Flixist Discusses: An analysis of David Fincher’s Gone Girl (Part 2)


Welcome to part two of our two-part discussion of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. If you missed part one, I highly recommend checking it out. This is a direct continuation of the dialogue that special guest Hubert Vigilla and I have already begun, so we’re jumping right on in.

For those who are just joining us, though, welcome to the Flixist Discusses analysis of Gone Girl. We are spoiling the heck out of the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you should stop right here. And it’s not just about ruining the big twists; you won’t even have a point of reference for what we’re talking if you haven’t seen the film.

But let’s just get to it, shall we?

[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 52nd New York Film Festival. More information can be found here, and all of our coverage can be found here.]

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

Alec: The issue with doing these things is that you tend to make me look kinda stupid. I agree with a lot of what you said, but somewhere in there you actually highlighted my point (while making a different point entirely). I think it’s totally plausible that there were things in the relationship that may have given Amy a reason to think possibly he was dangerous or something. (Though I would argue that would deflate the impact of the time when he finally does hit her. That moment is only really powerful if he’s finally at the end of his rope and does something he would never have otherwise done.)

 But the problem is that I don’t know. We’re watching a movie about a dead relationship that we don’t get to see the death of. We see them happy and then we see a fabricated (or at the very least exaggerated) version of its downfall. The only actual part of the relationship we ever see is the good times and then the present day. We don’t see the actual relationship fall apart, not really. We see plenty of reasons why it might have happened, but every single instance is mixed with, “But why?” If they had already fallen out of love, why did she go to meet Nick at the bar (in a scene that, in retrospect, was very reminiscent of the end of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo adaptation)? By the time she’s telling the story of their move back to Nick’s home she’s already sewing false seeds. Nick tells the police that Amy got along really well with his mother. I never saw any reason for him to lie about that, but Amy’s version tells it like she’s a stranger in the home. There’s every reason for her to lie. 

So what actually happened at each of these moments?

Think of Fight Club. We see the world one way through an unreliable narrator, and then once we learn that he’s unreliable we see these moments again as they truly were. That is what I wanted from Gone Girl. When the Detective is reading the diary, why don’t we see something new? Shit, when the detective is asking Nick what is and isn’t true, why don’t we see his version of events? (Trick question: If they’re fabricated, there can’t actually be a second version, but that isn’t the point. The point is that even once you know Amy is a lying, conniving psychopath, you still don’t get to see another point of view on what happened to that relationship. And because you don’t really know when fact becomes fiction, you’re left doubting everything.

The film explains every single tiny detail of Amy’s ridiculously elaborate plan to implicate Nick in her murder, but we don’t actually get to see the moment that pushed her to do it? Come on.

To the point of adaptation, though, all of this serves to make the film feel less like a movie and more like something that came from a book. The scenes that are really the most successful in Gone Girl are the ones surrounding the media blitz. You can write a Nancy Grace analogue, but it will never be as effective as one that’s being physically portrayed. The diary entries are filmed versions of writing, and they feel like that. They’re very well done, but they don’t give you anything that the book can’t. If the TV shows are pulled from the book, I expect the originals pale in comparison to the film’s portrayal.

A good adaptation needs to justify its own existence, right? I mean, otherwise why make it? I know the ending is different, but I’m not sure how different. The ending as presented here works better than the ending that is explained on the Wikipedia page. I like that about it, and in the long run it serves the film well, but the way it switches gears is just so freaking jarring, and that’s undoubtedly because it is an adaptation. There are diary entries in the book, and thus they must be in the film.

And now that I think about it, the voiceover isn’t even really necessary. The scenes obviously take place in the past, and if they were given a “Fifty days before Gone” or something, we’d be like, “Okay, the past.” And then when it turns out she’s a liar, it’s like, “Wait, what?!” And then when the detective is reading her diary and then it’s like “OH SHIT THAT’S WHAT WE SAW?! WAIT! EVERYTHING WE SAW WAS FABRICATED?! MIND BLOWN!” 

It would require some leg work to make it really flow properly, but it absolutely could have been done. And it would have kept the mystery going. The shift from mystery to thriller would have been gradual, and that would have served the experience better than the abrupt transition that currently exists. 

I don’t want to sound like I am one of those hoity toity people who thinks they know better than David Fincher about how to do anything, but my point is that the way it was done is not the only way it could have been done. Literally every example I’ve given here would have made Gone Girl a worse movie. (I can sense that everyone reading this agrees.) As is, it’s a great film. But it’s not as great an adaptation as his previous works. The Social Network doesn’t feel like an adaptation. Nor does Benjamin Button or Zodiac. Heck, even the narration-heavy Fight Club doesn’t feel like an adaptation the way Gone Girl does. 

