By Preston Wilder
Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) know exactly what kind of couple they are – and what kind of couple they aren’t, the kind of couple where the man is like a dancing monkey “to be trained and paraded” while the woman is like the Highway Patrol, to be outfoxed and evaded. They have the disease of our age, the curse of self-consciousness. “I have to kiss you now,” says Nick while they’re courting, and does. Later on, he and his sister open a bar called ‘The Bar’. “Very meta,” notes the investigating cop.
The cop is investigating Amy’s disappearance. She’s gone, and it looks like an abduction – but the cops think it was murder, and Nick is the obvious suspect. “I feel like I’m in a Law and Order episode,” he quips, still self-conscious – but we’ve already seen excerpts from Amy’s diaries, charting the decline of their five-year marriage, and we know that he changed from a loving soulmate to a man who used her for sex, neglected her and finally abused her. “My husband has come undone,” writes Amy, then finally: “I am frightened of my own husband.”
Things aren’t exactly as they seem, of course. Gillian Flynn’s original novel (which I haven’t read) would hardly have become an international bestseller if they were. The plot seems quite trashy, with some far-fetched twists (though I only spotted one possible plot-hole: shouldn’t Nick try to exonerate himself by showing the cops the “clue” that led to the woodshed?) but director David Fincher turns it into a moody, mordant showcase for some fascinating subjects. Living in a self-conscious world, as already mentioned. The war between men and women. The unspoken primacy of money in America. And, most importantly, control, a favourite Fincher theme since the days of Seven and The Game.
The film is a battle for control, typified in the he-said-she-said structure of the first half. The plot is explicitly about control (saying more would spoil it). The war between men and women is a war for control. “She annexed me!” cries a man whose life has been ruined by a vengeful woman’s false accusation of rape. A woman’s body is her chief weapon – though TV is another weapon, and that takes us back to self-consciousness. In a media-savvy age, appearance is everything; everyone’s playing a part. Nick and Amy thought they were a great couple, but in fact they were a fake couple. Amy wasn’t the “cool girl” Nick wanted, she just pretended to be that girl. Nick was a fake New Yorker, actually a hayseed from Missouri (the couple move back to his hometown, which is where the marriage begins to unravel). He was playing a part, just as he later plays a part – the “doofus husband” – to make a good impression on TV.
Affleck is probably the weak link here. The film tries to use his woodenness as an actor, even making reference to it – “Try it again, a little less wooden,” says his lawyer while he’s being prepped – but he’s in almost every scene, and it starts to get tedious; Gone Girl cries out for the quicksilver charisma Jesse Eisenberg brought to Mark Zuckerberg in Fincher’s The Social Network. There are other issues one could raise, for instance misogyny – though it tries hard to include sympathetic women (the cop, Nick’s sister), and of course Gillian Flynn is herself a woman – and the rhythm itself, a fast, even rhythm I associate with TV shows. Mostly, however, Gone Girl is gripping, a hard-boiled thriller that could take its cue from Amy’s comment when the happy couple buy each other the same anniversary gift: “We’re so cute, I want to punch us in the face.”
Love withers and dies in the film’s cynical world. Sex is implicitly dangerous, and in one case ends badly (to put it mildly). Getting naked together in the shower isn’t about mutual attraction, it’s about making sure no-one’s wearing a wire. Yet this film – a veritable time-capsule of social concerns and anxieties in the year 2014 – has a certain compassion too. Amy is haunted by ‘Amazing Amy’, the heroine of a series of children’s books written by her parents, who was always better and more perfect than Amy herself. Nick longs to understand his wife (the opening shot makes that clear) but can’t pierce the enigma: What goes through her head? Their marriage is killed by the recession – the primacy of money, again – taking away the couple’s jobs and making them confront their true selves.
Above all, there’s a rueful distance in Gone Girl’s vision of a world where some (or most) wives do indeed view their husbands as dancing monkeys to be trained and paraded, and some (or most) husbands do indeed view their wives as the Highway Patrol. Why do we love each other, asks Nick near the end, only to torment and cause pain to each other? A pause, a shrug: “That’s marriage”.
DIRECTED BY David Fincher
STARRING Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
US 2014 149 mins