This year was a wakeup call, or should have been, for anyone paying attention to the Oscar race. On the one hand, you had a good many films about men where the women were fashioned as shoehorns, helping to guide the foot into its rightful place. These rendered some of the best supporting performances of the year. There were also way too many women who did nothing more than stare at their men and wait for them to do something, to say something – as though nothing in their own heads mattered. Nothing in their own lives mattered. They didn’t matter except as a soft place to put it.
But from out of the fire, more than a few phoenixes emerged. They exist despite the many arms of the industry that wish they didn’t. They exist partly because women themselves produced the films that women starred in. They dipped a toe in the indie world because the mainstream studio system has forsaken them. Too much money on the line. Too many jittery executives.
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING – MAJOR
1. The Performance of the Year
Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne is a golem from the dark underside of the female psyche, one that most cinematic heroines can’t get anywhere near in 2014, but the one Hollywood deserves. She is the revenge for this year’s slate of embarrassingly thin female characters shamefully put on screen in 2014, as though women really weren’t people but just parsley put on the plate to look pretty and help the meat go down more smoothly. With Amy Dunne, delivered ferociously by Rosamund Pike, we have something touching the R. Crumb world of unearthing the true vulgarity beneath the facade. And oh, how sweet it is.
Many men were frustrated by Gone Girl because they thought it depicted male stereotyping and that no man would allow himself to be tricked by a woman that way. A WOMAN after all. Many women were angry at the film for a character daring to use rape or sexual assault as a manipulation tactic, an accusation lobbed at women constantly, and one they have to beat back in real discussions about rape. Women thought it misogynist (some did) because the villain – this monster, this golem, was meant as a stand-in for all women. Then there’s this tricky little thing called the truth – it exists whether we want it to or not. Idealized versions of men and women have their place, but so do the versions of people that fill out the rest of the human experience.
In Gone Girl, Amy wasn’t punished, not the way Glenn Close was — also eroticized, famously, in an elevator, in a sink. Close got “properly” punished for wrecking the stability of marital bliss but boy wasn’t it hot to watch her fuck Michael Douglas for the first hour? We can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside so the audience testing determined that Close had to be shot dead by Anne Archer. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct found her empowerment by uncrossing her legs to reveal blonde pussy hairs. That Stone played an unrealistic serial killer came second to what Basic Instinct was really about: watching her fuck Michael Douglas for the first hour. She isn’t punished and that was meant to be progress but when a woman’s only source of power is her sexuality you are still very much inside the box.
The biggest difference between what Pike does with Amy, and what Fincher does with Pike, is that he never eroticizes her. Pike’s nakedness, her sexuality, is locked up tightly to be used only when necessary – that is your first clue that she’s not your ordinary movie female. Had Fincher reduced her to an erotic plaything — like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat who ultimately uses that eroticism to her benefit, probably men wouldn’t complain about the film as much as they do. They get what they came for. That Amy never gives that over confirms Gone Girl’s primary POV. Fincher only briefly indulges the male desire with Andie’s nakedness, something that continues to haunt Amy throughout the film. That body. That girl. How easy it is to lure men.
In one of the film’s best moments, Amy recounts seeing Nick kiss Andie for the first time. The sequence is tied together through mouths. Nick reaches in to touch her lip, we cut back to smoke coming out of the mouth of her “new friend,” then back to Nick kissing Andie, then back to Amy – seamlessly, as though the director’s lens was biologically connected to Amy’s thought processes.
Amy’s only mistake throughout the film is trusting the “new friend” — underestimating her. Usually, women in film are betrayed not by other women but by men. Gone Girl is full of women betraying other women in dramatic ways (a suffocating mother who needs the perfect daughter) and in typical ways (a young woman fucking another woman’s husband). This is our world, we women know it well. Sooner or later our world is bound to unearth a psychopath.
