“So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste” – The Rolling Stones
(slight spoiler warning)
When the economy began to collapse in 2008, a lot of Americans at last began to realize who was really running this country. That debacle left a lot of unfinished business in the trajectory of middle-class Americans on their way to fulfilling the promise of the lives they’d just barely started. Where at one time a young couple living in New York City with hopes of becoming famous writers felt confidence about the future, now they’ve left the city, moved to the country where there isn’t much to do but become clichés of the middle class, living out the failed dreams of their parents.
This was not going to be the fate of Amazing Amy – that type A bombshell women envied and men worshipped. Not the same Amazing Amy from the children’s books that set the bar for perfection parents in the post-Oprah, post-therapy, post-boomer generation strived for. Amazing Amy was a success in school and in life. Amy Dunne lived somewhere in her shadow, an asterisked footnote of the perfect child her parents really wanted. Self-esteem, that’s what counts in modern American child rearing. Only too much self-esteem can build monsters.
In a career making turn, Rosamund Pike is Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s new film, Gone Girl, Like last year’s Wolf of Wall Street, Gone Girl chokes on the American dream. That dream is usually afforded only to men. We don’t think about what women want out of it, do we. Women are bred to want to be rescued by a handsome prince, and then live happily ever after. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck in a pitch perfect performance) arrives just time to rescue poor Amy from under the shadow of Amazing Amy. And aren’t they so happy together. Perfect man, perfect wife. Perfect life.
But as these things go, perfection has no place in the dirty job that is reality. Who can survive the pressure of perfection? What child raised today with parents hovering, with self-esteem injections hourly, sometimes medication to be perfect in every way.
Fincher introduced the notion of the double life in Fight Club, then manifested that outward illusion with The Social Network, which changed the way we presented ourselves to the world.
Fincher’s Gone Girl takes up where his Social Network left off. Both films are a meditation on getting those things we believe we’re all entitled to, by any means necessary. With Mark Zuckerberg that gold ring was success and a circle of friends. With Amy Dunne, it’s the perfect life she feels is owed to her. The Big Lie promises women that they will never be cheated on, that their husband will love them with unfaltering devotion and want to fuck them every night for the next 50 years. They want their husband to listen to their problems, appreciate their talents, admire their fashion sense, crave their cooking, and pose for happy photos they can post on social networks. It almost doesn’t even matter who that guy is, which is how Nick almost inadvertently fits into the picture. He’s Joe Anybody – a pretty dumbass Amy can plug in to her pretty little puzzle. The last essential piece.
The power of projection and manipulation of image is the new normal. One need look no further than how Kim Kardashian spent hours organizing the floral arrangement for the Instagram photo of her marriage to Kanye West, which broke the Instagram record for :most-liked.” Does anyone even care anymore if any of it was real? It doesn’t matter. Give the people what they want. Gone Girl eviscerates this disgusting new dimension of American culture.
We women live under the cloak of inadequacy every day of our lives. We eat that shit for breakfast (low carb please), and stuff our faces with it during daylight hours as we dutifully count our calories, contort ourselves in yoga class, shave our pussies, wax our legs, pluck our eyebrows, wear sunscreen, stuff our swollen feet into high heels and then vomit it all up before we go to bed at night. Some of us are driven to the brink of insanity, but none of us can ever really talk about it because to merely confess that it’s a struggle is to admit we’ve failed at being what society expects us to be.
And everywhere we look there are always prettier, younger girls. A monster is born in Gone Girl, a monster built from the cries of frustration from a hundreds million women. And that monster is prowling the quiet countryside operating from a handmade rulebook, a catalogue of justifications and entitlements, the end result of ranking high self-esteem as the utmost character trait.
Gone Girl continues a recurring theme in Fincher’s work that explores dual worlds: the world the characters show us and the one the director shows us. He gives us two versions of the truth. It’s our choice, in the end, which one to believe. His team of collaborators is right there with him on the same page, as always. This time around, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross echoes the duality of the film’s central theme, alternating between swoony romantic mood music and a disturbing thrum of psychosis. Once again Reznor and Ross create sounds so distinct from the industry norm, it’s almost a different language. Fincher gives away much of the movie’s rhythm and mood up to Reznor/Ross, trusting the composers to avoid manipulation – in fact, their manipulation in this instance is ironic.
