Culture

Hiding In Plain Sight: Something Is Missing From ‘Gone Girl’

CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

This post discusses the plot of Gone Girl, the movie and the book, in detail. Proceed accordingly.

There is something missing from the Gone Girl movie.

It is so, so good. It is two and a half hours that whooshes by in what feels like two and a half minutes. The structure is taut, the tone is full-Fincher—a sense of foreboding haunts every scene, even supposedly harmless flashbacks of kisses in a sweet storm of sugar. Much has already been said about the perfection of casting Ben Affleck, who has been loved and hated and loved and hated and, for the moment, loved again by the media as a guy who is too handsome for his own good with a smile that can make you want to punch him in the face. Neil Patrick Harris as Desi, Amy’s high school sweetheart turned suicidal stalker (or so she says) turned hostage-holder, undoes all your expectations of him. Harris, who has made a career of being the consummate host—charming, gracious, instantly putting you at ease—manages to convince you, in no time at all, that he is unnerving, untrustworthy. Rosamund Pike as Amy is that patrician kind of pretty (you can tell just by looking at her that Amy comes from money, somehow) and says pages and pages of dialogue with just an unsettling gaze at the camera.

For a story that has the threat of violence pulsing through it, the movie shows remarkable restraint in the depiction of violence, save for one scene more than halfway through the film, a graphic, volcanic eruption of horror all the more powerful for the lack of gore up until that moment. It’s a story about blood that is mostly bloodless; a crime scene wiped clean. Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel into a screenplay and, perhaps because she spent ten years at Entertainment Weekly presumably chopping thousands of words of precious copy into mini-blurbs fit for print, she seems to have had little trouble excising only the most vital organs from the body of her 400-plus page bestseller.

There’s been a little buzz about the movie being misogynist—criticisms that were also leveled at the book—but I did not find that to be the case. Yes, most of the female characters are deplorable for various crimes typically coded as feminine: for being shallow, fickle, attention-hungry, dumb, gullible, controlling. But it’s not like the male characters are a pack of winners, either. Almost everyone in the movie is a straight-up terrible person, the only possible exception being Margo, Nick’s sister.

Still: there is something missing from Gone Girl. Appropriately enough, the thing that is missing is Amy.

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CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Out of structural necessity, we begin our story on Nick’s side. We only know what he knows, and often even less. To reveal more of Amy’s inner life early on would render the big twist untwisted. But even in the scenes that are lifted from “her” chapters in the book feel like they’re being narrated by somebody else. When it is revealed, in the film, that Amy is alive, it doesn’t really feel like anything in Amy has changed. We never get that great, punchy shift in tone. We don’t get those stellar lines of Amy talking about the character of the diary in the third person: “I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likeable. Meant for someone like you to like her. She’s easy to like. I’ve never understood why that’s considered a compliment—that just anyone could like you.” Real Amy has total disdain for Diary Amy and everyone who adores her. Everyone is the cops. Everyone is the reader. In the movie, everyone would be the viewer. But in the movie, you just don’t feel it. The voiceover of Diary Amy and the voiceover of Real, Sociopathic Amy sound exactly the same. The real Amy, the character who is the engine of this story, is as elusive to us as she is to Nick.

One of the more disturbing (and one of the saddest) elements of Amy’s story is gone, too: that her parents had been trying and failing to have a child over and over before they had her. Amy only arrived after a series of miscarriages and stillbirths; all these angels were named Hope, and she was haunted by those ghosts who possessed the perfection only afforded to those who die before they can live. Amy was so named because it was a popular girls’ name at the time, as if this would save her from notice by God. Amy’s original plan—depicted in the movie by her “Kill Self” post-its on the calendar—is to hide out just long enough to enjoy watching Nick’s life crumble. To observe the trial, to see him sentenced to life in prison, or maybe, as is legal in Missouri, the death penalty. And then she wants to kill herself. “To join the Hopes.” She is a woman with no will to live.

It’s Nick’s plea to her that changes her mind, a plea that is fake, and this is a perfect mirroring in the book: Amy has such disdain for men, like Nick, who believe in the Cool Girl, who don’t see through the façade and know that underneath this perfect, ideal woman is an actual, flawed human being who does not exist just to satisfy a man’s desires; yet when Nick presents himself as, basically, a Cool Guy, the utterly devoted and chagrined man of Amy’s dreams, she laps it up like a kitten at a milk dish. She’s a sucker, too. One especially telling line in the book comes after Amy hacks off half her hair and dyes it mousy, after she throws on bookish (not sexy-bookish but bland-bookish) glasses and unflattering clothing, she smiles at herself in the rearview mirror. “Nick and I would never have been married if I had looked like this when we met. All this could have been avoided if I were less pretty.” But there she is, falling for the same thing: the handsome guy with the cleft chin wearing the watch and the tie she bought for him.

The Cool Girl riff in the book is just as much, if not more, a critique of the men who believe in it than the women who enact it, but the movie fails to make that point. The speech is there, abridged, and plays over shots of different varieties of Cool Girls, not, say, shots of men tripping all over themselves to impress and win over Cool Girls.

The movie also misses a lot of the professional jealousy and tension that underlies this marriage—the way Amy senses Nick never takes her writing as seriously as he takes his—and so much of the great and horrific dynamic between Amy and her parents is all but non-existent. Amy ends up being a Psycho Bitch, as Nick threatens to title his memoir of their time together, but an uninteresting one, and this is the movie’s biggest crime, because the Amy of the book is endlessly fascinating. She is without conscience but not without purpose; she’s committing a vicious crime, but she has her reasons. We lose the psychology between Nick and his misogynistic, cold father, too, a man who taught Nick to react to women he dislikes with “that dumb stupid that stupid bitch” and who trained Nick, through the power of verbal and emotional abuse, that anything but stoicism was weakness.

Amy’s past of manipulation and cruelty is, naturally, explored in more depth in the book; it’s a little disappointing that, while we hear from her male victim in the movie, the girl who she destroyed—Amy, at age fifteen, cracked her own ribs and accused this girl of throwing her down a flight of stairs—goes unmentioned.

And while the end of the movie seems to absolve Nick almost entirely—it presents him as a victim of her manipulation, a totally unwilling victim—the book gives us Nick’s inner life as a darker place. He’s on Amy’s level. The movie has Nick accepting his fate with her and making the ultimate sacrifice—his individual happiness with another, non-murderous woman—for the sake of an unborn child he did not expect or ask to conceive. But the book shows us this part of him that wants her now more than ever, that agrees they are each others’ sick soulmates. “Who would I be without Amy to react to? Because she was right: as a man, I had been my most impressive when I loved her—and I was my next best self when I hated her. I had known Amy only seven years, but I couldn’t go back to life without her. Because she was right: I couldn’t return to an average life.” In the book, they are both, in their own ways, monsters. They acknowledge this about themselves and each other.

We lose this great possibility that feels much more possible in the novel: that Nick, our unreliable narrator, really killed her. The movie allows us to spend the morning with Nick, the morning of Amy’s disappearance; we know he didn’t do it. We get to watch the media narrative that unspools, a “the husband is always guilty” ruling in the jury of public opinion is cast. But we are always sure. In the book, we are not. In the book, Nick tells us, point-blank, that he’s lied to the police five times in ten minutes. He is slippery; it’s obvious he’s hiding, well, something. It turns out that something is not that he’s a murderer. But we feel, for a while, that he could be.

The movie left me feeling a little like Nick. I think Amy is a truly deplorable, despicable person capable of committing atrocities with her bare hands and a box cutter.

But when she’s not around? Damn, I really miss her.