David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is The Big Thing right now, and rightly so. It’s a great film, and it’s one that deserves to be considered in depth. Given how significant the narrative curveballs the film throws are to its overall impact, my review was forcibly cut back in order to remain spoiler free. But I had plenty left to say, and this discussion comes with a massive spoiler warning. You really shouldn’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.
I am joined by former Flixist News Editor Hubert Vigilla, now a contributor over at Unseen Films. The two of us attended the same screening at the new York Film Festival, and though we talked about it pretty extensively at dinner afterwards, as well as in our respective reviews (his can be found here), we decided to keep it going here afterwards.
And we just kind of kept going, to the point where we are breaking this conversation up into two parts solely for the sake of readability. The discussion hits a whole lot of topics, but though we reference other shows, films, etc. there are no spoilers other than those for Gone Girl.
Alec: Hey Hubert! Glad to have you back, if only for a short while. You end your review specifically mentioning a future discussion later and elsewhere. This seems like as good a time as any to have that.
Now, I don’t want to just get bogged down thinking about gender roles, but I wanted to talk about Amy Dunne’s public personas. In the Q&A afterward the screening, someone compared her to American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, and Fincher said “Ding ding ding!” But I didn’t think it was an appropriate comparison. Aside from their shared psychopathy, the two have next to nothing in common. What makes that comparison interesting, though, is the fact that both those roles fit into hardcore gender stereotypes. Patrick Bateman is the alpha male, staring at him own naked body in the mirror while he’s having sex with two women and generally killing people because he believes they’re inferior to him. There’s never any question of what kind of person (man) he is.
Amy, on the other hand, plays the victim. I’ve heard people say that she goes from prey to predator, but that’s not really true. She’s a predator masquerading as prey from start to finish. At first, she pretends to literally be preyed upon by her husband, then she physically abuses herself to trick those she comes in contact with, and even in the end she puts the potential for that kind of victimization on the table. Her getting pregnant is a predatory act, but a pregnant woman absolutely presents as prey. Were he to leave her, she would once again be in the public spotlight with her alligator tears while Nick was shunned from society.
And she gets away with it because she’s a pretty woman who looks like a victim. Even if a male psychopath tried the same song and dance, he would get nothing for it. People would call him a pansy and be done with it. But as a woman, Amy can (and does) use stereotypes to her advantage.
I think it would be fascinating if Amy were to become as iconic as Patrick Bateman, though.
Hubert: Definitely agree on Amy using her gender as an advantage to wear the mask of prey but actually be predator. As a woman, she gets to negotiate the perception of being a victim in different forms, and this idea of subjugation is the prevailing narrative about the power relations of women in the patriarchy. She understands how to play with the stories that people know, like the murder of Laci Petersen or the tropes of a crime novel, and she does it with such skill. It’s funny, but she’s the real writer in that relationship while her husband is just a writer cliche (i.e., he teaches creative writing at a college, he’s sleeping with a student, and he barely writes these days). If it weren’t for murder, Nick would be a side character in Wonder Boys (or maybe a lesser novel/movie about writers).
There’s that scene at the beginning of the final act where she’s making up a story about where she’s been all this time. It doesn’t add up, but the FBI agents in the room take it at face value because they accept the narrative of victimhood and Amy plays the role so well. And she conveniently gets the excuse of being loopy from sedatives. It’s an odd case in which by asserting the role of prey, Amy gets the benefit of the doubt, while that option is never there for Nick. (In a different context, this paragraph would probably make me sound like one of those MRA assholes.)
She’s definitely not Patrick Bateman in all aspects save for an inner psychopathic tendency or sociopathic personality. Bateman couldn’t get away with anything Amy does in the way that she does simply given the way gender is perceived and interpreted. It’s impossible to imagine a gender swap in this story working. If the story were about Nick being a crazy guy who tries to frame Amy for his murder, it would have to play out completely differently, even from the first meeting, because certain kinds of stories cannot be told the same way when genders are swapped. Pike’s other great observation during the post-screening Q & A was that many strong female characters could simply be swapped with men since they are basically embodying masculine traits. Not so with Amy.
As for Amy becoming as iconic as Patrick Bateman, that would be pretty fascinating. Do you think she has legs as maybe a female Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates something? Will we see an NBC spin-off about her younger days ruining her ex-boyfriends’ lives and generally fucking with people? Which makes me wonder if rather than an object of scorn or a potential manifestation of the source material’s latent misogyny, could Amy actually be read as a female anti-hero?
Also, it’s nice to be back briefly. This is another cameo appearance on the internets. Was also in an intro video for this year’s Shorty Awards and appeared in a friend’s piece on Electric Literature wearing a panda head. Trifecta now complete.
Alec: A two-season show, one centered around the Desi story and another about the Tommy story could be interesting. I’d be worried that they would go further, though, and start ret-conning in other capers just because that’s how things work in America. (If BBC America ran it, though, that could probably work, though I think the inability to cast Neil Patrick Harris again in the part would kill it.) But in general, a TV show centered on a young female psychopath (not a cannibal) could definitely be something… if it was done right.
