousing suspicions of incest. A husband and wife, besotted at first, each perfect for the other, then sliding into falsehood, desperate in their need each to control the other, laying traps, the adulterous male provoking the wife’s vengeful fury. Ruthless, she hatches an elaborate scheme to incriminate him in murder and have him pay the ultimate price.

The first director brought to mind by this set of archetypal characters seemingly bound for tragedy is Almodóvar. He’s the one we can count on for a suitably bold deployment of passionate extremes (perhaps not unfailingly, though a good 8 times out of 10). There would be Sirkian colourscapes and pungent dialogue where moral innocence goes hand in hand with wild transgression. But this is Hollywood, a long time after Sirk’s blazing melodramas, and David Fincher’s Gone Girl loses the way that subversive Pedro would have so ably navigated, making us smile and weep alternately.

Gone Girl only hovers on the edge of dark humour and never seizes at the heart. From the start, when husband Nick (Ben Affleck) talks casually about his wife in less than loving terms to a female bartender, its manipulations are pressed upon us. The conversation alludes to marital intimacies as the two, clearly well acquainted, play a board game and drink bourbon. What is their relationship? We’ll know only several scenes later, but this film tantalises non-stop. Flashbacks show the early romance of Nick’s meeting with Amy (Rosamund Pike), shadowy and overlaid with a much too loud sub-Hitchcock score that’s meant to be disquieting.

Things proceed quickly from New York glamour to recession job loss and a move to Nick’s home town in Missouri. Back from that bar scene, at the couple’s suburban house he finds broken glass in the living room and Amy gone. The police investigation uncovers ample evidence to finger him for her murder. By now there are two versions of their relationship: Nick’s, and Amy’s diary.

It’s fine, and often the point, for a film to keep us guessing, but this one goes further than mystery or ambiguity, its narrative momentum so vehement that it blurs the scope for us to make sense of certain actions. Did Nick really give Amy that violent push that knocked her to the floor, or was it part of the diary’s fabrication? Was Amy’s plan already laid in New York when she claimed her parents were cash-strapped and devouring her trust fund? We’re left in occasional doubt about Nick. Amy, by turns vulnerable, calculating, contemptuous (of everyone), murderous and in the end cleverer than him, is more defined. Pike’s performance gives her some complexity and outclasses everything else in the film.

Accusations of Gone Girl’s misogyny, and their rebuttals, have centred on Amy’s character. For me Amy’s character isn’t the problem. She’s a warped descendant of film noir’s powerful femmes fatales, figures who rejected the wifely limitations of the 1940s, while also embodying a threat to repair of war-torn family values. Since then we’ve grown accustomed to vengeful wives, indeed onscreen female psychopaths, without indignation being provoked. It’s nonsense to argue that women/feminists expect women characters always to be good, always to be wronged.

But this in fact is what the film implies. This is its problem: it’s not just about an unhinged wife, a marriage gone catastrophically wrong, or, as some have suggested, about marriage tout court. It has a wider agenda: about domestic violence. It suggests women’s perceptions of it are skewed and exaggerated.

To this end it engages in satirical thrusts at the media, highlighting TV coverage of the case, which happens to be exclusively dominated by women: steely, hatchet-wielding types who are proxies for all the women out there who insist on Nick’s guilt. It offers us a glimpse of those women in Nick and Amy’s neighbours, their depiction echoing John Knox’s vitriol against the Monstrous Regiment of women, whose rule (regimen) is ugly and to be feared. Gone Girl would have us believe that no man stands a chance against the wall of rampant, unthinking female hostility. This misdirected satire is where the film truly goes awry. It is all the more disturbing, indeed vicious, in a current climate where domestic violence and harassment of women seem to be greatly on the rise.

There are two ‘sympathetic’ female characters, in rather isolated roles. The fact that one is the lead detective on the case, smart and sceptical, but marginalised by the foregone conclusions of both subordinates and superiors, is clearly meant as a joke, and no misogyny there. The other is Nick’s twin sister, loyal to the last but feeling betrayed because he didn’t tell her everything.

This isn’t a subversive film. It’s just nastily cynical, and it bothers me that male reviewers have admired it.

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