The following is an expansion of a Twitter-conversation the three authors–Ryan Holt, Evan Cogswell, and Nathanael Booth–had shortly after seeing Gone Girl. Spoilers should be assumed.
Introduction: Expectations and First Impressions
David Fincher and I have not always gotten along. For me, The Game and The Social Network rank among the best films of their respective decades, but too often I find that Fincher’s misanthropy tumbles into cheap, smug cynicism, and that his severe aesthetic can be so relentless that it can be suffocating. Nevertheless, there’s something about Fincher you just can’t ignore. Beyond being a craftsman of rare precision, he’s very much a filmmaker of his time. He’s made films that are more than films: they’re cultural landmarks (see Fight Club or The Social Network).
My greatest fear with Gone Girl was that, as with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that Fincher would not significantly improve or alter sub-par source material. Fincher has received some criticism for adapting “airport novels” recently, and I don’t mean to echo that complaint. There’s nothing wrong with “airport novels” as a category. Indeed, with their vivid conceits and images, they are often better-suited to cinematic adaptation than so-called “literary” fiction. But they do require tailoring for the screen, and with Dragon Tattoo, Fincher adhered too closely to the structure of its source material.
But I came away enjoying Gone Girl. It’s nasty (which is to be expected), but consistently fun, particularly when, in its last section, it shed any attempt at versimilitude and moved completely into outrageous black comedy. I was uncertain as to whether there was a “there” there–its satire and commentary struck me as being too broad, too obvious–though our conversations following my viewing of the film have convinced me otherwise.
Like Ryan, I have also struggled with Fincher’s severe aesthetic. Prior to Gone Girl, I had seen four Fincher films: The Social Network, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Game. I thought The Game was very good, but while the other three all had some good stretches (or in the case of Zodiac, great stretches), I overall found them to be uneven, tonally jarring, blending too many genres, and somewhat out of control.
So, needless to say, I went into Gone Girl with very low expectations.
And I was pleasantly surprised to find myself admiring Fincher’s craftsmanship and thinking that he put together a film which maintains a compelling aura of suspense while infusing it with dark bits of satire. I think some of the satire could have landed better than it did, especially towards the beginning, but as the film picks up in the second and third acts everything comes together impressively.
I’m guessing this leaves me as the only bona-fide Fincher fan in this group. Which I am. I have been for a while, and I’ll generally go to bat for even a bad Fincher movie (not Benjamin Button, though. Never Benjamin Button). Still, I was less impressed with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than I might have been, and advance buzz for this movie had me expecting something around a middle-grade effort.
And that’s what it was, for about a third of the movie. And then–well–things kick into high gear. The movie got interesting. The movie got really good. I walked out with a grin on my face, thinking it may well be the funniest movie I’ve seen all year–and that includes Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course, in this discussion we won’t get into the humor much at all, so let me just say that this movie is very funny, if your sense of humor is willing to run toward the darker, more twisted areas of the human psyche. Which mine, apparently, is.
The more I’ve thought over it, the better it’s gotten. At this point, it’s easily in my top three or four Fincher movies, both because of its style (which, being Fincher, is impeccable) and its usefulness as a machine for generating interpretations. There’s lots going on here, and we’re just going to be scratching the surface.
The Revenge of the Hitchcock Blonde
As much as I enjoyed it, I wasn’t sold on Gone Girl as a work of any meaningful substance until you two suggested that the most significant throughline here is the way in which Gone Girl toys with Hithcockian conceits.
To me, the most significant and obvious of these is the Hitchcock Blonde, which makes a startling appearance her in Rosamund Pike’s Amy. She’s like a wicked Grace Kelly: porcelain skin, blonde hair, with playful eyes. Once Amy has been “remodeled” by Desi Collings (played by Neil Patrick Harris), she visually becomes the full embodiment of the Hitchcock Blonde, particularly by way of Judy/Madeleine from Vertigo (with Desi Collings in the Scottie role).
