Gone Girl (2014)

Dir. David Fincher. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon

There must be some contingent of the viewing public that just likes to watch crazy women, and to plaster on the vaguest psychological terminology to explain away why they might do something lurid and shocking, like throw some red wine on their panties and then writhe and scream in view of security cameras in order to make it look like they have been kidnapped and raped, or perhaps attempt suicide when the guy she’s sleeping with tries to go back home. The first half of this movie is, at its best, fascinating. Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike), playing out their own Last Five Years scenario, in which a couple falls head over heels for one another and almost immediately start to hate one another once they get married and actually have to spend time with one another. Nick and Amy, both working in media in New York, lose their jobs. Amy’s parents are forced to borrow from their daughter’s trust fund. Nick’s mother gets cancer; already out of work, the two of them move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri out of his sense of obligation, only for his mother to die on them soon thereafter. Sometime after that, Amy commits a cardinal sin: she wants to have a baby when Nick does not. This first foray into potential parenthood ends with him shoving her against a banister, and sometime after that, Amy concocts a plan. She’ll fake her murder so Nick will, in all likelihood, reap the death penalty. It is such an audacious plan, executed so keenly, that I found myself rooting for her. Nick’s a bum, he’s cheating on the wife he’s beating, and he’s played by Ben Affleck: surely I wasn’t supposed to pull for him. The audacity of this vengeance is what counts, the purity of her hatred. It’s what makes The Virgin Spring and Cape Fear and The Godfather Part II great, after all. Tore and Max Cady and Michael Corleone are cold-blooded when they go in for the kill, enmity flooding their bodies like adrenaline or dopamine, and witnessing that is an experience both chilling and profound. That is a feeling which is worth going to the pictures for (in moderation! I’m normal!), an evolved ugliness that one rarely feels in one’s own life but which can be patted with safety from the cheap seats.

What’s different about Amy, of course, is her sex. Obviously Gone Girl follows in the wake of the Kill Bill movies (themselves following in the wake of Lady Snowblood), and there’s True Grit, and I suppose even Thelma & Louise, but with the possible exception of the underage Mattie Ross, none of these revenge stories in which women exert themselves against the men who mistreated them feature a women looking for someone else doing the dirty work for them. The appeal of Kill Bill, insofar as such a thing exists, is in watching Uma Thurman slice people up en masse. Gone Girl is at least unusual in giving Amy the cunning, and the legally clean hands, of Michael in his lakehouse. Gone Girl walks in this direction a long time, culminating in a sequence where she explains how she did it. She gave her kitchen floor a blood donation, pumping it out, spilling it in all its thick glory, and then wiping it up. She creates evidence of a fake struggle. She had Nick take out an upped life insurance policy on her; she orders mancave goodies in his name and stores them in Margo’s (Coon) shed. Witnesses can testify to her desire to get a gun; she finds a patsy neighbor (Casey Wilson) to listen to her sob stories. There’s a fake diary hiding out in a furnace that, law enforcement deduces, Nick tried to burn up but failed. Some of this is too clever by half—Nick says as much about the novelistic last entry in her “diary,” which says she’s afraid her husband will kill her—but for the most part it is convincing true crime stuff, the stuff of some prestige podcast. Towards the end of the movie, after having been forced to call a couple audibles, Amy lays into Boney (Kim Dickens), the detective in charge of her case, as she tries to peel apart some of the inconsistencies in the old stories and the new one about a kidnapper. Amy, in her wheelchair and smeared with blood, mightily edges up to giving the game away. “If this case had been left in your deeply incompetent hands,” she says, “my husband would be on death row.” She’s right about that, and it is all thanks to a cleverness that becomes less interesting the more grandiose it becomes.

There’s an interesting movie in here too about the best laid plans, too. Amy sets herself up at a rural campground with dyed hair and big sunglasses, where she runs into a woman named Greta (Lola Kirke), who is the picture of trailer trash and who Amy, the Manhattanite Harvard alum, underestimates. (It’s an interesting choice for the picture, one which somehow manages to slouch into the worst stereotypes of this particular subgroup no matter how you look at it, and yet Amy acts like most people with trust funds would act in this company.) It’s not long until Greta sees that Amy is packing cash, and with the help of an equally scuzzy boyfriend (Boyd Holbrook) she parts a ghoul from her money. Greta, consumed with the thought of the cash Amy is carrying, ignores the telling calendar that has post-its like “Kill self?” on it, a clue that would blow open the mystery of “Nancy from N’Awlins.” One almost wishes she had, given how uninteresting the rest of the movie is. The further away Amy gets from home, the less engrossing the movie becomes until it becomes the same kind of caricature of a crazy woman that we’ve seen before, the reason “hysterical” is in the language, and we’re left sitting there as other Victorians engaging in the same sleepy trope.

What’s too bad about the movie is that it cannot imagine a version of Amy who does what she does without making her malfunction. For the movie, she has to be a sociopath, someone who has no real personality of her own, someone who is not entirely sure that anyone besides herself is real. Gone Girl commits a calamitous unforced error, double faulting on what motivates Amy. Perhaps watching her ex-boyfriend and post-Greta savior Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) prove himself to be a sexual predator in his own right sounds interesting to the set of people trading serial killer cards, but compared to how sinuously this movie reaches its high points—this is two and a half hours, but without the outstandingly ponderous pacing of a Zodiac—that feels like a rapid, forced chapter indeed. Amy is no longer the plotter; she must plot, of course, but it is more important for her to slash, and what a waste of this character that is. Gone Girl has an opportunity to go the route of something like Revolutionary Road, to point the finger at the society, or the suburb, or the toxic man at the center of the story pushing his wife onto its outskirts. The material is certainly there, peaking with that monologue about the “cool girl.” It is basically a Twitter thread set to rapid editing, and it changes its face in a disappointing way thanks to the reveal of Amy’s total disregard for other people. In the hands of someone resembling a real woman, the “cool girl” monologue is a rejection of the way that women twist themselves into knots for the pleasure of men in the hope of winning their attention. It mentions chili dogs once too often for me, but on the whole this is a fairly thoughtful piece of work about what’s replaced corsets. In the hands of a sociopath, the “cool girl” monologue is toothless, just another box of cheap hair dye that’s only interested in changing Amy’s appearance without regard for what’s actually going on inside.

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