This essay contains spoilers.
David Fincher is an accomplished filmmaker, but for all his flare and vision his latest thriller rarely rises above its airport potboiler roots. The movie looks great, every scene, shot, and movement is perfectly orchestrated and the shocks, twists, and revelations are well handled. Gillian Flynn’s script, adapted from her own book, includes moments of tension, rare levity, drama, and horror. Ultimately though this film left me with some major misgivings about its representation of women.
Gone Girl presents an unhelpful caricature of the ‘wronged woman’ as a murderous, manipulative, and vindictive villain, and what is worse is that it uses deeply unsettling and wrong headed stereotypes of rape myths and victim blaming to do so. Some have claimed that this is a triumph of feminist propaganda, but what troubles me is that there are only three types of women in this movie and they are all negative portrayals. As a woman you are either an aggressive gossip/TV presenter (both TV personalities and the neighbour), ultimately powerless to affect anyone’s lives in any meaningful way at all (Margot and Detective Boney), or a cold hearted and manipulative criminal who rather than get a divorce when cheated upon falsely accuses someone of murder, actually commits a murder, and uses sexual violence against herself to control men. Margot is the only woman sympathetic to Nick and she can do nothing to help him, all the other women in his life are actively destructive (his girlfriend, the ‘fan’ at the volunteer centre, Amy’s mother), none more so of course than his wife Amy.
Amy is so dedicated to ensuring that Nick goes down for her murder that she has planned several fail-safe points where she would actually commit suicide. Throughout her time hiding out she eats constantly, presumably to both change her face/body shape as a disguise and to support her false pregnancy if she does commit suicide (though I don’t think she has considered how the weight gain and lack of actual pregnancy would be explained). Amy will literally stop at nothing, even death, to get her revenge on Nick. Why is she so vindictive? Not only because he cheated on her, but because she defines herself by him and he has betrayed the role she wants him to play. Amy wants Nick to play the character of a devoted, loving, and ambitious husband more then she wants him to actually be those things – it’s not important to her at the end of the film if he can even stand her, she just wants the illusion because it allows her to define herself more effectively. It didn’t matter that Nick had an affair, it mattered that he stopped caring how he represented himself to Amy and the world at large. Amy is all about the appearance, she wants to wear the disguise of being a successful wife (it’s never clear why she needs a husband to feel successful). The film is curious though in that it never gives us a ‘real’ Amy to understand or sympathise with. The flashback sequences are just Amy’s fantasy storytelling (complete with a cloying and overwrought score), the friendly neighbour was an act, the rape victim is a trap, and even the miraculous survivor is just a role she chooses to play. The only ‘real’ Amy we know anything about is the calculating mastermind, but we have no idea who she is behind those cold eyes. We spend the most time in the movie with Amy as the vulnerable run-away oppressed woman, but that of course is her most obvious disguise of all.
Whilst on the run the only person who we are seen explicitly unconvinced by Amy’s disguise is both a woman and poor. One reading could be that Amy’s arrogance and prejudice is the reason for this; she comes from a privileged background and has no understanding of those less well off than herself – she underestimates Greta because she is ‘lower class’, believing that simple tricks will be enough to obfuscate the truth (why does Amy even interact with Greta as it is surely just an extra risk to being discovered?). On the other hand this could simply be more damning evidence that Amy as manipulatrix is only able to influence men using her feminine wiles and sexual powers. We are told that Nick’s sister Margot never got on with Amy, and here Greta is able to quickly de-mask her. Detective Rhonda Boney is also unconvinced by Amy’s show once she returns from ‘captivity’ after killing Desi. A roomful of professional law enforcement is too prudish to talk about the sexual crimes that Amy claims to have experienced and is unwilling to give any credence to the very reasonable questions and inconsistencies raised by Boney. At this point in the film Amy’s story is laughably incomplete, full of plot holes, and delivered in an unbelievable and overly dramatic monologue – why would these officers believe any of it? Oh yeah, they are men and Amy is able to cast a spell over men no matter who they are.
There are some moments of sympathy for Amy Dunne in this movie, most notably those where we learn of her childhood, overbearing parents, and unbeatable ‘sibling’ Amazing Amy, however, none of it is explored enough to really give credence to Amy’s psychological state being the result of anything other than stone cold feminine malice. We learn that she could never keep up with her fictional counterpart, but we also learn that she got to try her hand at music or horse riding and was able to walk away from it if she didn’t enjoy it – this isn’t a situation where her parents forced her to excel, she was allowed to try things and fail. Not to mention the fact that she was raised in luxury. We are told that she and Nick have money troubles once they are laid off (and her parents raid her trust fund), but they still seem to be able to purchase a very large house in Nick’s home town, and a bar, and have a line of credit that runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I bring this up not because I think rich people have no problems, but because outside of her failing marriage and loneliness there doesn’t seem to be any external factor that leads her to become a murderer and Machiavellian genius. Unless you count Tommy O’Hara.
A friend of mine has talked about giving the movie the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the film’s anti-feminist message about the true nature of women and marriage. If you work for it there is a potential way some of the film’s message can be explained more sympathetically. But you really have to want it. Tommy O’Hara is first raised by the police in a question about Amy’s past legal case against him, and is someone Amy has never mentioned to Nick. O’Hara was convicted of sexual assault against Amy. When Nick meets O’Hara he explains that in fact Amy pulled the same manipulative shtick she is pulling now having falsely accused him after he tried to leave her. On the surface the movie plays this straight – the protagonist of the film, Nick, is being persecuted by Amy and he believes Tommy as it supports his version of events. Our sympathy is with Nick, we know he has been framed, and we are given no direct evidence to contradict Tommy’s story, especially as it is in line with what we know about Amy’s modus operandi.
But what if Tommy is lying? It could be that Amy did not tell Nick about this incident not because it was evidence of her past indiscretions but rather because she was the victim of abuse and doesn’t want to relive it. The only other ex-boyfriend we see is actual legitimately creepy stalker Neil Patrick Harris (Amy’s story about him is true) so although Tommy being innocent is in line with current events, him being guilty is in line with past ones. If Tommy really did assault Amy might this be a factor in her subsequent actions? Whilst that is an interesting potential motivation for the character even if it is true then the film would still suffer from presenting an unhelpful archetype of the vengeful female victim – she reclaims her agency and power but uses it to destroy an ‘innocent’ man (and murder an arguably mentally unbalanced one) whilst leaving the real villain to live his life.
My problem with this movie is the message it ultimately sends regarding marriage, victims, and women in general. There are no powerful females in this film who aren’t criminals (sure Detective Boney is fair and just, but she is unable to act even when she knows Amy is a lying killer). Greta is a thief (though she needs male muscle to get the job done) and Amy is the ‘Napoleon of Fake Sexual Violence Crimes’. The closing sentiment is the inevitability that the average innocent man will end up trapped by marriage and pregnancy at the hands of a dangerous and unstable woman. Though I don’t think the creators of Gone Girl believe this to be true, and it is possible to enjoy this film as the disposable thriller it is intended as, I do find this film to be problematic. The fact that there are so few films out there that deal with the victims of rape and sexual violence in an even handed and responsible fashion makes it all the more important for those films that do tackle this important subject matter to do so in a less sensational and destructive way.