This isn’t the first time in cinema history that the Hitchcock Blonde has had her revenge. Perhaps the most iconic example is Basic Instinct, which gave us Catherine Tramell. Tramell is a version of Vertigo’s Madeleine recast as a murderous master manipulator, an object of male desire that treats men like playthings: male fantasy given dangerous life.
But that’s a somewhat different emphasis than Amy, who is by all accounts a more curious, complex character (perhaps a confused character, if you want to be uncharitable). She’s given a specific backstory (she’s the product of parents who created a fictional, “perfect” version of her in a series of children’s books), and a shifting set of motivations that speak to a love-it-hate-it relationship with the different mantles her parents and the men in her life have forced her to wear. This makes her a little more Judy than Madeleine.
So if we extend this reading further, the much talked-about “Cool Girls” speech, which spurns the notion of a woman changing herself for a man, can be seen as an implicit rebuke of Vertigo’s Madeleine persona. But what’s intriguing here is that the rebuke occurs at the story’s mid-way point. By the end of Gone Girl, Amy will adopt another false persona, but this time on her terms.
What I find most intriguing about Amy is the multiple ways she is a Hitchcock Blonde. Our initial perception of Amy is more aligned with that of Marnie, a victim stuck with an aggressive controlling husband, playing the role(s) that her husband and her parents want her to. However, as the second act begins by revealing her scheme, our perception quickly and drastically shifts. It becomes clear that she has encouraged that perception through her manipulation, similar to how Judy manipulated Scottie as Madeline. Unlike Judy; however, Amy relishes her manipulation, which serves as the springboard for her revenge, which as Ryan pointed out on Twitter, makes Amy an anti-Judy.
I’d say she more than relishes it; Amy draws power from it. This is, to me, what makes her such an interesting character: she’s able to convert her weakness (being controlled by others, being held to an impossible ideal like “the Amazing Amy”) into an absolute ability to control everyone around her. If a woman needs to be–in the words of Coco Chanel–“classy and fabulous,” Amy becomes both–by choice, which ends up being her triumph. Indeed, it’s telling that the period when she’s least in control of the situation–when she’s on the run and taken advantage of by the two “white trash” characters–is precisely that period in which she’s given up all the trappings of the Hitchcock Blonde–dyed her hair, affected a frumpy persona, etc–and (just as importantly) has left the kind of world in which those trappings have power. Thus, she’s easily manipulated, herself. She loses everything.
So then she returns, she goes back to Collings. Now, I know Harris is widely regarded as a weak link here, but his character is absolutely central to understanding the movie. Because, for all that he may be well-intentioned, he’s clearly also unbalanced. Or, at least, the movie–which at this point is deep in Amy’s perspective–sees him as a threat. And his obsession is explicitly linked to Vertigo, with a scene in which he talks about getting the “old Amy” back. As Ryan points out, the movie draws an explicit parallel between Collings and Scotty–and never more so than when he plays with a lock of her hair, suggesting that it should be dyed blonde again.
But here’s the difference–here’s where the point about Amy as the anti-Judy and the way she takes on a new persona on her own terms becomes especially important. Because Judy’s submission to Scotty’s perverse desires leads ultimately to her death–a perfect recapitulation of the end of her predecessor. But Amy takes the role forced upon her and transforms it (by blood sacrifice, no less!) into a mode of narrative dominance. After the murder of Collings, there can be no doubt that Amy is in absolute control of the narrative, and will remain so until the end.
Following in the steps of several Hitchcock Blondes, even before the movie begins, Amy has obviously suffered at the hands of two truly awful stage parents. She does not suffer to the same degree as Marnie or as Judy, but her parents clearly instilled in her her knack for role-playing and deception for the camera, which made her revenge so natural for her.
