Watching Gone Girl

I read (and enjoyed) Gone Girl a while ago, at a friend’s recommendation. I’ve just finished watching the movie this evening (I’ve watched a few others recently that I’m hoping to comment on, but those’ll have to wait). I don’t know if it was following the story a second time, or if it was the differences in the movie narrative, but it felt quite different in the movie. I’ll try to unpack that a little more below [SPOILER ALERT: I’ll try to avoid the main bits, but inevitably I’ll be discussing plot points].

So, first of all, the good stuff. It’s a well done movie. It takes a complex narrative in a rich book, and transposes large chunks of it effectively onto the screen. In what is effectively a complex plot, told from multiple vantage points, the movie carries the audience well – I don’t think there was a point where people would have been lost, even amidst the clues and murder mystery multiple hypothesis. So that was well done. (Although, as I read Christopher Orr’s review, I think he’s right; the first person prose is a strength of the book that’s hard to translate to the movie).

Another element which came out well – perhaps even better than in the book – was the portrayal of the media. Emotionally distant but keen to stir up passion in others, the camera-men hound Nick throughout his ordeal, but are happy to see him when the narrative flips, and he’s no longer a villain. The movie does a good job of reminding that what shows up on a screen is a thin surface slice of a deeper reality. As I mentioned to someone when I left the cinema; the story could almost be thought of as a writer pondering what might lurk beneath the perfect relationships that show up on TV, and then imagining the worst scenario possible.

Having said which, I left the cinema feeling slightly disconcerted, and I’ve been trying to think why. What follows are a few of my musings – I’m still piecing them together.

One thing that’s unusual is that the villain in Gone Girl is machiavellian to a degree that seems almost implausible in any normal human that isn’t Frank Underwood. Certainly not every character has to be a realistic or plausible individual psychologically; but the degree of calculated planning seemed unusual to me, to the extent that it detracted somewhat from the story (both the book and the movie). As an article in The Guardian comments on Gillian Flynn’s novels, ‘her lurid plots make no claim to social realism’. Part of the tension of the narrative is how it examines the multiple viewpoints, the differences in a collapsing relationship (marriage); but it’s blended with a complex murder mystery, and very calculated violence is present throughout. So it made me laugh when I read when Christopher Orr’s description of the opening scene:

“The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” The voice is Ben Affleck’s, and the image on the screen is the back of a woman’s head resting on a pillow—his wife’s head. She is blonde, and even before she turns to face the camera, we know she will be beautiful. (She is, after all, played by Rosamund Pike.) It all might make for a touching opening to the film Gone Girl, if only Affleck’s conjugal musings did not take this unpromising turn: “I imagine cracking open her head, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.” Umm, maybe better just to ask?

A second thing that felt different, on reflection, between the movie and the book is that the book features more of Amy’s voice. There is her struggle, as a child, as her parents set the impossibly high standard of ‘Amazing Amy’. There’s the passion and tenderness, as she and Nick fall in love, and then the disappointment, more gradual and building, as they fall out of that. That felt lost in the movie. There are a few scenes, but they’re not as important. Instead it mostly follows Nick – he’s the sympathetic character, the one we follow. The conclusion, too, felt more balanced between Nick and Amy in the book, their flaws and actions reflecting each other; in the movie I felt it was a little more sympathetic towards Nick.

That imbalance between the voices, particularly compared to the book, is important too, when thinking about the last point, the big one. Misogyny in Gone Girl[SPOILER ALERT: From here on out I may talk through some of the plot points in much more detail]. 

Thinking on it, as I came out of the cinema, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, Gone Girl is essentially the story of two people, Nick and Amy. Even if it paints Amy as cold, manipulative and without feeling, and Nick as lazy, bumbling, and inconsiderate, it’s only talking about two people. There inevitably are relationships where the woman may be more machiavellian, the man more inconsiderately selfish. So in that sense, perhaps it’s unfair to label something that’s only about two people, as sexist.

But at the same time, it felt to me that the detailed intricacies of the murder mystery aside, Gone Girl is in large part about marriage, a story of a man and woman falling out of love. There’s a point in the movie where Nick and Amy laugh about ‘those couples’, where the woman treats her partner like ‘a monkey’, and the man treats his wife like ‘the highway patrol’ (presumably avoiding scrutiny). The two characters laugh about it, and how stupid a way of relating it is between adults.

Later on, though, in telling the story, Gone Girl seems to rely on that very trope, of a conflict where the woman is trying to force the man to live up to her standards, and all he wants to do is relax and look after his own needs. And that bothered me; while there may be relationships that are like that, I felt as though the movie depended a lot on that short-hand to do some of the heavy lifting.

I did a little more searching, and it seems there are mixed opinions. One article argued that Flynn’s characters re-appropriate violence against women. Another article I found quite interesting listed all the sexist tropes/themes to which the movie appeals, and argued based on a detailed reading of how the director David Fincher framed his shots, that Gone Girl is ‘the most feminist mainstream movie in years’. An article in the Washington Post wondered if Amy was simultaneously a misandrist and a misogynist. A BBC critic argued that the movie didn’t do justice to the book (I agree; perhaps it couldn’t?), and that ‘you could call that vision misogynistic’; a Vanity Fair article said it had ‘a strong whiff of misogyny’.

The best review, though, I thought was one over at Vulture. It’s worth reading in full, but the line I liked is:

… as a devoted fan of the book, I will say this about the movie, which Flynn wrote the screenplay for herself: Somehow it took a story about the worst impulses of a straight woman and turned it into a feature-length film about a dopey man. That is not misogyny, exactly, but it is a problem. 

Obviously there is no single, perfect yardstick that all films need to measure up against (although the Bechtel test isn’t a bad rule of thumb, I think). But on balance, I think that although I liked the book a lot, I wouldn’t recommend the movie. It distorts the voices of the two characters (perhaps inevitably, given the material and the constraints of the different formats), in a way that means that Amy is heard much less in the movie, than she was in the book.

And yes, there are some arguments that in portraying the problems with how women are projected onto by family (Amazing Amy), partners (Nick), and broader society, that Gone Girl shows what can go wrong. But to my mind while you can look for that if you find it, that’s not a prominent feature; most of this movie is about Nick, and his story, and being outside Amy’s head and not understanding what drives her leaves us with only tired old tropes to fall back on when we try to understand her.

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