I mean, this goes to the point I made in my review about the fact that the film could have been much longer. Many of the characters are really interesting but don’t get fleshed out in the way they deserve. A fair portion of the first act is spent with characters that don’t really even exist, which means that there’s much less time for actual characterization than the 150 minute runtime would imply. I think this is especially true for Nick, who we really know the least about when all is said and done. It’s not like there’s nothing there, but I’d love to see something that delves into his relationship with his sister, which is so crucial to the film but doesn’t really get the emotional backstory beyond “We’re twins, so of course we’re in it together.” There were places where the narrative could have expanded to go in deeper with these characters.
But you know who would make for a great TV spinoff? Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt. Seriously. I mean, Perry’s performance shocked me more than most of the story’s (very shocking) twists, and that character’s personality would make for a perfect lawyer procedural series. When no one else takes the case, Tanner Bolt comes in and works his magic. You get hints of what that show could be with the way he coaches Nick before his public appearances. But there’s so much more that could be done with a character like that.
NBC should get on that ASAP.
Hubert: I would watch the hell out of a Tanner Bolt show. Tyler Perry was just so damn good, and he’s not playing a sleazeball ambulance-chaser or anything like so many defense attorneys are portrayed in films and TV. Tanner is basically what you want from a high-profile defense lawyer–an in-control, self-assured PR specialist who also happens to know the ins and outs of criminal litigation. And Perry is totally smooth in the performance. All the mannerisms, all the smiles, every word rolls off with sheer confidence. All the performances in Gone Girl are good, but Perry sticks out the most for me because I had no expectations for the character to be so scene-stealing and charismatic.
NBC should do the Tanner Bolt show, and then Takashi Miike should direct a Phoenix Wright/Tanner Bolt team-up movie. And then they should both wind up joining The Avengers as their legal consultants alongside Matt Murdock (Daredevil)… which brings us back to Affleck somehow. (Maybe ABC should do it instead of NBC given the rights issues involved.)
On the note of Affleck, I find it interesting that you feel we don’t get good glimpse into Nick’s inner life or his character. I understood him a fair amount, or maybe thought I understood him because of a combination of media narratives about failing marriages and real-life experiences with friends and acquaintances who’ve gone through major relationship troubles. There’s an unspoken but familiar trajectory to his loss of interest in Amy that’s tied up in issues of approaching middle-age, the loss of a job, a sense of listlessness, and basically having no solid family base since his mother died. Perhaps I’m reading between the lines there, but I think there’s enough sense of richness between Nick and his sister Margo that we get in the broadstrokes even if it’s missing the little details.
Though maybe part of this is related to the film’s overall construction, and we get more overtly into Amy’s headspace thanks to her diary entries and narration and actions. Which then shifts once we realized that Amy is a genius supervillain psychopath. Nick only has narration as bookends, if I remember right.
After the film we talked a bit about the use of narration and the novelistic vs. cinematic conventions of storytelling. That’s worth exploring here since the structure of the diary entries and how they’re crosscut with the present (e.g., we see the high-thread-count bedsheets as a gift and then cut to the present with Nick laying some crappy sheets on his sister’s couch) is what propels the first third of the film. They’re interlinked, with the past (invented or not) commenting on what’s unfolding in the present.
Alec: Hmm… you know the way the present and past were intercut didn’t even occur to me. I think I was too busy yearning for a different sort of juxtaposition that what was there to really pay attention. But to that point, putting opulence up against relative squalor (per your example with the sheets) is just kind of whatever, specifically because it’s also something a book can do. What a book can’t do is what is what Gone Girl didn’t do: juxtapose fact with fiction. And here I’ll admit that the narrative as presented probably wouldn’t work if the film did this, but that leads me to think that the film wouldn’t be like this if the same basic premise were created as a film from the start.
One of the things that makes True Detective so fascinating early on is hearing Rustin Cole tell one story while watching a completely different one play out. In Gone Girl, Amy is a liar, but the world that we’re presented is the one she has fabricated. We see Ben Affleck hit her, because that’s what she says he did, but that probably isn’t what happened (or at least not exactly as it happened).
Playing voiceover that exaggerates (if not entirely fabricates) events over the actual events as they took place wouldn’t work early on, but it could have been used later. (For example: While the detective is reading through the diary after it’s been found. She’s now imagining what we saw before but we are now seeing it as it actually happened. A not-good example: Amy puts her hand on Nick’s shoulder and he knocks it away, which is exaggerated into him actually hitting her. (Doing this would also mean that the answers to the mystery are drip fed rather than all revealed simultaneously. Which wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, because it’s almost silly just how complete Amy’s explanation of her misdeeds is. I could practically see the ribbon it was so perfectly wrapped up.))
What this all points to is the fact that the film itself is unreliable. In True Detective, the characters will lie but the camera will not. In Gone Girl, characters are liars, but so are the filmmakers. We may hear other perspectives, but we only ever see Amy’s. And that’s really important. We don’t trust Nick initially, not because he’s a liar but because Amy is. He seems like an unreliable character but he’s really not. The fact that he’s cheating on his wife makes him a bad guy, but in the face of Amy’s insanity I can kinda understand it.
