Yes, I know, everyone worth listening to has already seen this and commented on it. A little background story: I wanted to see this movie while it was in theatres. I proposed that my family watch it instead of seeing Guardians of the Galaxy which would no doubt be another standard Marvel movie release with all the pew-pews and little else. My sister, of course, had no interest but then it wasn’t really up her alley. My mother, on the other hand, loves going to films and loves seeing thriller and action movies. This would be the perfect situation for a child-parent quality time sort of experience. Of course, that didn’t happen because Gone Girl’s release came and went and my mother expressed no further interest in seeing it and rather bemoaned that we never watched Guardians of the Galaxy. And thus, our movie watching window closed. I had to content myself with hearing other people’s impressions as by the time it was clear I would not be seeing it with my kin, my friends already had.
Anyway, Gone Girl came to video–as movies are want to do–and thus it was possible for us to schedule some time when neither of us were busy so we could sit down and watch the highly contentious movie (contentious only in whose fault it was that we never saw it in theatres). We were both eager for a decent thriller and suspense movie and came in with high hopes especially after all the positive word of mouth surrounding the picture. Aaaaand that was a mistake.
I didn’t like it. Neither did my mom. For her, there was just something off about the movie. For me, I simply didn’t get it.
And this isn’t some sort of confession that the movie was too “intelligent” or complicated to follow. The plot is not, by any stretch, difficult. Everything is explicitly detailed for the viewer. There isn’t any sort of Nolan ambiguity that may create some confusion in the audience. Knowing the truth of the situation is simple because the movie shows you it with any potential contradicting information clearly framed as being unreliable. Yes, the story uses an unreliable narrator but it becomes really evident when things aren’t being present to the audience at face value.
So what was there not to get? This was essentially my conversation with my mother afterwards. It is, to be fair, a perspective that I’m learning most people don’t possess. Most consumers of our media seem to focus on the act of consumption itself. They read the story, the follow the action and they smile or frown at whatever tone the author ties it up with at the end. Few people seem to take the approach which everyone was taught in their (competent) English classes. It seems like there’s a natural aversion to dissecting work and trying to peel the layers back and view the muscles and tissues beneath which make it all work. Perhaps most people are scarred from the English classes. I know I’ve had discussions with Kait about teasing themes and motifs from fiction and at first she always threw up her hands and declared she never saw it. The process is not onerous, however. It is basically taking the mind of a four year old; you simply always ask ‘why?’
As a creative person myself, my major question generally revolves around “Why was this made in the first place.” On first blush, the answer seems obvious: to entertain. But that’s not what I’m looking at. As an entertainer myself, there’s lots of ideas in my head that float around crying out for attention and form. I’m not looking for the reductionist answer for entertainment media, I’m looking for why this specific work had reason to come into being.
I am aware of no writer who sits down to a blank screen, puts their fingers to the keyboard and out pops a novel of its own accord. We are not the proverbial thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. In fact, a lot of new writers struggle with that intimidating empty page. Looking upon that vast white emptiness full of potentials and possibilities can actually stifle creativity and progress. You can get wrapped up in all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘how what about that’ to actually get anywhere. No, writers have some idea when they sit down of the form they wish to create. No sculptor mindlessly chisels at rock and thus no writer mindlessly drools on paper. Thus, there is some core that a story is written around. There is some central idea, theme or metaphor that serves as the foundation for everything that branches outward. This isn’t always something profound. I mean, Star Wars was created because George Lucas wanted to create a movie of his favourite pulp sci-fi action hero Flash Gordon but could not get the rights to the intellectual property. Thus, he made his own. You can see that primary motivation glimmer throughout the first movie before all the elements are brought in to flesh the piece out. He wanted a space opera and thus he created a space opera.
Now, I understand people’s disdain for this analytic approach. I know when I was younger it always felt a little like “reading too much into it” and trying to impose your own motifs and feelings on a piece that were never the author’s intention. I mean, you can look at my prior discussion of sexism in Name of the Wind for something that was not consciously part of this initial creation. These accidental themes are, in my opinion, just as important as the intentional ones for a strong writer will have much better control over their central concept and can keep out unwanted messages that would dilute or distract from their original intent.
So, my question to everyone who saw Gone Girl would be “what was the point of this movie?” I can not answer this question with any degree of confidence and that is what I don’t get about it. I don’t know why it was made (well, I do now because I read interviews of the author afterward) and ultimately that’s because the story is a bit of a mess. At its core Gone Girl is a confused jumble of raw ideas rather haphazardly forged together into a meandering tale. All these little pieces and ideas, on their own, could probably work as a piece but together it becomes too much for me to ignore the ends as they fray and come undone beneath the slightest scrutiny.
But let’s begin with the start since that’s what everyone knows. Gone Girl is at its strongest in its first act. It opens with a rather morose Ben Affleck visiting a woman whose relationship is not made clear immediately preparing the audience for a sense of vague uncertainty. We don’t know anything about these individuals and the tease of a mysterious treasure hunt devised by the hauntingly absent Rosamund Pike is certainly powerful enough to grab attention. It’s not long before Ben Affleck receives a call from a concerned neighbour and he returns home to find an empty house with a smashed table and immediately calls the police. The detectives trouncing about the house is segregated by a narrated backstory by the missing Amy Dunne explaining the happy life her and Nick led before she was dragged out into the Midwest America Suburbia and, for all intents and purposes, died.
