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Film Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014; Directed by David Fincher)

David Fincher’s films have long been marked by troubling sexual politics and depictions of women that run the gamut from merely stereotyped to deeply unsettling. In this way, they reflect the pervasive politics of gender representation, which allow only slightly more leeway to break from dominant gender assumptions in the case of men but pigeonhole women (who are already in a marginalized position in general) with particular persistence. If women aren’t victims of brutal violence (Seven), rape (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or public humiliation (The Social Network), then they are nagging housewives (Zodiac) or hyper-sexualized dream-pixies (Fight Club). In this latter form, they possess the greatest agency of any of these iterations (especially if they’re played with venomous spite by Helena Bonham-Carter), but their role is still proscribed. The heavy narrative and moral lifting is always left to men in David Fincher films. For all the very good things about them, Fincher’s films always seem to be afflicted with that specific hitch in their otherwise confident gait.

Into this well-established pattern that diminishes one of the most consistently distinguished oeuvres in contemporary American filmmaking strides Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) to scramble it thoroughly. As the seemingly innocent and Gone-Girl1wholesome all-American blonde beauty who disappears in mysterious circumstances from a Midwest town, leaving her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to fall under suspicion for her murder, Pike’s Amy winds up running the gamut of feminine identity in a series of forms both positive and negative. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (Flynn also penned the screenplay) attempts to settle on the pernicious stereotype of the manipulative, sociopathic femme fatale for Amy in deference to its thriller conventions, but the prior range of Pike’s performance complicates that narrative end point. What emerges instead is a comprehensive portrait of the inherent performativity of womanhood as conditioned by American social expectations and cultural norms. Amy is buffeted on all sides by these expectations and norms, but exploits them to gain an odd, disturbing type of personal agency.

Flashing from the main plot strand of Amy’s disappearance on her fifth wedding anniversary back to her and Nick’s early years together (and, later on, back to explain how that disappearance went down), Gone Girl introduces both parties of the marriage as witty young writers in New York City: Nick, the prototypical male, writes for a men’s magazine, and Amy, who will assume multiple identities before the film is out, writes personality quizzes. Amy has seen her identity being artificially constructed for most of her life. Her parents fictionalized their daughter as a popular children’s books character called “Amazing Amy”, with the literary accomplishments of “Amy” always outstripping the real-life ones of Amy. If Amy believes that marrying Nick will open up new possibilities for her, it doesn’t turn out that way: they lose their creative class jobs and ideal NYC life, move back his hometown in Missouri to shepherd his mother to her grave, and settle into an increasingly tense and unhealthy relationship that drives her to extremes in order to escape.

With his “girl” gone, Nick is the focus of intense media attention and a police investigation, both of which view him with ever-growing suspicion, especially when it turns out he’s been hiding an affair with a much-younger woman (Emily Ratajkowski). But was Amy the victim of foul play, or is there another explanation? If she’s dead, where’s the body? Why does the crime scene in the Dunne’s home look oddly staged? What do the scavenger hunt anniversary gifts that Amy left behind have to do with it all? What of Amy’s ex-boyfriend, the wealthy Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), against whom she has filed a restraining order but whom she has also corresponded for years?

Flynn’s plot shifts gears, directions, implications, and sympathies quickly and deftly. There’s no single twist so much as a constant corkscrew effect, leaving the viewer disoriented and uncertain. Fincher holds the film’s focus with a firm hand, allowing bursts of compelling style when needed. He gets a decent turn out of Affleck, though his case is helped by Nick Dunne’s contours as an intelligent but unchallengingly ordinary masculine sort (kind of like Affleck, really). Harris, Kim Dickens, and Tyler Perry(!) provide decent supporting work, and another oscillating, paranoid score from recent go-to Fincher musical collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sets an ominous, unsettling mood.

But to whatever extent Gone Girl is ever extraordinary or notable, it only reaches such heights within the reach of Rosamund Pike’s remarkably rangy take on Amy Dunne. Gone Girl was the target of plentiful criticism for perceived misogynist and sexist leanings, especially as concerns fantastical invocations of pervasive and damaging myths around rape allegations and “crazy bitch” stereotypes. The condensing process from book to movie is said to have compressed and elided some of Amy’s perspective and made her seem less of a fully realized person, but I never found her motivations or psychological profile unclear or constricted. Pike, who played an ice-queen Bond girl (Miranda Frost was her actual, no-foolin’ name) and has been slotted into girlfriend and wife roles for years like any other conventionally attractive actress, channels typecasting frustrations into a highly skilled (and utterly ruthless) commentary on those limiting types.

Amy assumes roles, slips into characters, tries identities on for size, and uses expectations and assumptions to her maximum advantage. She has a memorable voice-over monologue in the middle of the film about wearing the mask of the Cool Girl, the fun-loving, not-too-uptight, “funny” but not transgressively satirical young woman who is supposedly every man’s idealized fantasy. She assumes this superficially innocuous stereotype with the ease of some of the more malevolent feminine roles because it is not her; it is only a performance targetted with precision to exact a certain effect on a certain audience. Who is Amy Dunne? Pike doesn’t let us completely into her character’s head, just as she doesn’t let Nick into her head. She’s inherently an enigma, as every person is when you eventually get down to it. The ambiguity of Amy Dunne sets her apart from Fincher’s previous onscreen women. The way that Fincher, Flynn, and Pike turn that ambiguity towards and against a whole range of cultural stereotypes of women makes Amy Dunne quite a memorable character, whatever the roiling sexual politics beneath her portrayal.

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