Critic's Notebook: ‘Gone Girl’ Provokes, But Does It Deliver?

Adapted to the big screen, the bestselling story by Gillian Flynn has ignited the blogosphere

Crime and punishment have long occupied David Fincher. With varying degrees of scalpel-sharp precision and gruesome indulgence, in films ranging from Se7en to Panic Room to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he’s trafficked in dark and pulpy fare. His masterpiece, Zodiac, turns an unsolved real-life crime story into an existential inquiry into truth and obsession. It’s a movie that deepens with every viewing. In comparison, there’s little reason to revisit his latest feature; once the missing-person mystery has delivered its jolts, Gone Girl is a closed circuit of a story.

And yet the think-piece culture won’t leave it alone, plumbing the postmodern whodunit for discussions of gender politics, the power dynamics of heterosexual marriage and, in an incisive left-field thesis, the rising distrust of evidence among so-called truthers. The box-office topper, arriving two years after the source novel by Gillian Flynn, clearly hits a zeitgeist nerve. But while it touches on a number of thorny issues, including the downward-spiraling economy, its main draw is that of a juicy premise that’s more than a little bonkers and, for the most part, solidly told. It’s a well-crafted piece of entertainment dressed up as social commentary.

Flynn’s page-turner, with its fluent prose and audacious plotting, undeniably has something to say about the war between the sexes and the roles that both women and men still conform to — notably in its clear-eyed explication of the Cool Girl phenomenon. This much-commented-on passage of the book (excerpted in the film) zeroes in on the ways that female compliance has morphed but hardly disappeared: The Cool Girl likes everything that straight men supposedly like (sports, beer and more), never gets angry or complains and above all is sexually available and “hot” by male standards. And it’s all an act, as phony as the 1950s Happy Homemaker.  

The main character’s pathology increasingly eclipses such sharp observations and the story’s more subtle shadings, though, and the book’s social critique grows muddled. That’s even more true of the movie. And neither would draw such ardent op-ed dissection if the maniacal protagonist weren’t a woman. Female villains are still, somehow, stop-the-presses material. People insist that they stand for something beyond their individual villainy.

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As conceived by Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her novel for the screen), and as played by Rosamund Pike, Amy Elliott Dunne, the mastermind of the story, is a Hitchcock blonde with agency, updated from resourceful victim to master manipulator. She’s supersmart, ultra-narcissistic and emotionally unhinged, and she’s no more representative of womanhood than Kim Novak in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie.

Even so, Amy and her golden-boy-turned-pariah husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), are ultimately arguments more than people. As a rage-fueled sociopath with an extravagant zeal for destruction, she’s a direct descendant of Gene Tierney’s character in Leave Her to Heaven, but only half the woman — less a full-blooded person than a fascinating construct.

It’s worth noting that in a procedural with not one but two unreliable narrators, the most grounded and compelling characters are single women: Nick’s sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), and the detective (Kim Dickens) who leads the investigation into Amy’s disappearance. Refreshingly, neither woman’s unpaired state is treated as a problem in need of remedy — but then again, that would distract from the central notion of marriage as a terminal disorder.

With its stylized, icy approach and late-in-the-proceedings burst of Grand Guignol, Fincher’s film isn’t particularly interested in the "Cool Girl" thesis (which he presents in a way that undermines its meaning). His main concern is Amy’s brilliantly perverse reverse-engineering of a crime and the mutability of truth: the idea of a “perfect story” versus what really happened. The glances at the media circus that surrounds Nick are hardly fresh, but they supply the movie’s strongest through-line.

Read more ‘Gone Girl’: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike on Spousal Deceit and “Becoming Batman” on Set

In one of the latest posts to hit the blogosphere on the meaning of Gone Girl, Vulture contributor Adam Sternbergh argues convincingly that the film taps into the paranoia of a certain subset of conspiracy theorists. Whether the topic is the JFK assassination, the moon landing or the attack on the Boston Marathon, many skeptics assert that the official story isn’t just incomplete, but a carefully plotted lie, complete with fictitious film footage. Indeed, the most chilling aspect of Gone Girl is the perfect fit between Amy’s insanely elaborate planning — her false clues and bogus documentation — and the media’s role in spreading her lies. Journalists’ hunger for eyeball-grabbing, click-generating headlines feeds off the public’s need for that perfect story.

Gone Girl riffs on those domestic drama memes that crime-story consumers and writers have come to expect: the victimized wife, the cheating husband. Mainly, though, it uses them to spin a domestic drama. For all the fine-toothed analysis that Gone Girl has spurred, its thrills are, essentially, the stuff of genre, filtered through a distancing lens.