Horror for the Whole Family

David Fincher’s Gone Girl revels in the sickness of our culture by making it seem attractive.

Gone Girl is a big enough hit that think pieces on it have been popping up all over. So if you’re not already familiar with the plot of the movie, I’m about to spoil the whole thing for you.

It’s about a nauseating pair of affluent New Yorkers named Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) who take turns giving he-said-she-said accounts of their whirlwind courtship and marriage, which is interrupted by her sudden disappearance on their fifth wedding anniversary. Has she been murdered? Is Nick her killer? Enquiring minds want to know.

Many of the think pieces inspired by the movie involve arguing about whether the movie is feminist in its stance, or favors a men’s movement, anti-feminist position. Where you come down largely depends on whether you embrace the point of view of the demonically evil, homicidal wife or the vapid, dopey, lying jerk of a husband who’s been set up by the wife to look like her murderer. Are you on Team Amy or Team Nick?

Somehow it seems very American, the notion that we should pick a side when watching a film loaded to the brim with contemptible characters. Perhaps our two-party system accounts for it. Are we so used to backing one rotten candidate over the other rotten candidate, hoping to elect the lesser of two evils, that we don’t know any other way to function? When we’re confronted with Gone Girl’s two unreliable narrators, apparently it’s our knee-jerk response to assume we must elect one or the other as our representative in an ongoing gender war.

I wonder, did people watch the old film noir Double Indemnity and root for Walter Neff or Phyllis Dietrichson? Would 1944 audiences have cheered on Neff, the weak, bland, readily corruptible insurance salesman, or Dietrichson, the icy, malevolent femme fatale who uses and destroys him? Or would they have recognized that the film was so chock-full of pathetic, creepy, stunted characters of all descriptions, framed in so many constricted, entrapping ways, it was designed to show that there was something terribly wrong with all of them, as well as the society — or maybe even the cosmos — that formed them?

But Eliana Dockterman of Time magazine regards this side-taking audience participation as proof of Gone Girl’s excellence:

[Novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn] and [director David] Fincher have constructed a movie that forces the audience to debate and pick apart its gender dynamics. There’s no question that Amy is a monster when she slashes Desi’s throat during sex or when she fakes her death to trap Nick. But she does these things to rebel against the boxes others have tried to put her in — “Amazing Amy” by her parents, “Cool Girl” Amy by Nick, beautiful and doting Amy by Desi. It’s an extreme form of rebellion, but an interesting meditation on society’s expectations of women nonetheless. The fact that audience members could answer the question, “who is most sympathetic in the film?” in several different ways is in and of itself an endorsement of the movie.

I can’t agree, personally. I think anyone watching this film who’s inclined to regard either character as “most sympathetic” is off his or her nut. Surely it’s clear that both are despicable, and that the neo-noir world they live in is vile?

No? Not clear?

Aha! There you have it, the general David Fincher Effect in a nutshell. With his films, nothing is ever clear.

Though he’s always skulking around in film-noir territory, the effect Fincher achieves in his films tends to be so murky, people often don’t recognize even that basic fact. A friend of mine noted that Fincher does “dark grey” films rather than definite plunges into blackness. He’s not the Prince of Darkness, “he’s the Prince of Murkness.”

But we’ve got to start somewhere. So here’s Catherine Liu, professor of film and media studies at University of California-Irvine, who recognizes the film noir tendencies of Gone Girl and uses that framework to try to get a clear reading of the film:

Is the film misogynistic? Is it feminist?

Wrong questions; noir has always dealt with anxiety regarding economic mobility. A working class man is usually ensnared in the clutches of a gangster’s moll, or a [hustler]/con woman who has one last grift before she promises our hero that she will get out. She needs rescuing or appears to need rescuing. . .

Gone Girl reprises these tropes with the background of financial crisis, upper middle class entitlement and female empowerment all knotted up in a femme fatale as avatar of credit card debt, economic instability and white collar unemployment.

If you as a woman or male feminist think Anne Dunne (sic) is your heroine or has failed to be your “role model” then you believe that you have more solidarity with the Wall Street trophy wife than you do with the working class or working poor man who is cleaning your gutters, repairing your car, or working on your furnace.

It’s the economy, darlings.

It’s an admirably lucid argument and, much as I hate being called “darling,” I wish I could agree with it wholeheartedly. Then I’d be done with this film already.

Liu is right that the movie makes much of the recession, at least as a major plot point: Amy’s narration provides us with a very full account of her marriage to Nick going sour because both husband and wife lose their jobs, those fake-sounding jobs people have in popular fictions. They also lose most of Amy’s trust fund, and are forced to move from New York City to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, a vague Anytown that expresses the film’s utter lack of interest in flyover country.

But economic concerns seem to get no traction at all. The supposedly broke Nick and Amy buy a McMansion in Missouri, and in every way they continue a life of uninterrupted affluence. Or is that the point, that the affluent tend to escape the consequences of economic instability — they always have more credit to draw on and more connections to wealth, privilege, and opportunity? But in that case, how is noir anxiety about the economy finding expression here? Does Amy really seem like “the avatar of credit card debt?”

Perhaps there’s a reverse-logic operating here, and economic anxieties figure in the way the film plays like a soothing fantasy of always having gobs of money no matter how jobless you are, or how elaborate and expensive your spousal murder plan is.