Exactly. Of course, the Hitchcock Blonde is by her nature a victim: Judy and Marnie are obvious examples, but even Lisa in Rear Window has something of the victim about her. The trick in Gone Girl is that Amy is all at once the Hitchcock Blonde pushed to the extreme of obscene psychopathology and a victim of that same ideal and a protagonist in her own right–the last of which, I think, is the most provocative understanding of the movie. I think we’re meant to hold all three perspectives at once. In this way, she’s an extension of Lisbeth Salander, who embodies both the rightfully-vengeful woman and a kind of female Hannibal Lecter (thus, the final scene of Dragon Tattoo). Both of these women are characters who refuse to be categorized along a simple good/evil binary, ultimately becoming rejections of the simplified narrative embodied in the Hitchcock Blonde, as well as the one surrounding her disappearance pushed by the media in Gone Girl.
“He had it coming”
As a big fan of the musical Chicago, a story of two murderers who with the help of a sleazy lawyer convince the media and the public to idolize them as victims, I was instantly reminded of it in the way that Amy and Nick manipulate public opinion by exploiting the media, which begins when Amy rationalizes framing Nick for her murder. Her rationale is incredibly similar to the mentality of the murderesses in Chicago: “he had it coming, he cheated on me, he made me feel unappreciated, and the world will love me for it.”
I’ve not seen Chicago, so I can’t speak to the exact parallel here. But I do think it’s important that, from what I can tell, Amy isn’t wrong about any of the accusations she makes. I mean, of course we can’t know that Nick is violent before the events of the movie–but he certainly is later on.
To reach for another example–one with which I’m more familiar–Amy here is essentially a female Tom Ripley. And here’s where I think a lot of criticisms of the movie go wide of the mark. Yes, Amy’s plot toys with many of the misogynistic narratives about women faking rape, making false accusations, and so on. But from the very moment that Amy is revealed as still being alive–about one-third into the film–we are absolutely expected to be on her side. Most of the fun of this middle section–and a dark, twisted fun it is–derives from watching Amy manipulate circumstances. There’s a genuine pleasure in seeing her reach an impasse before pulling an audacious scheme to extricate herself. And I really do think that–at that point–we’re supposed to be on her side. When Amy is at Colling’s house, we’re shown everything that goes on from what I take to be her perspective. Collings may be “innocent,” but he’s still an obsessed, kind of creepy guy (the casting of Neil Patrick Harris here is crucial; he’s clearly playing a gloss on the Barney Stinson character). The movie is at that point so deeply within Amy’s own perspective, anyway, that any attempt to say whether Collings is “innocent” or “guilty” is a bit of a non-starter.
And it’s telling that these things feed off of each other. Collings’ obsession is encouraged by Amy, and it in turn pushes her into further narcissism. Nick’s violent outburst at the end of the movie is justified in the sense that he’s facing down a psychopathic killer–but she’s a killer who felt (rightly) that Nick was in some sense controlling. He didn’t “have it coming,” in an absolutely moral sense–but in some other ways, I think, he definitely had it coming.
I would say Gone Girl deliberately plays into some of the nastiest examples of sexism in order to exploit them for being as shallow and absurd as they are. Given the way that Fincher turns the tables on the audience, it initially crossed my mind that the story perpetuates the worst notions of men vs. women sexism. However, I think both Nick and Amy are meant to be antiheroes, and the protagonist is the one who is currently portrayed as least sympathetic. For the first third, Nick is the protagonist, and yet he is depicted as clearly having a temper as seen when he yells at a police officer over his father, he is sleeping with his attractive student who might not be a legal adult, and for all we know Amy’s disturbing account of him is true.
When Fincher turns the tables, revealing Amy is a psychopath, the entire story shifts to being told from her point of view, and we are definitely meant to see her as the protagonist. We laugh when she describes how to pull off the perfect murder. “Step one: befriend a local idiot,” and the film cuts to the flaky neighbor who believes she is Amy’s best friend. Fincher does give the audience subtle clues from the beginning that this turnaround is coming. It is clear that Nick is genuinely surprised by Amy’s scavenger hunt clues and he has a receipt from the sperm bank proving he wanted children, neither of which correspond with his portrayal from the flashbacks of Amy’s diary. When she meets Collings (and by the way, after a second viewing, I rescind my comments about Neil Patrick Harris being the weak link in the cast), he attempts to control her, and she uses that to manipulate him and create a story that suggests Collings deserved his comeuppance, which to some extent, he did.
