Two weeks ago in a national paper there was a story about a school teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct with numerous female students (current and former). Some were blowing up his text messages. Sometimes he would show up at a high school party. He had always been an odd character in the classroom, one who had “never left high school.” His ‘worst behavior’ most noticeably amped up after the death of his father, whom he cared after.
I read that story twice and thought about it all day. Two women reporters had written the story, and its subject could have easily been with Ben Affleck’s character Nick Dunne in Gone Girl when he looks at the news anchor on TV accusing him of hiding and murdering his wife. “I’m so sick of being picked apart by women!” he says.
This great one liner pokes fun at the dark situation at hand for Nick Dunne and also the never ending culture and gender wars in media, academia and sexual life. We are suspicious of the dude, but also feel for him in a way.
Nick does have a case insofar as director David Fincher is suspicious of all styles of storytelling. In my morning paper the news reporters hinted at, but didn’t explore, the loneliness gap that the main character had slipped into. After the loss of his father, the man sought connection and validation at school, in all the wrong ways.
This loneliness gap is cleaved wider by the two camps commenting on the story. There are those who loved the man as a teacher and cannot believe he’s guilty and those who want to pick him apart. In Gone Girl the case has pushed Nick Dunne into a position where his sister is his only ally, and where Tyler Perry’s lawyer character Tanner Bolt (if you can afford his $100,000 retainer) is willing to represent him. The disgraced school teacher probably won’t have to deal with the gangs of 24-hours news reporters and paparazzi that descend upon Nick’s house, but the school teacher’s story isn’t cinema, and doesn’t need that incessant activity to make the screen pop. David Fincher’s masterful film is cinema not just for the way he fills a frame, but because Gone Girl explores the loneliness gap.
The place of collapse is the recession of 2008. The victims are two New York magazine writers, Nick Dunne and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike f/ Jack Reacher fame). We know she has built a lot of her identity on being a writer in New York. So when Nick’s mom comes down with cancer and they return to Any Suburb, Missouri we know she has given up a lot of her personality with that decision (in Gillian Flynn’s words from the original novel, her soul is being sucked up by their McMansion). Nick, on the other hand, loves being back home — so his charming writing persona in NY was in part an act. He borrows some of Amy’s trust fund money to open a bar (called The Bar) and hires his favorite sister. We wouldn’t expect anything less of the director/star of The Town. Also, of course, he cheats on his wife with one of his “great” writing students.
(Spoiler alert, if that matters) As a writer, Amy Dunne must rescue her identity from this suburban hell. She plots a scheme so psychotic and intricate that for a time it works. Once she has gotten the world convinced she is dead, and as she’s role playing a New Orleans Blanche Du Bois at a mini golf park, then it is Nick’s turn to have his identity scrambled. A lot of the blocking has Affleck running to his house, or running to a shed where Amy has ingeniously planted, for the detectives, gifts Nick has supposedly bought with his credit card. He’s running away from a past that was demolished by the economic collapse and into an unguaranteed void.
In brilliant lines of dialogue the audience glimpses Nick’s every dude Midwestern decency (“she’s a good person,” he says in private of the mistress who has just ratted him out). Through the mirrors of television he’s guilty as hell of murder; his bad acting at press conference guarantees the public will accuse him of guilt. As a newly minted public personality, he has the chore of editing his every move. A middle-aged woman with a crush offers to cook him chili. When he declines she takes a selfie with him. He asks her to delete it and she won’t. His “self” has effectively been erased, by his wife enacting devious ideas in her vengeance, and by an unforgiving and chaotic social media and major media landscape.
