Abundant spoilers ahead. In addition to giving away everything that happens in ‘Gone Girl,’ I reference the climax to Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition’ in the caption for one of the pictures.
Driving along an open road with her window rolled down and a pair of shades over her eyes, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is far from dead. In fact, she is so vitally present that the film grants her her own voiceover narration, putting her on the same level of narrative authority as her alleged murderer and husband Nick (Ben Affleck), our previous point of identification. This reveal, which occurs suddenly around halfway through David Fincher’s Gone Girl, is jarring. It rivals the perspective-hopping seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and, more recently, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects. But whereas the latter two films use the plot gimmick more or less exclusively to generate suspense through the violation of viewer expectations, Gone Girl also has social concerns in mind. By granting narrative authority to Amy, the film symbolically grants her power. And she is the film’s power source, its vehicle for social commentary— Fincher alerts us to this by setting her apart from everyone else in the movie. Whereas the rest of the film’s diegesis wallows in a cynical realism, Amy executes a scheme to frame her husband that is ridiculously, almost fantastically elaborate. In a world filled with vulnerably human characters, Amy’s demeanor is cold and otherworldly, more befitting a ghost than a flesh-and-blood person. Indeed, as the film slowly reveals, this undead spectre is less a character than a caricature, more the embodiment of an idea than a body in itself.
This idea, which the film unveils gradually, is that middle class America is obsessed with facades, deceptive surfaces that mask an underbelly of violence and perversion. We’ve been there before. From Robert Redford’s Ordinary People to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, cinema has made a genre—no, a cliché —out of condemning the repressed sins of American suburbia. On this subject, Gone Girl offers no new insight, but it so completely commits to its polemical goals that it emerges an unusually fine example of these group of movies. Aside from Amy’s crucial role in the film, which I will discuss shortly, the movie strengthens its critique of bourgeois superficiality by incorporating a motif of performance and deception on both a formal and narrative level. Formally, the film appropriates the typical Fincher aesthetic that imbues much of his 21st century work with an elegant pessimism—muted color tones, dreamy shallow focus shots, and the use of dollies to ensure smooth camera tracking—but here these trademarks have thematic import. The immaculate visuals draw attention to their own airbrushed quality and thus their artificiality, evoking the evenness of the surfaces the film’s characters cultivate. The movie’s sonic surfaces produce a similar effect. Long-time Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have composed a score that moves across a low range of notes, pitched to perfection through artificial tuning—the uniformity and cleanness of the sound once again channels an obsession with smoothing over appearances. On top of all this, Fincher, a known proponent of digital filmmaking, works within the medium with Gone Girl—it might be a stretch, but one could even go as far as to argue that the way digital cinema mimics the ontological properties of its analog counterpart is a derivation of the movie’s themes extended to the material properties of film.
Plot-wise, characters deceive each other left and right. Nick, accused by many of murder, puts up an amiable front for the cameras—at one point, we even get a behind-the-scenes view of him rehearsing for an interview with his lawyer, played by Tyler Perry (interestingly, by occupying this role, Perry undermines his public image, as does Neil Patrick Harris in an even more against-type role. Maybe these unorthodox casting decisions were thematically motivated?) The interviewer herself is seen awkwardly preparing for the session off-air in an otherwise extraneous shot that evokes the opening credits to Fahrenheit 9/11, which presents footage of the Bush administration grooming themselves before their respective TV appearances. Like that footage, this shot draws attention to the constructedness of the images that compose “mass media,” whose technologies fuel our fanaticism with appearances by enabling news to be shared and judged by large numbers of people almost instantaneously—we are swift to condemn, even swifter to take precautions that would save us from condemnation. When the police first begin the investigation, Nick appears to cooperate until we see him inexplicably slip a key piece of evidence into his back pocket, hiding it from the officers’ view. In this moment, we are made acutely aware that the film has intentionally withheld plot information from us, a notion confirmed during the scene where Nick’s college-age lover suddenly barges her way into the story. It would seem the film’s structure reflects its themes. The way Gone Girl opens mysteriously before segueing into a big, game-changing reveal—which is surrounded by a series of smaller reveals—reflects the film’s thematic intent: it wants to expose the disjunction between what appears above and what lies below, to demonstrate that this bourgeois obsession with deception is pathological.
And that’s where Amy comes in. Simultaneously a satirical and horrific figure, the character functions in Gone Girl much as Patrick Bateman does in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, a film whose title Fincher’s film could easily have appropriated. Like Bateman, Amy exudes a self-conscious artificiality that ensures we see her not as simply a plastic, bourgeois character but the plastic, bourgeois character, a caricatural embodiment of the fakery the film condemns. The most revealing moment occurs after Amy returns home, having been missing for most of the film. Nick, walking into the kitchen, finds her preparing breakfast with a gleaming smile, the household cat perched like a wax statuette by the frying pan. The image is so saccharine in its false cheer that the irony is immediately registered, evoking the mock-Rockwellian tableaus of the American Family featured in the opening scenes of American Beauty. This moment, though perhaps a bit heavy-handed, is exceedingly effective at accentuating Amy’s parodic function within the story.
