Monday, October 06, 2014

We Need To Talk About How This Affects Our Goals

I've been evangelising both the book and film versions of Gone Girl to anyone who will listen for some time now and I'm happy to do so again here for you, idle lunchbreak clicker.

Needless to say, this is going to spoil both versions for anyone yet to encounter them, and probably Fight Club too, so stop here if that bothers you.  

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There's a lot of great stuff in both Gillian Flynn's novel and David Fincher's film - much musing on the battlegrounds of marriage and the extent to which we can ever really know the minds of even our nearest and dearest; how real trauma is experienced by the public at large via pre-cut news story templates, and how the participants in these dramas are required to assume hackneyed dramatic roles just to satisfy the public's demands.

It's not difficult to work out why this story left many people cold though, and it defnitely has prompted many vociferous complaints.  Cut the plot back to its bare bones and the tale that the author wanted to tell goes like this -

Boy meets Psychopath  >>>
Boy fails to live up to Psychopath's expectations >>>
Psychopath inflicts terrible punishment upon Boy >>>
Boy comes to realise that he actually loves Psychopath.

Which is basically the plot of 1984, and isn't exactly crowd-pleasing box office.

What raises this above a particularly depressing version of one of those rank Michael Douglas crazy-bitch stories is the expert manipulation of our sympathies.  It's a slow unfolding of horrors, by stages a portrait of a schlubby husband and a perfect wife; a violent asshole husband and an awesome, terrifying genius wife; a deeply-flawed and wronged husband with a psychopath for a spouse, and finally a portrait of a thoroughly awful power couple, each reinforcing and enabling the other's sick impulses and fully deserving of their miserable fate together*. 


It's not hard to see what attracted David Fincher to the book either - turning daft, pulpy potboilers with big ideas at their core into gripping, flashy thrillers is his speciality.  The structure of Fight Club - a similarly wacky and ridiculous story, held together only by the viewer's willingness to suspend their disbelief - has clear parallels with Flynn's bestseller.


Fight Club's needy, emasculated office drone, bent into unnatural shapes by a society that expects him to better himself in ways that he can't or won't achieve, who finds temporary fulfillment in punching and vandalising things.  Amy Elliot-Dunne, with her righteous fury at a faithless, craven husband and her boiling contempt for an American marital politics that she finds so offensively manipulative and banal that she seeks to revenge herself upon it all.

Tyler Durden and Amy Elliot-Dunne seem to be wiser than us.  They perceive systems and injustices that we miss and they have the guts and the brains to kick against them effectively.  They're as mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more and anyone who isn't punching the air at these speeches in both films would be better giving this type of fiction a wide berth.

And yet the cheer dies in our throats when we fully perceive what these people are capable of, in pursuit of their goals - skinheaded terrorism and a return to hunter-gathering for Tyler Durden, viciously murderous vengeance meted out upon those who dare to defy the wants of Amy Elliot-Dunne.

Both are stories about apparently admirable yet deeply horrying individuals.  We're invited to cheer them on, and then whiplashed by the full expression of their inhumanity.  It's shocking and brutal, as a good thriller should be. 

Much of the criticism of Gone Girl I've seen has focused on what are ultimately fripperies and diversions.  To pick just one - how are we to reconcile the supposedly deep universal analysis of relationships, with a self-harming, neck-slashing psycho Amy? 

Well, we can't - the analysis just isn't that deep, and it isn't even the point.  The famous Cool Girl rant about the manipulation of women's behaviour by men for their own ends, as perceptive as it is, is as much an act as the earlier Diary version of helpless, loyal Amy is.

We're being played again, encouraged to cheer Amy on in her vengeance, but it's not the injustice of modern gender relations that's driving her to acts of operatic villainy.  The lies and hypocrisy sure do piss her off, but the more time that we spend with her, the more we realise that it's the mere fact of another person's defiance of her desires that's driving her rage.

The same is true of Fight Club.  We're not being invited to cheer when Project Mayhem destroys those buildings.  We're supposed to think, Oh, shit.  Maybe Tyler Durden has a good point or two but ultimately he is, you know, the psychotic invention of a diseased mind, rather than the  cheerfully violent lifestyle guru we had earlier been led to admire.

