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The Hard Work of Marriage

Gone Girl

a film directed by David Fincher
heller_1-120414.jpg
Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox
Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

It is one of the uncontested wisdoms of our era that “marriage is hard work.” The belief that conjugal happiness can be earned only by rigorous and sustained emotional labor is so deeply entrenched in the common culture that when Amy Dunne, the female protagonist of David Fincher’s new movie, Gone Girl, boasts cheerfully of finding marriage “easy,” it is as if she had entered Dracula’s castle scoffing at the existence of vampires: the audience knows at once that her hubris must be punished.

Gone Girl is a sort of marital horror story, told from the alternating and competing perspectives of the spouses. It is based on a best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), and it depends for much of its dramatic effect on a highly convoluted series of plot twists (several of which will be revealed in this essay). Like the book, however, the film aims to interleave the pleasures of a genre entertainment with a serious commentary on the way we live now.

The handsome couple at its center are the aforementioned Amy (Rosamund Pike), the privileged daughter of New York psychiatrists, and her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a “corn-fed Missouri boy” from a working-class background. Nick and Amy used to be writers in New York—she composed personality quizzes for women’s magazines; he wrote about pop culture—but since losing their jobs in the recession, they have retreated to Nick’s bleak hometown of North Carthage, back in Missouri. (The name is a winking allusion to New Carthage, the home of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Here, Nick runs a bar, bought with the last of Amy’s trust fund, while Amy, a Harvard graduate with a master’s in psychology, spends her unemployed days sloping resentfully about their leased suburban mansion.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find the front door ajar, the living room in disarray, and his wife vanished. He searches the house and calls the police, but there is something not quite right about his response to the calamity. He keeps referring to his wife in the past tense. He lies and grows testy under questioning. At the press conference announcing Amy’s disappearance, he flashes a sickly grin for photographers. In short order, he finds himself the prime suspect in the police investigation and the arch villain in the media’s hysterical coverage of the case.

The film now begins to shuttle back and forth between the present-day hunt for Amy and the Dunnes’ marital past, as recounted in Amy’s diary. Flashbacks to the early days of their courtship and marriage in New York—midnight kisses on a picturesque downtown street, urbane banter in a Chinatown restaurant, love-making in the dim back room of a quaint old bookstore—are meant to evoke a perfect modern romance. But Fincher, a director whose interests tend to lie at the darker end of the emotional spectrum, seems a little out of his element portraying the sugar clouds of young love, and not all of these scenes hit the desired dreamy note. (Nick’s marriage proposal, in which he pays grinning public tribute to Amy’s “world-class vagina,” is particularly ill-judged and horrid.)

No matter: the Dunnes’ joy does not last for long. Unemployment and money worries prompt the first rumblings of marital disharmony. (We see Nick slumped in front of a congealing delivered pizza, as Amy rebukes him for playing too many video games.) Things get worse after the move to Missouri. Amy mopes. Nick sulks and snarls. Where once he lavished attention on her awesome genitalia, now he takes her from behind, in desultory, fully clothed “quickies.” One day, during an argument, he hits her. Amy confesses that she is frightened of him. In her final diary entry, she is toying with the idea of buying a gun.

Meanwhile, the police have discovered that Nick recently increased Amy’s life insurance policy and they are about to find out that he has been having an affair with a local college girl for over a year. The circumstantial evidence against him seems overwhelming. But just as we are about to throw up our arms and concede that Nick has to be guilty, the film delivers its big, upending surprise. Amy is not dead and she has not been abducted. She is alive and well and hiding out in a motel. Her diary, she gleefully informs us, is a fake document that she has concocted as part of a devilishly complex scheme to punish Nick’s adultery by framing him for her murder.

Members of the audience will have to decide for themselves whether this is an ingenious and breathtaking turn of the screw or a somewhat preposterous plot maneuver on the order of “and then I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” Amy’s revelation is meant to tell us something important about the perils of confusing perception with reality. The Dunne marriage has failed, we learn, because Amy and Nick conned one another with fair-seeming surfaces during courtship. (He’s not really the witty, gallant charmer he pretended to be and she’s not really a “cool girl” who likes Adam Sandler movies and anal sex.) We too, have been gulled by appearances—judging Nick guilty because he looked like a storybook villain.

There is a limit, though, to how persuasively a film can deliver a homily about our enslavement to stereotypical appearances and received wisdoms when it is itself so thoroughly in thrall to the language of cliché. In the name of social satire, Gone Girl presents a galère of crudely drawn and instantly recognizable “types”: a bug-eyed, libidinous housewife who turns nasty when her advances are rebuffed; a bosomy, vapid mistress who whines when not given enough attention; a sanctimonious cable TV harpy who whips up anti-Nick sentiment; Amy’s snobby psychiatrist parents, who, for all their book smarts, know nothing about their daughter’s psyche.

The film’s stars are barely more nuanced than these minor characters. Nick and Amy are not who we initially think they are, but their real and “complex” identities turn out to be just as banal as their false ones. Nick is a damaged guy with repressed anger. Amy is a sociopath whose perfectionism and hypercompetitiveness can be attributed to her having had passive-aggressive parents who never made her feel she was good enough. (Those psychiatrists!)