Even when Amy fakes her own death and drops off the radar in order to frame Nick for her murder, she carries with her massive wads of cash. Though there’s a moment in the film when it seems as if the bottom is about to drop out of Amy’s world of privilege, a lower-class couple sees through Amy’s lame disguise, defies her bogus threat to call the police, and steals her money.

At that point, my own ingrained working-class panic kicked in for a moment: oh my God, she’s out on the road with no cash and no access to credit cards, what the hell will she do? Nothing but fear, danger, and degradation can result!

But no problem, two minutes later she calls her ex-boyfriend Desi (absurdly played by Neil Patrick Harris), who’s filthy rich and offers her a ridiculously posh hideout, so she carries on uninterrupted with her byzantine revenge plan.

Probably the luckiest audience members are those for whom the entire film plays like a campy black comedy. I wish I’d been in that group. But for me, the slow, stately, glacial quality of the Fincher shooting style, which he aims at everything regardless of content, kills all laughs, even the obvious black comic moments in the last third of the film.

The high point of the comedy, such as it is, occurs after Amy tops all previous demonic acts by staging her own abduction, rape, and torture at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Desi, whom she claims to have murdered in self-defense. She returns home to the McMansion in a wheelchair, so covered in Nick’s blood it looks like she’s wearing a viscous red tunic. Surrounded by rapacious media figures hunting blood and scandal — the same rapacious media figures we’ve been satirizing in films for decades now — she totters up to Nick, who greets her by whispering, “You bitch!” in her ear, right before she swoons gracefully for the cameras.

At that point, we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore, or Missouri either, but really, we’d already been floating around in a fantastical but nasty Land of Oz for ages. From the opening scene of the film, a tone is struck that is so artificial it borders on the Brechtian. Here’s Christopher Orr, film critic for the Atlanticdescribing the first shots and voice-over narration:

“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.“

Where to begin? For one thing — and perhaps this is only apparent to those who’ve been married since 10,000 BC, like me — those are not the primal questions of marriage, even presuming that marriage has such things as “primal questions.” Those are perhaps the questions of self-dramatizing teenagers, or twenty-somethings at early stages of sexual involvement, or of fictional lovers in absurd romantic genre films.

If that weren’t enough to put one on high-alert, there’s Affleck’s slow, excessively contemplative, Velveeta-soft delivery combined with the strange camera angle on the back of the head, which, when the head is turned, becomes a “choker close-up” that seems to decapitate the camera subject, an unsettling technique used often in film noir.

People who’ve read the bestselling novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the script) would presumably say that all this is Fincher’s way of indicating what will become quite clear later: that we’ve got two unreliable narrators here, the untrustworthy creep of a husband and the wife so femme fatale-y she whizzes right past the boundaries of film noir into head-spinning demonic horror. Which means we’ve got a lurid potboiler here, right?

Not with Fincher you don’t. He doesn’t boil. Fincher seems to feel that film, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.

And so we’re back to Fincher again. This is hard to avoid, because his camerawork and handling of mise-en-scene is so consistently showy that we’re clearly meant to notice it and wonder about the auteurist sensibility behind it.

Fincher generally makes films that seem to be obsessing over our contemporary culture and finding it sick, and yet apparently reveling in its sickness, wanting to display it from the most handsomely composed perspectives. Those murder tableaux from Seven showcasing the gruesomely tortured exemplars of the Seven Deadly Sins are as precisely arranged and fussed over as if by a sociopathic interior decorator, which is a sensibility Fincher seems to share with that film’s serial killer.

This used to be only an inchoate impression of mine resulting from my feelings of alienation, living as I do in a culture that loves Fincher when I hate him so absolutely. But then, in the process of trying to understand what the hell was up with Gone Girl, I happened upon a little tribute to Fincher’s craftsmanship produced by the Atlantic Video. It ends with Fincher explaining the central theme of his work: “I think all people are perverts. . ..That’s the foundation of my career.”

And with that statement, Fincher tilts his head cutely and smiles, a slow, coy smile broadening into a gleeful smirk. He’s playing the pudgy-faced, greying, middle-aged man as darling naughty boy who’s just said something deliberately outrageous.

Even as I watched it and shuddered with revulsion, I had to admit it — Fincher’s got our number. He’s figured out how to regularly wow contemporary audiences, to present us with the appalling truth of how despicable we are in a way that never really strikes home, by alternating coldly disapproving, feel-bad effects with conspiratorial smirking ones that remove any real sting. He so often uses the trappings of film noir to showcase our “badness,” but since we’re all perverts together, it’s just the “badness” of S&M sex-play, so who cares?

Zodiac is the most seriously disturbing and memorable film he’s done because he does nothing to obscure the effect of looking at a genuinely, not amusingly, bad world. And that’s largely due to subject matter and Fincher’s ability to capture the rank, ugly miasma of the 1970s.

As a rule, Fincher’s films are all dolled-up in beautiful, expensive, classic filmmaking techniques, so we can feel smart and serious about parsing our picturesquely rotten culture and our interestingly twisted selves. It’s a perfect “foundation” for contemporary pop-culture success, works that are pseudo-shocking and ultimately toothless.

The game of Team Amy versus Team Nick is the perfect reaction to a Fincher film. He’s made our American horror show into good unclean fun for the whole family.