When Nick turns violent in the third act, it completes the transformation of Amy and Nick into aggressive, controlling jerks, both of whom manipulate the media, public opinion, and one another. By placing that outburst right before the interview that is going to convince the world they are a loving, forgiving couple, Fincher really drives that irony home.
To shift gears for a second, I’d like to note that Nick is Gone Girl’s version of the “Wrong Man” archetype, who may be guilty of other crimes but is not guilty of the precise crime of which he is accused and presumed guilty. Gone Girl employs that archetype in ways that we should talk about later, but the presumed guilt versus actual guilt tension here is something that’s quite Hitchcockian.
But if Amy is the Hitchcock Blonde, particularly by way of Vertigo, then it opens up some interesting ways of reading Nick’s own arc: he’s punished throughout the course of Gone Girl, run through the wringer. He learns to play with different identities, different ways of presenting himself (not unlike Amy). And like Amy, he’ll choose to live with her in a fantasy.
In a way, Nick Dunne’s arc is essentially a mirror of Nicholas Van Orton in The Game: manipulated to the point of torture, a man fights against his circumstances only to ultimately make peace with his torturers in the end, a gesture made clear by accepting a romantic relationship with his tormentor. There’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome at play here: Nick and Nicholas both just give up.
But if there’s at least the suggestion of moral improvement on Nicholas Van Orton’s part, Nick’s not really a better person given the journey. He might be worse. He and Amy decide to live together in a fiction, as though Scottie and Judy had been able to come down from the tower at the end of Vertigo and just go on living the lie.
The Wrong Man
Let’s go ahead and develop that idea of “The Wrong Man.” Because, as Ryan mentions, it’s a prominent theme in the movie. The whole film, of course, is a melange of Hitchcock quotations–we’ve mentioned the Hitchcock Blonde, but there’s also a trace of Roger Thornhill in Amy, and the ending of this movie is like a darkly comic twist on Rear Window. For that matter, this movie plays with audience sympathies as deftly as the dropped lighter scene in Strangers on a Train–the one where Bruno is groping for a lighter that will incriminate the protagonist and we, as an audience, are made to almost want Bruno to succeed. Of course, that movie is based on another Highsmith novel, so we link back here to Tom Ripley and his murderous escapades.
But Nick certainly fills the role of the Wrong Man, and his character is a gloss on Hitchcock males who fit the same category. He has all the emasculated helplessness of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window or Vertigo, and his sudden turn to violence in the third act is reminiscent of Scotty’s violence at the end of Vertigo. Nick isn’t particularly sympathetic. At first he is, but the more we find out about him the more we realize that he’s (at best) a sorry shlub who neglected and cheated on his wife. Again, this is something that pushes us–as an audience–to lend credence to Amy’s complaints (and admit her as a protagonist) even though we know that she’s done far, far worse things than Nick has.
I was definitely reminded of Strangers on a Train, not only because of the dropped lighter scene, but also because of Amy’s meticulous plotting to craft the perfect murder and have someone else convicted for it, much like Bruno’s schemes in Strangers on a Train. However, unlike Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, a likeable protagonist who is innocent, Nick has much more in common with the Hitchcock characters who are falsely accused of one crime only to be guilty of something else. One example would be when Lila (Marion’s sister in Psycho) accuses Norman of murdering Marion for the money Marion had stolen. Like Amy’s accusations of Nick, which is false regarding his actions at that time, but true regarding his personality, Lila’s accusation is correct regarding Norman’s actions, but her incorrect focus on his motive simultaneously makes the accusation wrong.
Speaking of Psycho, I think it is worth noting that Gone Girl has a similar switch of protagonists. For the first third of Psycho, Marion, like Nick, is a protagonist who has had an affair and has money troubles. When the story shifts to the perspective of the psychopath at the beginning of the second act, the audience is forced to identify with him/her, and as Nathanael said, the film remains the killer’s story until the end. Shifting the focus of the story like this enabled both Hitchcock and Fincher to play with the viewer’s expectations and get the viewer to root for the wrong man (or woman) as well.
