Gone Girl and When Good Movies Happen to Bad People

Gone Girl is really good… but a lot of people are going to love it for all the wrong reasons.

Note I: For a full review of Gone Girl, watch this week’s Escape to the Movies.

Note II: This piece contains spoilers for Gone Girl.

With a few notable exceptions, David Fincher‘s filmography has marked him as a modern master of two very specific genre-subcategories: Great films made on not-necessarily-great foundations (i.e. a gimmick serial-killer chase, a macho paean to punching-as-catharsis, a remake of a Swedish murder-mystery potboiler, a home-invasion thriller, a biopic about the founding of Facebook, etc) and movies you like but end up becoming annoyed with because “everyone else” seems to like them for exactly the wrong reason.

The obvious most-glaring example (both within and, by now, apart from Fincher’s ouvre) is Fight Club. The film itself isn’t exactly subtle about the disdain with which Fincher views the main characters in a story about charismatic blowhard Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) wooing disaffected/emasculated losers into his cathartic bareknuckle-boxing club and gradually focusing their impotent rage and entitled sense of the world owing them the patriarchal comforts of their father’s generation into an anarchist-terrorist campaign. The film does a fine job of showing exactly how, historically, populations of disaffected directionless men have generated violent groupthink-subcultures and quasi-fascist “philosophers” looking to mold them into something more dangerous.

And even though nobody ever turns to the camera to lecture the audience (at least not without irony) I always felt we were left with a pretty clear sense that “Project Mayhem” were a pack of idiots, that Tyler’s “Blow up the civilization so men can be real men again!” sermonizing was little more than re-purposed/generalized Hiterlian “reclaim the Ubermensch birthright” swill (by the end Mayhem’s “space monkey” acolytes are literally skinheads!) and that while disaffection with the modern world was understandable anyone who’d actually swallow this crap was either stupid, weak, a monster or all three.

And yet… no sooner had Fight Club found its way to home video than you started to hear stories about fans of the film starting for-real “fight clubs” of their own, and (more commonly) started to see Tyler Durden’s rambling testosterone-as-holy-water creeds adopted as yearbook mottos, tattoo fodder and block-text on the then-primitive versions of social media, always among young (usually angry) men and always without a hint of self-awareness. Film geeks and cinephiles had initially celebrated Fight Club — which had bombed spectacularly in theaters, becoming a pop-culture phenomenon on video and DVD. But soon a sad realization soon set in: A significant number (maybe even the majority) of those new numbers were coming from a vast army of real-life would-be “space monkeys” who had somehow managed to ravenously absorb Tyler Durden’s message of men embracing their inner-neanderthal without also absorbing Fight Club’s message that Tyler Durden is the projection of a pathetic loser that no one should actually follow or listen to.

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And so it is that today, a near-universal experience among film buffs of a certain age is for any discussion that turns to Fight Club to pause momentarily for a heavy sigh, followed by multiple qualifiers in varying forms of “Oh yeah, I love Fight Club… but I haaaaaaate basically everyone else who says they ‘love’ Fight Club.”

And now, having seen Gone Girl (one more time: SPOILER WARNING!) I worry that Fincher has once again gifted the world with an exceptionally great film that will be immediately tarnished by a legion of truly hideous human beings who’ll fundamentally misread it, attach themselves to it as “fans” for the worst possible reasons and, in doing so, leave a stench attached to the piece so foul that no one will be able to praise it with the enthusiasm it deserves without first qualifying their statement with “But I’m not one of Those Guys!”

At issue will be the big mid-movie twist that Gone Girl builds toward and blows up as its central big idea. The story, at first, concerns Ben Affleck as an affable upper-middle class suburban lunk named Nick who comes home the day of his anniversary to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing and their living-room trashed, suggesting a struggle and a kidnapping… or maybe worse. As Nick, the police, Amy’s parents and the media go through the process of investigations, tiplines and searches, evidence begins to emerge (along with flashbacks from Amy’s personal journal) suggesting that their marriage was deeply troubled and that Nick may be the most likely suspect in Amy’s probable murder.

The twist? Amy isn’t dead — she’s a cold-blooded psychopath who has not only gone to extremes to stage her own death and frame Nick for the crime (even the journal is a meticulous forgery)… it seems this isn’t the first time she’s burned a partner with feigned allegations of abuse. As the story goes on, we not only see how she did it but what further acts she’s capable of when cornered or impeded — all while she coolly narrates her own self-justifying storyline, peppered liberally with “lean in” feminist buzzwords about resenting the “cool girl” archetype and the futility of modern male/female couplehood.

