A blonde American moves to the South but refuses to let go of her past, her class, or the sophisticated lass she was back East. Living in this Southern town with a lunkhead, she begins to blame all her problems on said lunkhead, to the point of inciting him to violence. A sister tries to serve as a voice of reason, but our blonde blames said sister for enabling the lunkhead. Finally our blonde is apparently assaulted, and winds up in a hospital.
I just described:
a) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
b) Fatal Attraction (1987)
c) Gone Girl (2014)
Trick answer! It’s a and c.
Gone Girl, the novel by Gillian Flynn, has:
a) Sparkling prose, inventive twists, and brilliantly lived-in characters
b) Sparking prose, inventive twists, and unsympathetic, curiously behaving characters
c) Boring prose, inventive twists, and unsympathetic, curiously behaving characters
Absolutely b. Gillian Flynn is endlessly readable, beginning with the personality quizzes Amy writes throughout the novel. It’s a real shame the film didn’t or couldn’t use more of Flynn’s sparkling sentences. The novel is a he-said-she-said, told in alternating chapters from Nick and Amy, leading to a very effective big twist, where you learn that Amy’s half has been from a falsified diary. The book’s problem becomes: why has Nick revealed to us (the reader) absolutely everything, including his affair with a student, but never once told us “By the way, reader, I didn’t kill my wife”? No one on the planet is that coy; after the twist, you wait for Nick to be guilty of something else, to justify his previous reticence. (That’s Hitchcock’s major theme: our hero is guilty of something, just not what he’s accused of.) When that never comes, two things happen: you feel sorrier for poor Nick than you should, and you cringe knowing the author was willing to sacrifice any and all realism for that twist, a choice that reverberates throughout the rest of the story. Director David Fincher solves half of the problem by cutting Nick’s voice over, but that leaves us with a carping caper, an unthrilling thriller. Vertigo and Psycho also had big twists in the middle, but they were a lot more than that; Gone Girl isn’t.
Wesley Morris looks at the big twist and guesses that Flynn thought to echo the mooniness of chick lit and then morph it into noir, and I believe that was a clever inspiration on Flynn’s part, but I agree with Morris that once you’re in the land of the femme fatale, you need to give her and her target more to do. At least in the book, you get a sense that Nick and Amy’s talents are wasted by being out of the workforce; in the movie, Nick and Amy just seem like wastes of space. In the book, Nick and Amy’s parents hang over the proceedings; Nick’s wandering father returns toward the end, and Amy wonders if her vanishing act is cruel to her parents. Rather than just cutting them out of the story entirely, the movie chooses to turn its back on them, introducing Nick’s dad and Amy’s parents and then, in the second half, forgetting all about them. Why? The effect is to give Nick and Amy three fewer people to answer to, giving them less character and more caricature. Amy is rich, blonde, thin, and gorgeous, and she may not like her caricature, but you can’t expect everyone to automatically relate to her rebelling against it.
Gone Girl concerns a scam by:
a) Amy Elliott Dunne
b) Gillian Flynn
c) David Fincher
Technically the answer is a, but the problem is that it feels like all of the above. The movie is getting at a lot of poignant issues regarding the recession, our digital lives, the lies we tell to stay happy, and other things…the last thing we want is for the whole thing to feel like an excuse for twists. Perhaps we should have sensed the movie director’s approach to his material from the outset. Hollywood unions probably regulate the amount of screen time allotted to the title-card credits of above-the-line talent; Gone Girl’s speedy opening credits suggest that Fincher shares Nick and Amy’s contempt for (other) unions.
Gone Girl was originally called:
a) Disappeared Girl
b) Gone Woman
c) Gone Girl
Of course it’s c, but Gone Girl is only half a brilliant title. Amy is certainly “gone” in the common sense of an exquisite euphemism between “disappeared” and “dead,” while also being gone from Nick, gone out of her mind, even Gone with the Wind as she fake-faints herself into mimicking that poster’s tableau upon reuniting with Nick. But outside of alliteration, why not call the story Gone Woman? Flynn and Fincher (Flynncher?) could be making a statement about our obsession with young white blonde females, if they weren’t relying on it themselves so heavily. The real Gone Girls have actually been girls (i.e., under 18), namely the Natalee Holloways and Amy Smarts that the press can’t stop talking about, even while black girls regularly go missing in anonymity. The media, here represented by the blonde Ellen Abbott character, attracts our attention by unspooling narratives on these immature blonde-haired bodies, the same kind of bodies the Elliotts used for the Amazing Amy series, and Amy Dunne’s rigged missing-blonde narrative could almost count as a reclamation, a sort of Taking Back the Blonde, if it wasn’t so obvious that Flynncher are having the same lemon cake and eating it too. I doubt, say, Kerry Washington was considered for the role of Amy.
What’s the most realistic of these recent movies?
d) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I
e) Gone Girl
Answer: none of the above! With the unexpected and prodigious success of those first four, audiences have proven that they’re ready for strong female leads, but are they allowed to exist outside Sci-Fi/Fantasyland? Gone Girl represented a chance to showcase such a lead, but in the end Amy is no more realistic than a princess who can control ice or the world’s best archer having D-cup breasts. (Amazons used to cut off a breast to improve their aim!) When are current movies going to be as female-friendly as TV – The Good Wife, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and even Scandal provide fully rounded female leads all the time. (I should hasten to add that no blame can be attached to Rosamund Pike, who makes more out of Amy than the material deserves.)
