Take Scott Peterson and Casey Anthony, whip them together in the prose of Gillian Flynn, then strain through the mainstream grit of director David Fincher and you get—Gone Girl. The film has already stirred a storm of controversy, especially claims of the film’s misogyny. I won’t necessarily assume that you have heard the spoilers behind the outrage, but perhaps you have at least heard that some people are mad—and with good reason.
In some ways, this response is a fine reflection of one of the film’s key themes: hysteria and mob mentalities conjured by sensational media. Flynn’s original novel did not receive the same sort of outrage perhaps because the quiet subtlety of a novel allows people more time to reflect and fully examine the characters. The audience for long-fiction might also be more inclined toward critical analysis than your average moviegoer, looking for a two-hour thrill. The movie is much more fast-paced, and David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) is not known for his subtlety. Prior to the film’s release, gossip sites were abuzz—not about the difficult subject matter of the book so much as word that Ben Affleck went full-frontal in one scene. It is little surprise that the film has received blowback that the book did not; the film is less nuanced and more sensational, and so is the way it has been marketed.
One can call it the nature of the beast, but it would be cynical to suggest that this it what Gone Girl‘s writer and producers intended all along. That would overshadow the rest of the story, which shows how individual manipulation mushrooms into mass manipulation because the dynamics true for two are true for many.
Affleck and Rosemund Pike play Nick and Amy Dunn (Rosemund Pike), a perfect-looking couple. They were writers in New York City before the recession, which forced them to turn to small town life in Missouri. Once isolated, their marriage goes under an emotional magnifying glass that exposes deep-seated problems. And then…Amy goes missing; the small town goes into hysterics. Fingers begin pointing to Nick as the prime suspect and the whole nation is in a media outrage. But things are not as they appear.
And that is the crux of the story: Things are not what they appear. If individuals are suspect, the plural mob and media should be under all the more scrutiny. In this case, Fincher’s crunchy artifice actually works to the film’s advantage. His mind-bending film antics flay the institution of marriage, gender, psychosis and mass perceptions. It touches soft spots in the viewer because Fincher is riding a cultural wave which is at once cynical about romance, sex and media and yet utterly addicted to it.
Yet, we can’t just brush off the issue of casual misogyny in the film, because Fincher’s sensational style threatens to trivialize or even demonize real victims of assault. In a way, I am forced to give two reviews: a positive one based objectively on the filmmaking, pacing and acting, and a negative one for its overall effect. Below, I will have to include some spoilers among some statistics, so keep reading only if you already know the ending.
Although this narrative is successful in relaying the message of “things are not what they appear,” it has a dark cloud. With the story’s twist, we are presented with perfect wife Amy’s dark side—a calculating sociopath whose disappearance is a plot to destroy her husband. By the end, she has faked her own rape, committed homicide, and yet to the rest of the world she is both heroic and a “damsel in distress”—what could be more appealing to the masses?
The fake rape has been the major point of contention, though in public discourse the topic often becomes a men vs women scenario. This is not productive. Yes, women can be sociopaths. Yes, men can be victims. But in a country where politicians use the term “legitimate rape” and women often are afraid to report rape for fear the authorities will deride and doubt them and open them up to shame—and in a world where in some places rape victims are punished BY the authorities—this is not just any plot twist. The film itself admits to the manipulative power of media, and it will be seen as a potent affirmation of misogyny by overt and covert misogynists.
To quote Seattle writer Lindy West in her GQ article titled “Gone Girl Girl Problem”:
Gone Girl confirms what so many woman-haters have long suspected: that women readily use rape accusations as a tool of revenge or escape; that women take some perverse pleasure in weathering rape kits and intrusive interrogations; that when a woman says she was victimized, she deserves suspicion as much as support; that women have some privileged, almost mystical sway over law enforcement; that women take things too far, that we are ungrateful, we are controlling, we are ruthless, we manipulate, we drive men to cheat and then punish them for it, we chew men up and spit them out, on to the next one, the next one, and again, and again.
It should be noted that the critics of Gone Girl‘s portrayal of faked rape generally agree that we don;t need censorship, but we need to see it for what it is and know the facts.
According to crime report conducted by the FBI, of all the rape accusations that are reported only 8% of all incidents are false—and when one considers the volume of unreported rape, one realizes that fake accusations are even rarer compared to actual incidence. Gone Girl’s Amy falls into that vanishingly small percentile, but I fear that although this film has a human message of false appearances, many audiences will apply this to rape victims carte blanche. Some in power already do. Although the psychotic action works perfectly in the story and in Amy’s character, one begins to question if the book should have been made into a movie, as the investment of readers is inherently higher than theatre audiences, and therefore this extremely sensitive issue will inevitably become perfunctory on the big screen.
The great rub is that Amy’s ploy is not just about leaving or even destroying her husband. In the end, it’s a truly psychopathic desire to manipulate as many people as possible, and this is possible because the media will fixate on an attractive, middle class, light-skinned woman. It loves an attractive victim. And if there is a whiff of sex in the air and a hunky, possibly murderous husband on the side…it’s a surefire hit! In short, Amy’s ploy works because the misogyny is inherent, but by the same token that inherent misogyny makes Gone Girl a mess in its messaging.
The controversy that has followed will not change much. Some may have fruitful reflection, others will deepen their sneer toward women. Hopefully, nothing more unsavory will come and the fighting will not become too shrill. Most likely, it will die down just the way the movie ends: with a queasy sort of stalemate, knowing we are stuck with something monstrous for now, but holding out for a brighter future.