As an aside, I find Ben Affleck really distracting in movies. It’s too hard for me to not shake that I’m watching Ben Affleck training to be Batman pretending to be some down on his luck average American whenever he does these kinds of features. It was the same issue in Argo (though made even more apparent in Argo because there was a deliberate attempt to not make everyone else look like a Hollywood Superstar). He’s got the same sort of goofy, Ben Affleck personality as he mopes about the screen kind of being sad about his wife’s disappearance and kind of not. On the one hand, he does a good job of communicating Nick’s detachment from his wife. On the other hand, I feel he would have got that across even if he weren’t trying to do it.
Anyway, digression over, I really liked the set-up and exploration of the two character’s lives as it followed the police’s investigation trying to find this woman and piece together what happened that morning. Nick’s testimony is always held with a bit of skepticism because of his laissez-faire attitude towards the whole affair. As the investigation continues, incongruities in Nick’s personal life and actions rise to the surface. However, there’s always some lingering doubt hanging over his suspicion. Despite Amy’s overtures, the fact that Nick’s sister Margo is so adamant against the woman (and something which is never clarified by either of the main characters thus by structure indicates that her feelings are genuine) and her rather cold demeanor towards her family and the strained relationship she had with them in her recollections make it clear that Amy isn’t some innocent, bumbling homebody that was apt to fall to some nefarious scheme. It’s in these slow moments of revelation while the life of Amy Dunne exists in existential uncertainty that the movie really shines. However, as the pieces begin to surface, it all felt too exact for it to be right. I was glad that the detective was self-aware enough to express the same cynicism over the case and continued to push the question of Amy’s fate away from the meticulously laid explanation that Nick had killed her and back into a more ambiguous “nothing seems right.”
And then the truth is revealed rather abruptly and far too early. Unsurprisingly, Amy is alive and driving off with a giant wad of cash. It’s explained that she discovered Nick’s affair and, so infuriated, decided to absolutely ruin her husband in as self destructive a manner as was possible. This… could have worked and I wouldn’t mind a story looking at how invested a marriage can create between two individuals that when that union becomes inextricably broken, there is no healing the wounds it leaves behind. I can get behind the idea that Amy was so distraught, so shut-off and so isolated that her only way out she could see was to fabricate this highly exacting set-up, manipulate the media towards a favourable bias and have Nick executed for her murder which would be cinched with her own suicide.
But then the movie keeps going. Suddenly, it’s not even about some desperate housewife but tries to reveal that Amy has all along been some incredibly twisted sociopath who has always manipulated the law in her favour against her jilted lovers. She has a habit of rather extreme self-harm in order to present an image of her living a life of constant harassment, abuse and sexual assault. It’s the sort of accumulating nonsense that arises from an need to easily explain a mountain of contradictory behaviour driven less by theme or character and more by a need to raise the ante to see how far one can go. It’s the modern equivalent of ‘the devil made me do it’ and this sort of lazy way out is expected in the incredibly silly modern slasher horror flicks. Somewhere along the way, Gone Girl lost its way and seemed to forget what it was trying to discuss. It devolves into this weird, Silence of the Lambs-esque lens on a bizarrely fictitious psychopath that had tried to elicit sympathy and humanity from its start. It would be like trying to watch Hannibal Lector be a caring if absent minded father in a Modern Family episode before having some inexplicable breakdown and just start eating people while trying to convince you that all that time you were watching him be a sitcom dad he was really also eating people… at some point. Don’t think about it, they didn’t.
It’s this shift from being a character piece to a narrative piece that also leaves Gone Girl in its weakest state by the end. When Amy returns covered in Neil Patrick Harris’ blood after coldly killing him (and not reacting at all to it because… I suppose having your life savings stolen from you is as good enough an excuse to send someone into the extreme depths of antisocial behaviour) the police question her over her story. The contradictions in her desperate attempts to keep her original plan to frame her husband accurate while also pretending she had been kidnapped the entire time are far too obvious and far too easy to prosecute. I mean, she tries to argue that there’s video footage of her imprisonment with the movie conveniently forgetting that there’s only footage for her at the house over two days since she spent the vast majority of the time in a Louisiana motel. Not to mention her arrival at Neil Patrick Harris’ house would look really bizarre seeing that she appeared in disguise and had to be provided with new clothes, hair dye and a diet in order to be returned to her normal look after a month of binge eating snacks.
But no, I’m sure that ten second footage of her crying over spilt brandy on her nightie would certainly trump the fact that nothing else makes a god damn lick of sense.
Gone Girl basically undid itself because it either didn’t have a clear goal of what it wanted to say or it simply didn’t keep to it. It lost its best elements by getting more and more ludicrous in an attempt to keep the “audience on is toes.” By the end of it, I couldn’t help but feel that the story itself is too self indulgent. It feels like it was mainly written as a form of wish fulfillment. The author wanted to explore two characters that were actually one: herself. In Nick, she had a picture of herself: an individual who tries their best but is often foiled by their own petty indulgences and desires. In Amy is the person she wants to be: an individual so in control of herself that she can manipulate even the behemoth media giants to dance to her whim–a woman that is both dangerous and desirable like an addiction that no person can quit.
And at its end, Gone Girl feels like that ludicrous fantasy. All that effort and work spent trying to sustain the suspension of disbelief and to flesh-out and round characters reduced to so many cliches and shallow explanations. It’s about as unsatisfying as Nick’s marriage.