The critics are having a field day with Gone Girl, and the best of them, Wesley Morris, helpfully compares it to the Michael Douglas cycle of films about entitled pricks who had to face their fatuousness because of conniving blonde women, not least the film that gave the term “bunny-boiler” to the world, Fatal Attraction. That’s all well and good, but the “icy blonde” thriller goes back to the 1950s, when Hitchcock basically invented the form, and before he bothered, the psychotic fragile blonde had already been constructed and deconstructed by Tennessee Williams for his play, and by Elia Kazan for the film version of Streetcar. So let Morris go back to the 80s, I’m going back to the 50s.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Gone Girl with A Streetcar Named Desire, a film based on what many consider the best American play of the 20th century. On the other hand, which one have millennials heard of, and which has already made more money ($40 million and counting) than the other ever did? Obviously the stories are different (unlike Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, an obvious Streetcar remake): Blanche is objecting to the marriage of her sister with a working-class hunk, while Amy is objecting to her own marriage to a non-working hunk. But the similarities and differences are telling. They’re both narratives that don’t want to be pigeonholed in generic terms – not thriller, not melodrama, not horror – because the authors want you to seriously consider their exploration of modern marriage, of the problems that women have in this masculinist society.
Movie heroines in unhappy relationships can always switch to a man who is:
a) Fabulously wealthy
c) Carrying a torch for them for years
Answer: all of the above!
As films, A Streetcar Named Desire and Gone Girl are both reactions to 20 years of over-cloying narratives about pretty people and first-world problems. In the case of Streetcar, Elia Kazan was only the latest big director to put a rich bitch on camera (all the other ones had done it), but Kazan stripped away all the velvet-curtain trappings of the screwball-comedy cycle, and thought very seriously about filming the whole thing in Italian neo-realist style. (He made a movie called Panic in the Streets (1950) just to try out the style for Streetcar, then decided it didn’t quite work.) Blanche is trapped in tawdry circumstances, and on some level we understand her claustrophobia; Amy is trapped in a McMansion which doesn’t look half so bad. 30s films had firmly established the cliché of the Other Lover described in the last quiz – as though such a person wouldn’t have chosen from dozens more normal, unattached suitors by now. Tennessee Williams helped challenge this stereotype by having Blanche’s Other Lover be Mitch, a working-class palooka who nonetheless gives up on Blanche. Gone Girl, in reaction to the Bridget Jones films and more, does nothing to challenge the type, and in fact relies upon it.
Character counts, in more ways than one. We don’t have to love Amy and Nick, but we need to believe them. Blanche and Stanley weren’t lovable, but they were achingly believable. The character of Blanche DuBois continues to attract the best actresses (including Cate Blanchett, winning a Best Actress Oscar for an updated Blanche in 2014), but it’s hard to imagine future people lining up to play Amy Dunne. Reese Witherspoon would make a smashing Blanche, and as producer of Gone Girl she probably thought about playing Amy before deciding not to do it. Good call, Reese. Had she done the WhoDunneit, critics would have pounced on comparing her to another conniving Heartland blonde, Tracy Flick (from Election (1999)), and found Amy less developed, less sympathetic, less believable, and above all less interesting than Tracy. (Did Gone Girl obliquely refer to this when the redneck guessed that Amy was from Nebraska?) Despite her low-budget indie-film origins, Tracy Flick still gets regularly name-checked in the press 15 years after her film came out; let’s see who’s saying “Amy Dunne” in 2029.
Blanche’s parting shot has lingered through the ages: “I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers.” Amy relies upon the dopeyness and gullibility of strangers, which is hardly a sympathetic position for a one-percenter. Amy tells Nick, “Tell me we’ll never be like them. The only thing that matters is us. The rest is background noise.” She spends the rest of the movie orchestrating that background noise into foreground noise, often as atonally as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scratchy, techno-ish score. In a movie that’s supposedly about Amy finding her public voice, would she really have failed to scream when the rednecks came for her money? Would she muffle that voice into a pillow?
On the other hand, that’s Amy’s only comeuppance, a problem when you’ve watched an entire town comb a field and come out for a vigil. Amy sows the whirlwind, but never reaps it, Desi’s blood washing easily off of her naked body. Even if Nick is somehow too stupid to simply tell the media the truth, would the tabloid press really stalk someone’s house for a month without doing the slightest bit of digging into the false trail Amy left? A more acute satire of the current TMZ-led paparazzi would recognize that they’re looking for any wrinkle at all, any headline that could be click-bait for even an hour, including “Did Amy frame Nick?” We saw criminal masterminds like this in 1950s films, but they almost always got worse than blood all over their clothes. Perhaps some feminists are saying “that’s the point – she shouldn’t have to have a comeuppance!” – I guess manipulating the “background noise,” and then retreating to privacy with your trapped husband counts as liberation? Well, if that’s feminism, it sure has changed since Ms. magazine. Does it count as feminism that Nick is stuck taking out the trash for what seems the rest of his life?
It’s true that Amy surpasses Blanche by not being exiled to an asylum, but is self-exile to her loveless McMansion so much better? I hated the “baby” she spit at Nick in the end – no, not the obvious one, but more along the lines of “you know you need a woman like me, baby.” A woman who justifies herself that way isn’t all that and a bag of chips – she’s as full of air as the bag of chips. Perhaps the movie hates both Nick and Amy, and in the end they’re meant to symbolize all too many relationships that we don’t hear about. In that case, I just wish Amy hadn’t fantasized so fulsomely about falling to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone that shallow would have instantly landed on the shore, as washed up as Blanche.