Fight Club still

Hubert: I don’t think there’s any one moment that pushes Amy to create the perfect murder. It may have been Albert Camus who wrote that there’s never a single event that leads to a person’s suicide but a whole series of events in the aggregate. Ultimately we’d need to delve even deeper into Amy’s psyche and find out why she’s psychotic and/or sociopathic to find some of the underlying reasons why she’d contemplate self-murder. But like Hannibal Lecter, I don’t see the need for the over explication of Amy’s psychology since that would get in the way of the story unfolding and would also rob the film of the power in its bookending question: “What’s going on in her head?” (Regarding the flashback scene at the bar in winter, I suspect this: Amy was suspicious about Nick going out all the time without her, so she followed him that night  without him realizing it. She wasn’t going to meet him at the bar, but she simply went where she knew he was in order to confirm her own suspicions about Nick’s activities.)

Similarly, I don’t think the fall of the relationship needs to be explicitly depicted on screen since there’s enough there to connect the dots as to why the relationship fell apart. They both lose their jobs, Amy uses most of her trust fund money to help her parents, Nick resents her for giving away that financial cushion, Nick starts becoming aloof and listless, they move to the Midwest where the dynamics of their personal/social/cultural lives are different, Amy feels isolated, Nick’s not the same person he was, Amy buys Nick and his sister a bar, their sex becomes dispassionate and one-sided rather than adventurous and mutually fulfilling, Nick has an affair, Amy wants a baby to save their marriage, Nick wants a divorce. These are states of decline that are taken in the aggregate and the depiction of other disatisfactions doesn’t need to be explicit nor does the exact rock-bottom moment need to be on screen. 

To the whole nature of what is real and what actually happened, it may be helpful to get away from binary thinking about fact and fiction, like only Nick or Amy can be right and the other is wrong. For example, Amy can get along well with Nick’s mom while at the same time feeling alienated in the Midwest. These are facets of perception–Amy is great at playing parts for people but inside she feels empty and alone. It’s like when a friend seems really happy in public but inside he or she is deeply depressed. Dealing with tough situations, we often speak of “putting on a brave face” for the sake of others. There are often outward appearances that may not be the expression of someone’s inner state.

This isn’t to say that the truth is always somewhere in the middle (that’s an oversimplification) but rather that the truth is multi-facted and complicated, especially when we’re talking about interpersonal relationships. That’s why I don’t think everything in Amy’s diary is a total fabrication. Even if it’s manipulative, there needs to be enough truth in it to make it work as evidence; there may be exaggerations and omissions and calculation about how things are said and what is included, but it’s not all invented–there are seeds of truth.

There could be a larger discussion in here about the use of functional devices to move a story along–like the voiceover used when a diary is a primary piece of evidence–and whether or not these functional devices detract from the experience of watching a film. (That’s maybe another guest appearance.)

But I did want to bring up something interesting about reviews of Gone Girl. As Matt Singer pointed out on The Dissolve earlier in the week, a lot of the reviews are positive but many of them basically say, “This movie is good, but it’s David Fincher dealing with trashy material,” which is the same sort of accusation lobbed at Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (i.e., well-written beach read, good for a genre novel, all right for an airport book). Should the movie be considered high-level trash or is that some odd high-art/low-art snootiness that doesn’t really belong in this conversation? Or is something else going on in this distinction?

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck

Alec: I think there’s just a fundamental disagreement here. I literally don’t trust any part of Amy’s story other than those first few good times. I don’t even know that I believe she gave away her trust fund to her parents. She says they moved because they ran out of money. He says they moved to be with his dying mother. Based on the fact that she was still able to buy him a bar and was continuing to support his spending, one of those strikes me as more plausible than the other. (Though I expect the truth does lie somewhere in between.) Gone Girl gives me no reason to believe any of it and lots of reasons to disbelieve it. (I’m also almost positive that she explicitly says the later entries are mostly fabrications in her voiceover explaining her elaborate plan.)

I mean, the film makes it very clear that Nick wants the kid, not Amy. When Amy eventually gets pregnant, she does it to trap Nick in the relationship, because that’s the thing that he had really wanted all along, and he will trap himself in a horrific relationship in order to raise that child. Which is sort of the point. I get what drives him. But I don’t get what drives Amy, because I don’t have context for Amy.

Psychopaths are born psychopaths. There wasn’t some moment in her past that did that to her. And that makes it all the more important that the film gives context for her actions. Psychopaths are by definition unsympathetic characters, so they need something to grab onto. If she’s going to go to ludicrous lengths to destroy her husband, we need to see the inciting incident(s). And we need to see them at least semi-objectively.

Heck, even if we got the events as she actually perceived them, that would be more meaningful than what we got. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between fabrication and reality, it’s still not enough to justify her motivations. She is the way she is, but while I find psychopaths inherently interesting, Gone Girl only gives her actual thought process from the moment she decides to ruin him through her decision to keep him with her. We don’t get her thoughts from before that. Psychopaths definitely do things just because, but that sort of needs some inciting incidents. We’re given a glimpse at some probably-fabricated ones. I don’t think that’s good enough.

And for what it’s worth, here’s a crucial fact: Psychopaths don’t feel fear. The very implication that she was ever afraid of her husband (who she refers to as “stupid” rather than “dangerous” in her monologue) means she was at the very least fabricating her response to events, even if the events were possibly real. (Which I doubt more than you do.)