In much the same way, we're compelled to respect Amy Elliot-Dunne's sheer invention and willpower.  She really is the Amazing Amy that the press are selling to the public.  It's just that she's not amazing in quite the way that we'd all been led to believe, much to our surprise and revulsion.

There are still plenty of people who'd say, well, so what?  For all that, it's still just nonsense - exploitative and deeply silly nonsense, at that.  And it is, as any really good pulpy thriller should be.

I'll go further than that and say that Gone Girl is the Mona Lisa of silly, exploitative nonsense.  The whole thriller genre is very silly indeed, or at least it is if it's any good, and that goes right back to Marlowe's flirtations with innumerable femmes fatales and his repeated druggings and coshings by fast-talking women and unseen thugs. 

The heart of a good thriller is mystery and shock value, tension and release.  As Chandler used to describe his method for overcoming writer's block, a man with a gun walks in...  Or a blood-soaked psychopath throws herself at her hate-filled husband in front of America's press, to the nation's delight.

Like it or not, you have to admire the panache.

Update!  A bit of a backlash forming about this film now - is Amy a Fatal Attraction-style monster from woman-hating central casting, or an icon of evil feminism for scorned women everywhere?

And the cop-out answer is, perhaps a bit of both.  We're certainly pushed towards the avatar-of-all-women's-vengeance interpretation in the big reveal, but Amy is at heart a pure psychopath from thriller nightmares and likely a raging narcissist into the bargain, willing to do anything to get what she wants. 

And, good!  Good melodrama needs interesting villains.   The slow reveal of these deeper motivations are what makes the drama compelling. 

I could go in-depth into Amy's apparent willingness to tolerate her husband's failure to maintain his perfect spouse facade and how the revelation of his unfaithfulness sparks her revenge mission, but the point worth focusing on is the one that she makes (in the film, anyway) at the end of the Cool Girl speech:

You do not get to win. 

The book goes deeper into Amy's view of her personal relationships as battles to the end, with a parade of framed former lovers and fitted-up ex-friends who dared to slight her, but the defining characteristic of her relationships with everyone else in the story is that sooner or later, she has nothing but contempt for all of them. 

She doesn't love her family or her friends - in fact, she seems to hate them all.  She seems to love Nick but as is made crystal clear, it's the pretense of perfection that Nick puts on for her that she falls in love with. 

That is, she loves Nick only when she can see her own reflection in him, making him raise his game to match her...  And unexpectedly, she comes to realise that she can force him to see their marriage the way that she does.  Because she's a narcissistic psychopath.

Narcissistic psychopaths, I assume, are not big on striking blows for people everywhere who just happen to share their gender, unless perhaps to bask in their adulation. 

This isn't a hidden theme or anything I'm talking about - Amy says this right out at the end of the film: Basically, she doesn't need Nick to love her or to care for her.  She only ever needed him to put on a convincing show of loving her to make her happy and, as she spells out graphically to her ever-dense husband, the act of putting on that show will make him love himself, and attain a kind of sick happiness too.

Does he agree with her in the film?  Well, he does in the book - they end entwined narcissists, utterly contemptuous of each other but each bitterly happy in their own way, stuck in the bespoke Hell that they have made for each other. 

Which isn't exactly And they lived happily ever after but damn, that's a cracking twist ending that nobody saw coming, I reckon.


*This - Nick coming to love Amy and accept that she's the only woman he could ever be with - is downplayed in the film version.  I suspect that this is because of strong negative reader reactions to this ending in the book.  Certainly, there was much talk of re-writing the third act, and it looks to me like writer and director decided to go with a less full-on version, to satisfy the book's fans and lessen the alienation for everyone else.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not the worst film but certainly the most unpleasant I've seen in a long while: glib, baggy, self-satisfied, replete with sexist tropes and ultimately not a very good thriller - not for a moment did I think he'd killed her (I've not read the book) and it just stopped without resolution for some reason. The scene where she drives back to the house bloodied and desperate was very effective though.

Fincher is an odd one; I'd reflexively assume I love all his films but thinking about it his work is a real mixed bag. Fight Club and Social Network are terrific and Zodiac is one of the best films of the past 20 years but Benjamin Button was a bag of shite, TGWTDT a plodding waste of time and The Game had the same self-satisfied detachment as Gone Girl (plus it's a rip off of The Magus, though with little of the book's capacity for reflection).