That’s a good catch on the Psycho parallel, and it reminds me that Fincher closes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with an explicit reference to Silence of the Lambs. It seems like he has a knack for tying the female protagonists of his previous two movies in with recognizable (and sympathetic/mesmerizing) male killers from other movies.
The Way We Live Now
So now that we’ve taken a look at Gone Girl’s dependency and utilization of Hitchockian narrative machinery, that takes us back to a bigger question of how this relates to all the elements of Gone Girl that put a lot of weight on “The Way We Live Now,” mostly through its satire of the media and the way this informs how legal cases unfold across the American stage.
There’s several ways in which I think Gone Girl comments or reflects on “The Way We Live Now.” The boring one is that the media frenzy plays into the hands of people like Amy: the news cycle breeds psychopathology.
More interesting: the media frenzy, with its glossy and superficial approach to real human tragedy, transforms its stories into a kind of false ideal. It brutally stamps out all the disparate elements and shapes everything else into a much sexier form. Thus, the witch-hunt against Nick, the eagerness to promote his redemption narrative after Amy returns, and so on. In this sense, the media isn’t the enabler of the Psychopathic Hitchcock Blonde; it’s the mirror of her–an impossibly beautiful, remote figure whose remoteness and beauty conceals or obscures the obscene core. The difference, of course, is that Amy is–in some senses, though not in others–a victim, while the media is a mindless, automatic beast. So the media, here, is the perfect Hitchcock blonde, one that has shuffled off all humanity in favor of cold, streamlined perfection.
The commentary, then, isn’t necessarily on media hype–nor yet is the movie a tract against (or for!) feminism. Gone Girl certainly touches on both misogyny and media circuses, but it suggests that–deep down–the two are connected. Remember, Nick also feels the demand for perfection–he shapes himself to be what Amy wants just as Amy shapes herself for him. None of these characters (except, perhaps, Nick’s sister) can accept the others in their full human messiness. They demand simplified, streamlined forms. The ultimate antagonist in Gone Girl is perfection itself.
(In this way, of course, the movie’s courting of controversy is itself a sort of meta-textual commentary on our urge to reduce people and narratives to their simplest, most palatable form. The movie practically begs to be interpreted as either misogynistic or strongly feminist, but every interpretive attempt has to come up against counter-examples within the film itself. It’s a movie that invites commentary while at the same time mocking the possibility that commentary can ever grasp the world in its totality)
The corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn tells his incredibly guilty client in Chicago, “This trial, the whole world, it’s all show business.” As long as they dazzle the public, the media will maintain their sleek, admirable image. That is exactly the mentality which Amy and eventually Nick adopt with disturbing expertise, and Fincher uses that both as his source of comedy and as the source of his Hitchcock tribute.
As has been discussed, Amy is derived from the Hitchcock Blonde, and the first part of the movie portrays her no differently: trapped in a dark world where she is manipulated and oppressed by her parents, abusive obsessed men, and her boring routine role as a housewife. Then Fincher turns the tables on those perceptions suggesting she’s the conniving monster while Nick is the innocent victim. The third act turns the tables again as Nick becomes increasingly willing to play along with her and keep up the facade of the loving, happily married couple. That facade has literally saved Nick’s life, and Amy loves maintaining her amazing image for the camera.
When we reach the third act, the film escalates the deception and manipulation, completing the integration of Hitchcock tribute and very dark satire. Keeping up fake appearances is always a comic subject, especially when characters’ attempts become outrageous, and even more so when it takes place in a world as dark as Gone Girl’s. That darkness is based in an Hitchcockian world: alluring victimized blonde, femme fatale, terrible mother, acceptance of an overly simple solution, and a wrongly accused man. Fincher takes all those elements and twists them on the viewer. In doing so, he exposes the shallowness of a culture’s obsession with “cool,” as amazing Amy and devoted husband Nick–in the words of Chicago’s two lead murderers–learn to “like the life their living, and live the life they like.”