(Ben Affleck’s point at the Q&A about the difference between female reactions to his character (“What was it like playing a dick?”) and male ones (“Mhm”) seems particularly poignant here.)
But I think it does get to something you implied earlier: Nick is a trope, and you can understand him because of that. I’ve seen enough similar characters to know who he is. And though he may be in a unique situation, he acts in pretty much exactly the way you’d expect himo. I wouldn’t say I understand Nick so much as I understand his character type. Amy is the only character I felt like I really got to know. I definitely got that many of these characters were interesting and unique, but I wanted to see them develop more. Nobody really develops throughout the film other than Amy. That isn’t to say the rest of the characters are one-note and/or boring (they’re not), but Tanner Bolt’s motivations are always the same, as are Margo’s and Desi’s and the detective’s and everyone else’s.
Even Nick’s motivations don’t really change. It just feels like they do because we don’t actually know what those motivations are until later in the film.
Hubert: With regard to opulence vs. squalor with the sheets, I think it sets up a contrast of where the relationship has gone and how far it’s degraded. There’s another moment where Amy’s final line in a diary entry is about how things in the relationship were about to get much worse, which is used as a segue to the “Save Amy” headquarters scene in which a woman takes the selfie with Nick and where his guilt in the public eye becomes more pronounced. Each cut away from the diary does have a kind of tie to the present in lines spoken or objects in the frame, so it generates this kind of dialogue about the fall of the relationship and the continuing fall in the present. Though the interesting link for the two stories joining in the approximate present are those post-its: one set of post-its for marking evidence in the home, the other set of post-its as chronological to-do’s for Amy in hiding.
As for what’s shown from Amy’s diary, I don’t think all of it is necessarily a fabrication or at least a complete fabrication. Nick is capable of violence against Amy. He even tells his sister that when he came back home and found the door open and the glass table shattered, he secretly wished that Amy had been kidnapped and killed. Toward the end of the film, Nick slams Amy against the wall with malice. Given, the reason for his violence against her has changed by that point (i.e., he’s gone from “I f**king hate my f**king wife” to “This murderous f**king psychopath I married is f**king manipulating me into having a f**king baby”), but to me suggests that Nick shoving Amy to the ground did happen in some fashion, and there were some other kinds of aggression or anger that have been building over the years.
I think the fact vs. fiction idea is explored throughout Gone Girl, but the terms are reframed: it’s about perception and reality. (That Affleck line from the Q & A is important since the events of the movie are affected by the viewer’s gender/ideas about gender as well as the viewer’s own experiences.) Fincher and Flynn show how people act in order to get what they want, and once they get what they want, what happens when they no longer have to play that part.
Nick is a smooth Prince Charming-type when he flirts with and eventually sleeps with Amy, but as their relationship wears on (affected by death, the recession, and falling out of love), he becomes more domineering and distant; he repeats the same Prince Charming act to seduce his student. Nick also plays a part for the TV cameras, coached into penitence by Tanner Bolt whereas his initial responses (his real ones) wouldn’t have gotten him the sympathy he’s looking for. He plays a part for his sister to hide how screwed up his marriage is. And Amy is all about playing parts to please others, when in reality she’s playing these parts to get what she wants; with Nick, she wants him to play the penitent Prince Charming she sees on a TV interview because that was the person that she first fell in love with and still loves (i.e., a facade).
There’s also the town’s perceptions of Nick and Amy and the media’s perceptions of Nick and Amy and how these feed into larger narratives from other murder and domestic violence cases and even fictional cases and stories (i.e., I used the term Prince Charming to describe Nick). These issues of fact and fiction are left intentionally irresolvable–much like the inability to know what’s going on in someone else’s head, perhaps we can never discern our perceptions of a person from the reality. That may explain why I think I get Nick from all the different perceptions of him on display–I may have missed the real him entirely.
Getting back to the diary, Amy’s voiceover is storytelling machinery likely tied to the fact this is a literary adaptation. After the screening we were talking about voiceover narration and your issues with it. In Gone Girl the voiceover seems a necessary means of relating the events in the story when the primary source of evidence is a diary. Her voiceover differentiates the text describing the past and the voiceover-less events of the present, and gives the first half of the movie a certain shape that’s then altered. I think it’s used well, because all of Amy’s voiceover is a means of relating the events in the diary and the machinations of her own murder plot, catching us up to where she is by the end of the first day of being gone. Once the supervillain explication is completed, Amy’s narrative is then allowed to unfold in present time (relatively speaking) alongside Nick’s narrative without the need for narration. The only other narration is Nick’s bookending lines, ones of curious uncertainty at the beginning and terrified uncertainty at the end.
I don’t think the movie would be as successful without the voiceover, and it didn’t particularly bother me since everything else seemed compelling. Maybe talk about voiceover and Fincher’s strategies for adaptation, since as you pointed out in your review, Fincher loves him some adaptations.
[To be continued on Monday, October 6th.]