Gone Girl (2014) (Spoilers)
Credits vanish without time to read twice. Establishing shots cut a second earlier than we expect. Gone Girl commences impatiently, clipped and curt. We know why we’re here.
The first words we hear are questions from a wife to a husband. Later, we see how they met, Nick’s playful interrogation amid a boring party. He charms Amy by offering to play a game under their own rules. They judge who they are not, and promise who they will not become. They delight in double entendres because they like getting away with something. The rapport between Nick and Amy is less charming to the audience. They are performing to each other, but not to us, and in this they are content.
This love of theirs is a curious thing, and murder mysteries rely on our curiosity. They assure the audience of a life taken, and call on those watching to judge people they have just met. Viewers must imagine each character capable of something terrible. Deductions arise from impressions of character, details pointing to trustworthiness or suspicion. He’s squirrely. A little creepy. She seems mean. He’s a bad father. She’s a bad wife. He must have killed her. She must have killed him.
Stories like this instruct those experiencing them to charge forward on what is no more than blind inference. This is the moral horror of a detective story, which invites the audience to “find the murderer” while flattering our intuitions. It asks us to assume the worst in others, and promises a reward for our degradation.
These stories rarely pay off in time or satisfaction. Gone Girl isn’t fooled by the narrative straightjacket of the long reveal, and wraps up this plot in about an hour. It has made its point. It is looking to mystery because of how it can prime an audience to condemn, and excite them for justice. The next narrative it seems ready to enter, based on how the mystery resolves, has its own logic. Fraudulent destructions of lives are a psychological thought experiment—Ricochet, Enemy of the State, Side Effects—to unsettle our assumptions about stable lives and stations. These stories draw their energy from the righteousness of being wronged, and characters seeking to restore their name and the life they had before. Redeemed from the peril of oblivion, the hero triumphs.
Gone Girl briefly flirts with telling this kind of story. It is wrong for someone to go to prison for what they haven’t done. Nick aims to prevent this, and we wish for his success. The rhythms are off, though, and it’s soon clear this isn’t the path we’re taking. Vindication arrives too quickly, resolution announcing itself to our passive leads. Like another of Fincher’s works, a blood-soaked murderer sets the terms of their capture, and substitutes unease for the expected catharsis.
Nick, who may have freed himself of the first false narrative, cannot subvert a second. And though he was right, in the process of proving this he has not become someone better or more admirable. At a point when the audience might be most willing to sympathize with his fear and his exasperation, he knocks a pregnant woman’s head against a wall. We can’t stay on his side.
Cinema has blunt instruments for judging and assigning punishment, and they rely on structures underneath for their responsible employment. Gone Girl repeatedly jumps the tracks, and revels in what it can convice you of thinking and confuse you about feeling. The one character killed in the film may be the least sympathetic, a man who feels the need to reassure a woman he cares about that he will not “force himself” on her. Unrequited love of many years can provoke sympathy in a character, until the moment its essential hypocrisy reveals itself: the prayer for someone’s world to someday veer off its axis. Yet this joke of a person also does nothing remotely justifying his murder, let alone deserving of being tarred as a rapist after his death.
Gone Girl gives its audience early textual evidence to doubt faith in our inferences, but assumes correctly that an audience’s faith in itself will emerge unshaken. The story holds out for examination sins small and large, for the eyes of viewers hungry to organize what they’re seeing into blame and credit. In turn, characters hollow out any reassurance truth might offer, demonstrating it can be a literal defense and an ethical facade.
Gone Girl also avoids easy referents to guide any exercise of judgment; staged around a criminal indictment, the film never shows a judge, prosecutor, or courtroom. The audience can only keep assessing, and the film springs constant trap-doors for their reassurances and conclusions. The real predecessor is the terrain once claimed by Vertigo: deceptions destroying lives, indignities inflicted on selves and others, paths not taken and forever closed, the impossibility of ever making things right.
This is only a mood, though, not a map, and the only organizing structure Gone Girl leaves intact is a marriage. Spouses bookend the film asking questions of each other. We learn more than we want to about this love of theirs, a union incomprehensible from without, baroque horror within. The dialogue trades liberally in epithets, hate realized through reduction. Nick and Amy’s partnership surpasses in obscenity when it becomes remade into something recognizable and wholesome, appropriate for daytime television. They are finally performing for more than themselves, and they are expert.
It is their business, not ours. Relationships in their intimacy and privacy provide a safe haven for love and hate alike. And whatever solace it provides is only available for them. Outside their bond, the film’s most empathetic character is left alone. She receives neither a reprieve from consequence nor an acknowledgment of her unconditional love. Her life is what is left after the scrutiny of people’s judgment. And our verdicts – our crimes – never return to make amends.
Some lose; Amy doesn’t. No one wins. Assessments of character have no correspondence to right and wrong, and most stories will refuse to impart this lesson. Gone Girl presents two ways forward: acceptance that other people are not ours to know, or retreat to the consolation of our own superiority. And it knows which way its audience will go.
When he hears what we have seen, Nick’s lawyer calls it straight: “You two are the most fucked up people I’ve ever met.”
Laughter echoes in a refuge for cruelties, from people he hasn’t.