But let’s move on to trashiness, because I find the argument verging on offensive. First up, we’ve talked about actual trash in a previous one of these things, and nothing that David Fincher could ever make would really fall into that category. But even if we were to pretend like it was a valid argument and not just snooty pretension, anyone saying that clearly hasn’t seen a David Fincher film. If anything, Gone Girl is less trashy than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Plus, Fincher is the director who had the line “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school” put into his adaptation of Fight Club (which is pretty trashy material itself).

To make the argument that Gone Girl is somehow lesser than his other work because it’s trashier is a fundamental misunderstanding of his other work. Sure, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on Fitzgerald, but that seems like the outlier to me. If we’re calling source material like Gone Girl trash, then I’d say a lot of his work is high-level trash. (The same could be said about Se7en, really.)

But it also just doesn’t matter. It gets into that argument of art vs. entertainment. Is Gone Girl the book art or entertainment? Is the resulting film adaptation art or entertainment? It doesn’t matter, and the fact that people argue over it all the time just makes me sad.

But that’s really a discussion for another day. 

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in David Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hubert: This fundamental disagreement is pretty fascinating. Essentially we’re talking about what’s necessary for each of us to buy into a story or maybe accept the events of a story and the motives of its characters. And yeah, that’s something personal and varied. I suppose for I’m okay with negotiating the uncertainties of the story/characters as long as I feel like there’s enough to put the pieces together even among the omissions, fabrications, and uncertainties. Based on what you mentioned, one question I have for you about Amy is this: what is it about those good times with Nick that feel more believable to you compared to what comes after?

Regarding the trust fund, though, she says she gives most of the million dollars remaining to her parents, but she can still use the remainder to help with the move and to buy the bar (which could have been an oblique attempt to buy back Nick’s love as his disinterest grows). Also, they move to Missouri because of Nick’s mom and also because of money. It can be both. The cost of living in Missouri is far less than New York, and if there’s a family tragedy involved on top of the recession, the idea of relocating seems sensible for a pair of unemployed writers with dwindling funds and no job prospects in the city.

Briefly on the note of fear, there are moments when Amy does show fear that are in character. Take that moment when she’s hiding out in the Ozarks and her two neighbors figure out that she’s got money and her story doesn’t check out. She gets paranoid and cleans her place and hides the money elsewhere, and there’s a sense of terror and vulnerability in her when the two neighbors enter her place and take her cash. Or when she’s in that huge lake house with Desi, she seems a little afraid about cameras being everywhere and her inability to leave at will (at least until she figures out how to kill Desi). So maybe one of the weak spots in Amy’s psychopathic armor are those moments where she doesn’t feel in control. That’s when she’s afraid, even if it’s just a temporary feeling before she’s able to regain control through manipulation.

And I agree that calling Gone Girl trash simply because of its genre or the plot’s luridness seems silly to me. The events may be trashy to some degree–it’s a movie where tabloid sensationalism represents one layer of the story–but the way Fincher and Flynn explore the events and what they’re trying to say about relationships and the way we present ourselves to others gets at something bigger. It’s too artfully constructed, too well-performed, and too nuanced to simply call it junk entertainment and pass it off like that.

But yeah, the high/low distinction is a much, much bigger discussion, and this one is plenty big already.

The last time they were all happy

Alec: The reason I believe those early moments is pretty simple: Because it comes from multiple sources. Amy says they’re true overly-explanatory monologue and Nick corroborates them in police questioning. As I said earlier, the film itself seems every bit as unreliable as its narrator, so unless it comes corroborated (or from honest Amy’s monologue), I have trouble believing in it. And when it came down to it, I generally assumed that Nick was telling the truth about his own past. I mean, the fact that he didn’t call for a lawyer is generally a sign that he believed in his innocence and in his case. If he had been physically abusive or knew that his wife had bought a gun or any of that, I expect he would have requested counsel from the outset. 

As for chinks in her psychopathic armor, I’m not sure it’s fear that’s driving her. If it was, I think her reaction to being robbed would have been different. She’s worried about the potential loss of control of her situation or that she might be found out, but when she gets robbed she doesn’t react like a person who’s afraid. She gets mad, and then figures out her next step. At Desi’s, she’s worried about the cameras because they are evidence that she is still alive. Desi’s desire to make her look like her old self again only compounds that. But I wouldn’t really call it fear. (And even that she works to her advantage.)

All of that said, though, all of my issues with it didn’t stop me from really, really enjoying my time watching it. I was blown away by the places the narrative went, structure be damned, and Fincer’s directorial ability is pretty much unparalleled. Following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I heard a lot of people say his work was technically flawless but emotionally stunted. They compared it unfavorably to the less-impressive Swedish film, which was less impressive visually but had more of a heart. And while I can’t say I disagree with the assessment, I also think it doesn’t matter. David Fincher is one of the best directors working today. And though Gone Girl isn’t his best film by a long shot, it’s still among the better films released this year.