Fincher’s film is a time piece wound to perfection, with each scene building to the next. Even if you know where it’s going, you’re still surprised where it goes. Every shot is a breathtaking example of how talented this director is with the camera, how well he knows the language of film. What makes Fincher exceptional as a director is his camera’s eye – and his ability to know people. Not since Hitchcock has there been a director who is so good at betraying who people really are as we watch them on screen. We see Amy’s parents, staring out at the camera vacantly. We see Nick’s twin sister, hovering somewhere between love and hate — an excellent Carrie Coon slinging out zingers and acting as the film’s conscience for the audience. We see Nick’s young hot fuck, an innocent ripe peach in the wrong place at the wrong time (the beautiful Emily Ratajkowski) – a subtle way Nick helps her get dressed recalls a parent dressing a child.
All the while what you’re seeing here is a world of people who don’t really know themselves very well. If Nick is our film’s heart, we find ourselves at conflict with that – this is not really a couple any of us can understand because what brings them together is what most of us would reject when confronted with it. Only Tyler Perry – very nearly stealing the show – gives the audience some comic relief in admitting how fucked up they really are.
But the film really belongs to Amy – as this is as much about this odd character invented and made famous by Gillian Flynn — as it is another masterpiece in the Fincher canon. Pike is glorious in the twists and turns Fincher and Flynn put her through. The film, and the book, are really about Amy – the worst than American self-esteem parenting has wrought upon society. Amy’s parents are glassy eyed culture puppets. Their daughter is merely inspiration for their books and even when she goes missing, they try to help find her by setting up a website, findamazingamy.com. Even when faced with losing her her life is still churned into PR for the books.
It is here that we sympathize with the devil — a modern American girl suffocated under the mask of the SuperChild in the post therapy, post Oprah America where parents don’t punish their children nor risk shaking their self-esteem because self-esteem is what it’s all about. We’re taught that feeling good about ourselves is the key to going out there and getting what we deserve.
Amy Dunne is not just the fears and anxieties of the American male embodied in a female, she is the sum total of women’s collective female fears too — that ideal we are all taught to strive for but can never attain. We women know what is expected of us by men and by ourselves. We wake up every day knowing it.
With her “cool girl” monologue Flynn busted open the dirty secret we women have always known about what it takes to “land a man.” Sure, there are always exceptions but for every exception of the perfect happy marriage there is that “here’s my dream man” Facebook status update that makes some of us think, “Yeah right. There’s a cool girl.”
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)
Fincher uses the Cool Girl monologue as one of the film’s most exciting moments, though it’s impossible to discuss without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say, he knew it had to be in there and boy is it in there. For me, that scene in Gone Girl is like Alex Kitner getting attacked in Jaws – a mini masterclass in what film directing is all about. You know when you’re watching a Fincher film you are watching a master at work, a master at the top of his game.
Gone Girl is about creating the perfect illusion because maybe then there can be the happiness the American dream promises. It is also a dumb world full of dumb people who fall for dumb stories. Don’t we just want the glossy story? We don’t care if it’s true. We need our villains and another pregnant missing white woman. We need to hate those who done us wrong and elevate the victim. We avenge justice with our remote control, our Twitter, our Facebook. We rise and fall on the daily hysteria the networks are more than happy to deliver. We do this almost every day on the internet and it plays out weekly on television. Gone Girl reflects that back at us, with haunting reminders of an America that once was and a lifestyle that might have to be experienced not on Main Street but on a dot com.
Can we, in the end, have sympathy for the devil? Can we forgive ourselves if our hopes and dreams are nothing more than a shimmer off on the horizon, too far away to reach, not far enough away to unsee. And so instead we crawl towards it, arms open, eyes closed, propelled by illusion.
With the middle class collapsing all around us, with global warming and the next fatal epidemic quickly spreading, Amy and Nick Dunne survive as a relic of what used to be but can be no more. Butterflies trapped under glass, captured by a director and a writer who are unafraid to show them as they really are, for better or worse, richer or poorer. Maybe this film is about the death of marriage in America. Maybe it’s about the death of that pretty little lie. One thing it’s not about is what almost every film coming out in the next few months is about. It’s not about men.
Fincher had the right instinct for Gillian Flynn to transform her own novel into the best adaptation of the year so far. The hard-working Flynn is not afraid of stepping into unknown terrain as she sprints out of the gate. In Fincher she has found someone with balls big enough to present hard truths, even if they make us squirm in our seats. Here, their collaboration results in nothing less than the best film of 2014.