“Kubrick is after a cool, sunlit vision of hell, born in the bosom of the nuclear family, but his imagery–with its compulsive symmetry and brightness–is too banal to sustain interest, while the incredibly slack narrative line forestalls suspense.” – from David Kehr’s review of The Shining
“The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” – Variety’s review of The Shining
“The “Gold Room,” a clever amplification of the hotel ballroom in Mr. King’s novel, becomes the place where Jack’s rage about his fiscal and familial responsibilities is revealed. It’s also the place where the movie begins to go wrong, lapsing into bright, splashy effects reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (though the Gold Room sequences produce the film’s closing shot, a startling photograph of Mr. Nicholson). The Shining begins, by this point, to show traces of sensationalism, and the effects don’t necessarily pay off. The film’s climactic chase virtually fizzles out before it reaches a resolution.” Janet Maslin on The Shining
“The newest film by Brian de Palma, who is often wrong but not dull, “Carrie” is billed as a horror movie. But it is sometimes funny in a puzzling kind of way, it is generally overwrought in an irritating kind of way, and once in a while it is inappropriately touching. It isn’t frightening at all until the very end, and then it is briefly and extremely frightening.” The New York Times on Carrie
As expected, David Fincher’s Gone Girl has sparked debate, some of it good, some of it intolerable. Two points often brought up seem to be wrapped up in this notion of the good girl vs. the bad girl. The novel itself toys with this notion, boy does it ever, but in bringing the story to the big screen it was inevitable that cries of misogyny would bubble up. The other accusation that the movie somehow erased perceived ambiguity about the character of Amy Dunne.
Gone Girl is full of brilliantly written, acted and directed FEMALES. A female detective, Nick’s twin sister, Amy’s mother, a “cool girl” girlfriend — dumb women, smart women, funny women, scary women — more women than any major motion picture you will see this season except for Into the Woods and what do we get? We get nitpicking, yet again, thus ensuring that this female demographic will not budge. We’d rather have no women on screen than a complicated array of them.
The best reviews of Gone Girl that I’ve read have been, thankfully, written by women. Try Linda Holmes’ two-parter on NPR, which deep dives into the film from a spoiler and a non-spoiler side. The first and the second. Try this interesting rumination on Screencruch on the strong woman, “How ‘Gone Girl’ Defies the Strong Female Character” by Britt Hayes:
We are only asked to empathize with Amy in the sense that this is a woman whose husband has been unfaithful, just as we are asked to empathize with Nick in the sense that his wife is a totally brilliant manipulator exacting an insane revenge plot, cutting into him piece by piece to make him into the shape of her ideal husband — Amazing Amy, indeed.
Those angered by a perceived bait and switch should ask themselves why: why are you so maddened that a woman should be allowed to be the villain of her own piece? Amy Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’ is a victorious moment, not for any vicarious reasoning, but because it allows women to be portrayed in all lights, just as men are, putting us on equal footing. The problem with the Strong Female Character is the same problem with the Cool Girl: she’s been constructed as an impossible, aspirational figure that no woman can or wants to live up to for the rest of her life, fictional or not.
Women, like men, are all things, and Amy Dunne thankfully shows our cinematic bad side.
And then the flip side. Words like “empty” and “hollow” keep coming up or worse, that it’s manipulative and deceptive. In her Buzzfeed piece “The problem with Gone Girl is that there is no Cool Girl,” Anne Helen Petersen seems to want the movie to do what so many films about women unfortunately do: elevate women to ensure their inherent sainthood.
Peterson is 100% wrong about Gone Girl, Fincher’s interpretation of it, and what the films ultimately says when she writes (spoiler warning):
The Amy of Fincher’s Gone Girl isn’t Cool, or complicated, or sympathetic. She’s the “crazy fucking bitch” that Nick calls her, yet another example for the eternal argument for women’s unhingeability and hysteria.
And the film’s avoidance of an engaged interrogation of Cool Girl ideal is what makes it just as hollow, dismissible, and superficial as the version of Amy that inhabits it. It’s the major failing of the movie — and what downgrades a transgressive meditation on the politics of gender performance into a run-of-the-mill, if entertaining, thriller.