Rosamund Pike is diligent and sincere in her efforts to turn Amy’s collection of traits and Psych 101 “motivations” into a plausible simulation of a human being. (She plays Amy with a glazed, zombie hauteur that occasionally lapses into full-on, goggle-eyed nuttiness, and her performance, for which she apparently went through all sorts of Method shenanigans, is being hailed as a career-making masterpiece.) Fincher, on the other hand, is content to present Amy as a semiparodic figure, a jokey aggregate of classic madwoman tropes. Neither strategy really works. Amy is neither frightening nor funny. Her preening voice-overs are meant to be drolly diabolical, along the lines of the hero’s narration in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But she and her stratagems (which rely heavily on the strategic deployment of urine, blood, vomit, and semen) lack the wit to pull off that sort of black comedy. The proud, humorless intensity with which she recounts her machinations brings to mind a woman in Zabar’s explaining how she beat the traffic coming back from East Hampton.

If the first half of Gone Girl aims to create a more or less realistic atmosphere of Hitchcockian menace, the second half surrenders to a reckless, high-camp pulpiness. Amy’s sociopathy functions rather as dream sequences do in other movies: it makes anything possible. Her initial plan is to hang around long enough to see her husband sent to jail and then to commit suicide. But at some point she nixes this idea and decides that she wants to give her marriage another go. In order to get back to North Carthage and reclaim her husband, she must rush about performing various lurid tasks—including meticulously fabricating evidence of a rape and committing one fantastically gruesome murder. Here at last is the hard work of marriage.

Amy gets her man in the end. She fools the police into accepting a cockamamie story of what happened to her (abetted, the film suggests, by society’s presumption of female victimhood). And even though Nick now knows that his wife is a “psycho-bitch,” he stays with her, partly because she has tricked him into fathering her child and partly because he recognizes that in their own sick way, they “are made for each other.” This twisted codependency is the film’s dark burlesque on the marital compact.

Gone Girl has been pitched—and in large part greeted—as a subversive work, a powerful attack on our most cherished fantasies about heterosexual love and marriage. (Fincher himself has joked that he expects his film to spawn “15 million divorces.”) But a person would have to be in an unusual state of cultural innocence to find any of the film’s ideas remotely startling. The tropes in which it deals—marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy, love is the tender trap, and so on—will be wearily familiar to anyone who has ever seen Married…with Children or heard a Henny Youngman joke.

Some fans of the film have claimed to see in it a liberal-minded indictment of the way in which heterosexual coupledom enforces oppressive gender roles. This is a perverse, albeit ingenious, reading of the film’s reactionary message. Gone Girl certainly takes a skeptical view of the guises that men and women assume in order to woo one another. (Amy’s much-remarked-on speech in which she repudiates the “cool girl” ideal is an example of this.) But the function of these guises, the film suggests, is precisely to obscure essential and unchanging differences between the sexes. In marriage, when the courtship masks come off, the inevitable antagonism of men’s and women’s natures is revealed. Husbands start eating messy take-out and wanting to sleep with other women; wives nag and peck in an attempt to tame these impulses.

The film does not present these as socially imposed roles, but as the expressions of incorrigible male and female proclivities. Even a woman like Amy—a murderous, amoral genius, with a Harvard degree and “the ass of a twenty-year-old stripper”—has no interests, no ambitions, no sense of possibilities beyond the monomaniacal cultivation of her marriage. By the film’s end, she can still think of nothing more interestingly evil to do with her talents than stick around in Missouri, acting as Gauleiter to a cheating dimbo.

That the film makes its jailor-wife a malevolent loon is part of what it regards as its subversive agenda. Gillian Flynn has said that she creates wicked female characters like Amy in order to challenge the feminist orthodoxy “that women are innately good.” Prior to the film’s release, Fincher predicted with some relish that this “naughty” attack on the idea of women’s inborn virtue would prove highly provocative: “I have a feeling by the time the movie reaches the last half-hour, women in the audience are going to be crossing their arms and leaning back in their seats in disapproval. We’ll see.”

Some women have obliged Fincher by complaining about the film’s depiction of its female protagonist. The main theme of their allegations has been that Amy’s character endorses a host of antifeminist myths, including the calumny that women are wont to maliciously invent rape charges. (This is a particularly irresponsible misrepresentation, it’s been claimed, because statistics show the incidence of false rape accusations to be very rare.)

But fictional plots are not obliged to reflect what is statistically likely. And still less are fictional characters required to act as goodwill ambassadors for their gender. The problem with Amy is not that she acts in vicious and reprehensible ways, or even that her behavior lends credence to certain misogynist fantasies. The problem is that she isn’t really a character, but rather an animation of a not very interesting idea about the female capacity for nastiness.

The principles of her invention are consistent with the method of Gone Girl as a whole. In lieu of any interest in the textures, the details, the ambiguities of observed human behavior, it starts from the delusional premise that the goodness of women and the loveliness of marriage are potent modern shibboleths and then sets up a group of gender avatars to “prove” the opposing clichés: women are the deadliest of the species and marriage is hell. The film is a piece of silliness, not powerful enough in the end to engender proper “disapproval”: only wonder at its coarseness and perhaps mild dismay at its critical success.