The Amy Dunne we see in the first half of Gone Girl is filtered through an unreliable narrator. We are not seeing Nick Dunne. We’re seeing the story told to us through Amy’s slanted and deliberately misleading POV. We see Amy as Amy sees Amy — and as she wants to be seen by others. The film and the performance comes alive at about the hour mark when the real Amy is finally unleashed.
This comes together most thrillingly at the one hour mark. The tempo of the music by Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross’ flips itself over with a track called “Technically Missing”. Amy’s voice-over sneaks in just as Nick is finding the shed of purchases and the detective is finding the diary. Game, set, match.
“I am so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically missing. Soon to be presumed dead. Gone. And my lazy, lying, cheating, oblivious husband will go to prison for my murder. Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed.”
The real Amy Dunne emerges. Fincher could have chosen to continue the myth of the eroticized female blonde but instead he allows her to unpeel from the perfect Amy to the real Amy. What’s the first thing she does? She eats. A lot. Burgers, fries, cupcakes, chips, Kit Kat bars – all the things we women must deny ourselves on a daily basis to stay thin and pretty for the male gaze. Fincher allows her the freedom and honesty to collapse into the imperfect state where most of us women actually do dwell. Why do we relate to the cool girl monologue so well? Because we all know what it takes – we know the false persona of what women should be because it’s broadcast on nearly every TV show, every rock song and in every movie. We can’t be that. Not really.
The very next shot sequence is the best in the film. It leads into the Cool Girl monologue. The music, the camera, Amy’s face a release. Pike holds back a mischievous smile behind her thick sunglasses as we hear the famous “cool girl” monologue.
“And after all of the outrage and when I’m ready I will go out on the water with a handful of pills and a pocketful of stones and when they find my body they’ll know: Nick Dunne dumped his beloved like a piece of garbage. And she floated down past all the other abused unwanted inconvenient women. Then Nick will die too. Nick and Amy will be gone but they never really existed. Nick loved the girl I was pretending to be. Cool girl.
Men always use that, don’t they, as their defining compliment. She’s a cool girl. Cool girl is hot. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun. Cool girl never gets angry at her man. She just smiles in a chagrined, loving manner and presents her mouth for fucking. She likes what he likes. So evidently, he’s a vinyl hipster who likes fetish manga. If he likes Girls Gone Wild she’s a mall babe, who loves football and buffalo wings at Hooters. When I met Nick Dunne I knew he wanted cool girl. And for him, I’ll admit, I was willing to try. I wax stripped my pussy raw. I drank canned beer while watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size 2. I blew him, semi-regularly. I lived in the moment. I was fucking game.
I cannot say I didn’t enjoy some of it. Nick teased out in me things I didn’t know existed. A lightness. A humor. An ease. But I made him sharper, stronger. I inspired him to rise to my level. I forged the man of the my dreams. We were happy pretending to be other people. We were the happiest couple we knew. And what’s the point of being together if you’re not the happiest? But Nick got lazy. He became someone I did not agree to marry. He actually expected me to love him unconditionally. Then he dragged me, penniless, to the naval of his country and found himself a newer, younger, bouncier cool girl. You think I’d let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way. He doesn’t get to win. My cute, charming, salt of the earth Missouri guy. He needed to learn. Grownups work for things. Grownups pay. Grownups suffer consequences.”
Is this how all women are? Of course not. Do all women secretly pretend to be perfect for their men? No. But Amazing Amy, reared to be PERFECT had to. She had no other choice but to live up to the standards imposed upon her by her parents (and society). To satisfy those requirements, she had to shapeshift. Fincher illustrates this beautifully by allowing Pike to be what she never is in movies: anything but the fuckstick.
Pike relishes it. She dives right into this version of Amy, her performance in a glance across the room, a swish of her perfect hair, the way she toys with Nick after they get back together by patting the bed beside her, and of course, the coup de grâce, “I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like.”