It is telling to me that Peterson sees the cinematic version of Amy, Pike’s version, as hollow, dismissible and superficial. I certainly didn’t. At best, this seems to me a case of someone wanting the movie they are seeing in their heads. At worst, it is a painful reminder that when it comes to women many of us still can’t handle the truth. The point of Amy Dunne is that she criticizes the cool girl. She isn’t one. She could be at the snap of her fingers. She could be anything she wanted to be up to a point. But the Amy Dunne we know, the one Nick falls for, wouldn’t deign to be the kind of cool girl she’s talking about. She’s disgusted by these women, which is why she isolates herself from them. They appear throughout the film, either as Nick’s young squeeze or as girls we see in passing cars or girls who hit on Nick. They are contrasted, however, by grounded, smart women like Go and Detective Boney — something Peterson completely overlooks. That contrast is important here because it isn’t making any sweeping judgments about women. They are saying: here is a monster, one that could only have emerged from the twisted fantasy that is the imagined American fairy-tale life.
Peterson has revealed her own prejudices against the subject matter. She could handle the book when there was more ambiguity and still that pretty puffy little dream that Amazing Amy really WAS amazing. She could maybe dwell in the unreality of Nick and Amy as the perfect couple with their anniversary status updates on Facebook because you know, nothing holds our crumbling empire together better than a happy marriage. What she could not handle, though, is a visual and cinematic representation of the inside and out of a true monster. To see Amy any other way is a gross misread of the author’s intent. She undresses this monster, pulls away each pretty petal until she can be finally seen. Facing that Amy, facing that truth, is probably a lot harder than it seems.
The best female characters, or certainly some of them, have been bad to the bone, or at least bad because they are stand ins for symbolic moments in history — like Scarlett O’Hara representing the rotting evil of the South, or Blanche DuBois representing the aging decay of a dying breed, or Eve Harrington as the embodiment of fame whores, or Carrie White turning on the culture that bullied and rejected her. Or sometimes just pure evil — like Regina George in Mean Girls, like Maddie Walker in Body Heat, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.
Fincher was making and reworking the basics of the book and flipping them on their head — Peterson did not appreciate that because she could no longer see the difference between the good and the bad Amy. She couldn’t see it so she assumed it wasn’t there. The “entitled passive viewer” comes at film the way they stand in line for Starbucks. There is less open mindedness and more entitlement now than there ever has been so you often hear critics say things like “I have an issue with…” or “the problem with,” as though each and every complaint major and minor that they have somehow means the product itself, or, in this case, the film itself is “flawed.”
The problem with Peterson’s piece is the problem with all modern film criticism. It start with three words that should be stricken forever from film criticism, “the problem with.” That sounds like someone talking about new shoes or a GrubHub delivery or an Uber driver. Assuming that your inability to understand an artist’s intent, or even the simple truth that you did not like a film, or that it’s a bad film, translates to a “problem.” No, a problem is global warming. A problem is the abundance of wild dogs on the reservations out west. A problem is Citizens United. Hanging that overblown notion on a work of art suggests that it does society some harm, these passive film viewers who are victims of what they’re seeing on screen. I read one film critic who called it a “cynical manipulation” as though cinema itself hadn’t been built off that singular notion.
But this snuffs out art and invites what most of us are getting each and every week at the movies: that which we expect, exactly. A director like David Fincher, or even the retired David Lynch, or countless others who are working outside the accepted norms, who are challenging their viewers, opening doors, inviting discussion? There is little room for them in an orchestra of carping consumers who seem to want a one-size-fits-all movie that ticks off all the boxes and sends you home with a contented smile on your face. You know, probably not the best idea to see a movie directed by David Fincher if that’s how you plan to spend the evening.
A good comparison of Gone Girl is how Stephen King’s work has been adapted over the years. If you read The Shining you will discover an entirely different story in every possible way than what Kubrick put on screen, much to King’s own personal disappointment. But Kubrick made it cinema where it was horror fiction before (I think literature but hey, that’s me). Kubrick made it funny. It wasn’t funny. It was nowhere near funny. The Shining, as written by Stephen King is terrifying. Wendy is being hunted by her haunted husband and Danny has a power that makes the Overlook want to absorb him for it. Kubrick’s version did not delight critics in the least bit, and it certainly pissed off a lot of King fans. But Kubrick’s film is a cinematic masterpiece because it is about CINEMA. It’s about the color red. It’s about Jack Nicholson’s wildly off-the-wall performance. It’s that giant hotel swallowing up the skinny Wendy and tiny Danny. It’s about tracking shots and it’s about evoking terror. It’s about showing, not telling.