Amy’s inheritance comes from a place as weird as everything else we’re going to see in this movie. Her parents were writers who made her into a character for a children’s book, Amazing Amy. When Amy goes missing her parents go on TV to beg for a search hunt. They still call her Amazing Amy. In one scene with considerable warmth Affleck proposes to Amy in front of a table of low, fuzzy-lit journalists who know Amy as Amazing Amy. With the proposal she becomes a wife, not a children’s book character but a woman wanted by a man. Nick has handed her a new identity, and in front of witnesses. What weirdness that could have happened in Amy’s childhood can only be inferred by the audience during her creepy voice overs and the precious way she handles her private notebook writing. The venomous sweetness of her character is animated by Trent Reznor’s synth score that somehow lightens and darkens the mood, and cues us to the fact that we are watching an absolute fucking tragedy–AND that we shouldn’t take it too seriously.
Fincher seems to have elevated his game to a new level with this one, though there are dragging moments that have me second guessing my instinct that this movie is a work of giddy genius. There is a moment of high gruesomeness that doesn’t play with horror, but humor. I like it this way, but can not tell if that was the filmmakers’ intention. Terrors that would hit us with real power, like in say Rosemary’s Baby or Fatal Attraction, instead float around in a kind of dream ether with Fincher. A way of making a joke, distancing itself from the material. And so the most attainable feelings I could manage were disbelief, black laughter and massive admiration for craft. But the real physical power of a horror story is lost in Fincher’s intricate dialogue, the switch up in narration and plotting, the comedy, and the overwhelmingly yellow and smoky look Fincher is sticking to these days. The dreamlike splendor is completed not just by Reznor’s Kate Bushian synth, but finally with a shower scene that crests the entire event into glorious absurdity. However it is possible that a second and third viewing will prove that this movie has everything.
What is for sure, Fincher is working on a next level concept I can only call Post-Personality. Me and my friend Mickey were speculating about a ‘new style’ after The Social Network. We thought so many movies would come after that had that rainy look, with people on laptops and stories being told that were the opposite of each other’s cut to expert editing. But Fincher has been one of the only directors to step into today’s weird, digital moment.
What were undercurrents of dread in Social Network, to our benefit, manifest themselves with a mythic force and fury in Gone Girl, where the girl’s rage makes her less a character and more a force of fate that was awaiting Affleck the whole time. The storytelling power of this is matched with a smart, laid back quality from the cast, current dialogue (the detective offhandedly says “meta’), while the camera’s leering moodiness reflects the artist’s suspicions about the realities we tell to ourselves, our friends and neighbors, Instagram, Facebook, and our family.
In the Post-Personality moment anything we have thought meaningful to ourselves as people can be wiped away in an instant, by economic forces taking a home, by a random weirdo with a camera, to the human who is sleeping next to you and has been for the last 4 years! In that sense Gone Girl is a story about survivors, ones who can find a new personality, and quick. It’s to Fincher’s credit that his style has adapted to this confusing time and even more a testament to his intelligence and strength that he sees the humor in it, casts Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, and just goes with it.
**Side Note** The humor of Nick and Amy’s personalities is sketched with such art and chilliness that it’s hard to immediately appreciate that the movie presents the best example of how writers minds actually work since Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. (Never mind that the product these kinds of writers produce will be called “genre” or “trash” by serious literary people). Nick’s sense of writing as another jock conquest and Amy’s sense of writing as freedom from family and from self, a freedom to be in the world, makes for the fundamental misunderstanding between them in marriage. The voice overs in which Amy explains her plan to escape Missouri give a glimpse of the storyteller’s brain at its most devious and creatively thriving. The way she classifies other women with sharp lines (“she and her cum-on-me tits”) reveals a glimpse into the career writer’s fastly moving jealous, prideful id. Beautifully casted supporting characters create an atmosphere of the writer’s life as well. Nick’s sister Margo (Carrie Coon) carries an empathy and understanding that gives the movie perspective beyond the wild plot. Touch-of-Jodie-Foster Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) pieces the story together and withholds judgments like a great reader. There may be gore, wife-cheatin, trashy scheming and lurid desires, but Gone Girl feels like the most literary movie around, not just the most current.