Basically, she’s the misandrist she-devil boogeywoman made flesh, and by the time the film has concluded she’s been revealed as completely a monster so specifically of the type — arrogant, over-educated, hyper-assertive, ostentatiously high-class, sex-weaponizing and more resentful of Nick moving her to a Missouri suburb away from her beloved New York than almost anything else — that it’s easy to imagine the film becoming beloved among… well, among folks who’d actually use the term “misandrist she-devil” without irony.

A cursory stroll through any gender-issues discussion on the internet is enough to remind oneself that there exists a potent strain of paranoia among some men that “modern womanhood” is aligned nefariously against them: “Feminist academia” excusing bad behavior, an allegedly female-slanted family court system holding divorced men hostage, a “victimhood industry” that exists to inflate rape and harassment statistics… all operating at the beck and call of black-hearted social-climbing shrews sucking their lust-cowed male prey dry in their pursuit of material comforts.

It’s incredibly easy to imagine that crowd gathering on their subreddits to declare their “love” for Gone Girl as a movie that “gets it” and “tells the truth about feminists!” — namely, that they actually are all just like Amy. Especially in the way her characterization contrasts with Nick’s: a men’s magazine columnist (really!) whose move to the ‘burbs (“It’s quiet and there’s a great lawn! What’s she complaining about!?”) is initially to care for his ailing mother. (See?? He doesn’t hate women!”) At one point Amy scolds him for spending too much time playing video games (“We’re gonna need a bigger hashtag!”) About the only grievance Amy levels that he seems to be 100% guilty of is an affair with a younger woman, and, well… hey, that’s just evolutionary psychology in action — right brah?

“Gone Girl: The movie that exposes The Truth about MISANDRY!” “Amazing Amy” (the name of the character Amy’s children’s-book author parents based on her) as a new favorite social-media slur for women who speak out about rape and abuse (or just about anything, really): “Yeah, sure he did, ‘Amazing Amy!’ Tell me another one!” I can see it clear as day, and not solely because I watched the Fight Club nonsense happen. And I can already feel myself heaving a sigh around late-winter when the film comes up: “Oh! Gone Girl? Loved it! …egh, but not because I’m one of those dudes who thinks it’s ‘really about’ how badly their ex ‘screwed them’ on child-support.”

And like Fight Club, it’ll be a shame because the film deserves better than getting swung like a pop-culture cudgel by people who don’t get it on an almost astonishing level of thickness. Amy is a monster, for certain, but Nick is no innocent waif — even if, yes, being kind of a dumbass doesn’t exactly “equate” to being a ruthless self-taught supervillainess. And it’s profoundly unlikely that either Gillian Flynn (who wrote the book and screenplay on which the film is based) or David Fincher were truly interested in putting out “told ya so!” for an audience of embittered first husbands.

But moreover, the film isn’t really about Amy’s villainy or Nick’s victimhood, any more than Fight Club was “about” Project Mayhem or Se7en was “about” the sins of John Doe’s victims. If it’s about anything it’s about the supposed pillars holding up modern society — principally marriage and family, but also community, the free press, the legal system, the arts, etc — are based so much on performance and mask-wearing. Amy’s sociopathic tendencies may be the extreme, but just how far removed are they from “Amazing Amy,” her parent’s fictional flaw-free version of their own daughter? Or Missi Pyle’s Nancy Grace-inspired tabloid journalist twisting the Nick/Amy narrative to whatever makes her ratings sizzle? Or Tyler Perry as Nick’s media-manipulating celebrity lawyer? Or the fact that Nick and Amy are both clearly miserable as married suburban homebodies yet went about it anyway because “that’s what you do, right?”

It deserves to be discussed for those reasons. And also for the quality of its actors (even Perry is good!), for the skill of its direction, for its gorgeous cinematography, its excellent, unnerving music. For the way all these elements conspire to make seemingly mundane moments like “Man finds a bunch of toys in his shed” or “Woman makes large dollar-store purchase” feel like epic unveilings. For the way it strips the “fat” from the book to get the story down to its lurid, sleazy, increasingly-implausible pulpy bones… then builds those bones up into something even bigger and grander — the same kind of feat Francis Ford Coppola once had to manage when adapting The Godfather.

What it deserves, above all else, is to not be yet another David Fincher movie whose reputation suffers from being intensely admired… for all the wrong reasons.


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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.