When Brian DePalma made King’s wonderful first book, Carrie, it was a similar kind of transformation. It was kind of funny. It is different from the book in so many ways — for one thing, in the film Carrie is not repulsive. She is pretty, though freaky as Sissy Spacek realized her. This is what we talk about when we talk about the language of cinema — showing an audience a story that is meant to give you an experience over a two hour period sitting in a dark theater — it is not about the isolated wonder of making a book come alive in your imagination. Even films like the Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me or Misery or Dolores Claiborne completely alter what was written on the page. They have to. They’re movies, not books. Vive la difference.
It is therefore very telling how different people interpret Amy in Fincher’s film. Here is a director like Kubrick or DePalma who has taken a familiar book with familiar characters and found a new way to tell that story using the language of cinema, not the language of fiction. He found in Gillian Flynn a writer who understands both. So that this attempt to find the goodness in Amy, or to want to see one’s own definition of a “cool girl” is to want the movie you made in you head rather than the one these artist’s rendered. People seem so insistent about making Amy somehow good. Perhaps, while reading the book, they were able to remake Amy as a more palatable person. But Amy, fully fleshed out on screen, is the collaboration of an actress, a director and a writer who found this cinematic Amy, quite different from the Amy as written on the page.
One of the things I love about Gone Girl is how blithely Nick Dunne, or Ben Affleck, rolls in and out of the backstage drama. It is such a brilliant comment on white male privilege, particularly in the modern age. Like Nick, many of the male responses to the film have varied from wanting to be the brave protector of Amy (“She’s not bad. She’s just drawn that way.”) to feeling protective of themselves against women. Never, though, is anyone going to start pointing the finger at Nick. He cheats on his wife for an entire year and still most of us come out of the book, and the movie, on Nick’s side. Only a few of the very embittered among us might secretly think, “oh fuck yeah.” In the end it will come down to Amy because she is the one who must carry the burden of being the “positive role model” for women and the fuckable babe for men.
Now, women are our own worst enemies. If we could unite and stop competing we could truly rule the world. We are the ones who drive the gossip industry. We are the ones who pick up tabloids at newspaper stands and carefully observe the flaws in others so that we can feel better about ourselves. We are the babysitters and teachers and nannies and wives and girlfriends who do terrible, murderous, violent things and lie about it. We have a whole universe of bad that goes mostly ignored in film, and sometimes on television because the truth about women as ticket buyers is that they “have to like” the female character. That is the big question, always. Do they like her. When Fatal Attraction was audience tested they didn’t like that Glenn Close committed suicide. They wanted to see her pay. So they had Anne Archer, the one they liked, shoot her. In Fincher’s film, the audience simply isn’t given that reprieve. Things aren’t allowed to go back to ‘normal’. We have to confront and live with this particular truth, lingering unexpectedly like Anthony Perkins’ skeleton smile at the end of Psycho.
Amy Dunne is a sociopath. Amy Dunne is a crazy bitch. Amy Dunne is unhinged hysteria unleashed upon humanity. Amy Dunne is a monster. Gillian Flynn wrote one, a female one, as a horror story. Does that mean all women are crazy bitches? No. Peterson objects to the film version, or Pike’s interpretation of Amy because, probably, she liked Amy in the book but didn’t like her in the movie. She did not take to this chilly ice-queen whose presence took the film to a completely different place.
We’re working with a pretender, but also someone unimaginable to polite society. Unlike Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, who really is a “crazy bitch” this director and screenwriter never betray their heroine. They don’t turn on her the way they did in Fatal Attraction. They don’t sweep her up with a broom and dustpan and throw her in the garbage. They stay with her until the very end. That leaves you with a bitter chill, a terrifying questioning. Amy is the monster as imagined by Flynn, but she is also a cinematic icon in the tradition of chilly blondes. The expanse of the big screen gives us no escape, not rationalizing our way out of this mess. That is, in the end, what is so terrifying about Fincher’s ADAPTATION of Gone Girl. That is the magic of cinema. That is the power of art.
If we insist that all women in film — and all black characters or Asian characters or other minorities — only be portrayed as good because the white male patriarchy has shit all over them for so many years, then we will have effectively written ourselves out of the continuing evolution of art in film. We are 50% of the population. We gave birth to the world. Yet only one aspect of our nature is depicted on screen, rendering us as essential as a doorknob, as distinct as a four door sedan. Not all of us are nice. Not all of us are pretty. Not all of us are good. Not all of us are strong. And none of us are invisible.