The Hard Work of Marriage

Gone Girl

a film directed by David Fincher
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…

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