It’s a bravura performance of the kind we just don’t get the pleasure of seeing anymore. Brilliant, funny, terrifying — a fully realized monster infiltrating the town of Stepford. Pike’s is the performance of the year because she redefined her own capabilities. Her Amy did not come from the collective imaginations of millions of readers of the book – but from a place hidden away inside herself that doesn’t dare show itself unless summoned. She leaves us feeling unresolved about our comfortable definitions of what women are supposed to be on screen. Most were waiting for Nick’s redemptive moment and Amy’s punishment. There is no there female character on screen this year that can touch Pike if we’re just talking about pure performance, which we never are when it comes to the Oscar race.
2. Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars and Still Alice
Moore’s dual performances this year will give her what she needs to finally win the overdue Oscar she’s deserved for years now. In Maps, she plays a desperate, aging actress who is given the chance (by the great David Cronenberg) to unpeel her own kind of monster. In Still Alice, she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s – it is heartbreaking and one of the best performances of her career.
3. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
The Oscar race may not have room for Swank this year it seems, or the Homesman at all, which is a shame for a film that really did shape itself around its female themes and characters. That it ended with a man is what seemed to bother people. But Swank’s performance has stayed with me all of these months after Cannes. While she might not be on the top of everyone’s list, if we’re really talking about best, hers demands consideration.
4. Reese Witherspoon, Wild, Inherent Vice
Witherspoon is reinventing or at least fortifying how actresses can find their place in Hollywood by producing two films and challenging herself — in Wild she plays a hiker grieving for her mother, the love of her life. She also produced Gone Girl and Wild, while starring in The Good Lie and Inherent Vice.
5. Jessica Chastain, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Chastain will be nominated in supporting for A Most Violent Year, though she never was able to find her place in this year’s lead actress race. Is it that she has too many options to choose from that voters can’t really align behind any one performance? Maybe. But once again, if we’re talking about best, Chastain is right up there with this grieving mother and estranged wife trying to find her own identity.
6. Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Aniston blows it out in Cake, so much so that, for the first time, I really saw her as a real actress. Moreover, she reveals the kind of versatility that will be well utilized in character turns later in her career. As yet another grieving mother, Aniston’s Claire has decided life is no longer worth living. The character arc takes her from that place to a place of wanting to live. Subtle, moving – easily one of the year’s best.
7. Marion Cotillard, 2 Days, 1 Night
Cotillard has become the critics’ darling this year, verging on martyrdom, which I find strange since it came out of nowhere. Where was this unanimous support with Rust and Bone? Nonetheless, she’s great in the Dardennes film where she must convince her co-workers not to take a bonus so she can keep her job. Only the French […and perhaps the Belgians] would make a film about this and cast a woman in the lead.
8. Anne Dorval, Mommy
Another vibrant, comical, perverse depiction of a broken mother who tries to do her best, under the circumstances. Dolan’s characters push towards extremes, and never play it safe. Watching Mommy is such a thrilling experience because you have no idea where it’s going to take you. There is an element of danger and sadness in each frame of the film. That it wasn’t good enough for the stuffed shirts in the Academy is their loss.
9. Gugu Mbatha-Raw Beyond the Lights and Belle
If 2014 has done one thing it’s deliver Mbatha-Raw as a promising newcomer. Her remarkable versatility in two high profile films. She clearly has a bright future ahead of her as long as filmmakers give her those chances as these two directors have done this year.
10. Amy Adams, Big Eyes
The understated performance of Amy Adams in Big Eyes is better than the critics would have you believe. Thought the film itself loses its way towards the end, Adams’ work is solid and interesting throughout. Her performance and the film might have been better served if they hadn’t played it so straight, but allowed for more humor to crinkle at the edges. Still, she’s one of the greats.
11. Essie Davis, The Babadook – Davis gave arguably the best performance of the year, or damn near close. She’s not up for the Oscar, unfortunately, but that doesn’t take away from what a fully realized breath of fresh this character in this film is.