In addition, by intentionally overplaying her character’s fakeness, Pike draws attention to her performance as an actress playing a character who is herself performing different roles for various people. Our awareness of the performative aspect to Amy’s character sets off a domino effect. Pike’s acting triggers the interpretation that each level of her character’s performance is simply masking another level, creating a recursive self-reflexivity within the character “Amy” that renders her status as a physical person obsolete. Because we don’t know who she truly is, she becomes merely the product of her performances, the empty sum of her lies. In essence, she represents the cosmetic gestures we, the film’s target bourgeois audience, use to maintain the image of well-being and prosperity. We realize how perfect it is that the film’s title references her—Amy is the film, and if she’s “Gone,” it is only because her corporeality fades to insignificance in the context of what she represents. She is exactly as Bateman narrates at the start of American Psycho: “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me—only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”
But all this is merely a prelude to the film’s crucial unveiling of Amy’s plan that occurs about midway through the movie. The elaborateness of her scheming—which involves draining her blood onto the kitchen floor and surreptitiously befriending a pregnant woman in order to both gain an alibi and fake her own pregnancy—veers straight into the realm of the absurd, if not the strictly impossible. With great patience, the film lets her narrate her entire plan in detail, and the tone of the voiceover leans once again toward satire, evoking the famous business card scene from American Psycho. In both cases, the length and unexpected fastidiousness of the characters’ monologues generate a sense of hyperbole that criticizes the idea of excess. In American Psycho, the excess is the overzealous competitiveness among Wall Street young professionals. In Gone Girl, it is the ludicrous amount of time we spend painstakingly crafting our public image.
Insofar as she is obsessed with image-making, Amy functions as a comic lampoon of the bourgeois preoccupation with managing appearances. But the nature of her scheming is anything but funny, and it is as a horrific figure that Amy does the most damage. It is important here to draw attention to our roles as cinematic spectators to Gone Girl, though I would argue the film does that plenty on its own (the focus on image-making and the processes that result in works of artful deception, as well as the film’s own conspicuously polished surfaces, seems to echo the act of filmmaking.) Before continuing discussion on Amy, remember that, though her grand plan remains unrevealed to most of the film’s characters, it is revealed to us. We are ultimately able to see both the outward product of her deception and its inner workings. We witness how others oblivious to her scheming respond to her—that is, how we would have responded if we had been in their position—all while experiencing a mounting dread at their ignorance i.e. our would-be bourgeois ignorance. In other words, we are distanced from the story by way of cinematic spectatorship, and from this standpoint, we can fully appreciate both the metaphorical resonances of Amy’s scheme and the subsequent horror at seeing our social order collapse from the inside out.
Amy’s horrific crusade involves forging evidence and manipulating media politics in a way that allows her to publicly brand men as murderers, rapists, and sadists, men who, though not altogether “innocent,” have not personally committed these crimes. Whereas we typically think of social performance as a means to hide our transgressions, Amy performs to achieve the opposite effect, externalizing middle-class society’s taboo underpinnings and masking innocence from view. On a plot level, Amy’s framing of these men may come across as simply the machinations of a vindictive wife trying—by all means necessary—to punish her husband for his apathy and infidelity. Symbolically, however, her actions wage war against the entire bourgeois collective. As a whole, we try to homogenize our public selves, keeping our individual sins tucked away in the closet. What Amy does is invert this outer/inner dichotomy—when she sets her ex-boyfriend up to be a rapist, she is on the one hand wrongly implicating an innocent man, but she is also declaring that such crimes are themselves disturbingly widespread across middle-class society in general. She is saying that, although innocent individuals may exist within the class, the bourgeois class at large is a breeding ground for transgressive behavior. If anything, punishing the innocent individual for the crimes of the guilty collective perversely hits the message home harder. All this she conveys through the outlet of mass media, furthering the irony of her performance—that which is typically kept private through performance has been made public to not only the neighborhood or the country, but to the world.
To reiterate, this interpretation is founded on Amy’s striking inversion of the publicized good and internalized bad. We play roles to sustain a public image that we make homogenous with respect to everyone else’s, whereas our personal, individual crimes remain hidden. Maintaining the linkage between outwardness and homogeneity, inwardness and individuality, Amy’s swapping of good and bad makes a powerful statement—the bad is now outward and homogenous, the good inward and individual. Despite the individual good that may exist, the bad weighs on the bourgeois conscience—the entire class is implicated in the sense that the burden of guilt is everyone’s to bear. Once again, all this depends on our unique position as cinematic spectators who have knowledge of both the outward and the inward. The majority of the characters in Gone Girl only see Amy’s outward facade, whereas Nick and his sister are likely too existentially involved in the story to be concerned with the metaphorical implications of Amy’s actions. No, Amy’s ultimate performance is for us, a notion confirmed by the scene where she murders her ex-boyfriend Desi (Harris). There are no other characters in the room, no other witnesses except the voyeuristic cinematic camera. She takes him, the bourgeois poster boy by virtue of the way he fashions his identity through displays of wealth and achievement, and kills him in the most undignified way possible i.e. with his pants literally down and amid gushing fountains of blood. His murder, though a private act in the diegetic world, is for us our own public shaming, a conflation of the film’s satirical and horrific impulses into one, emotionally vexing moment. We see our class values, manifested in this man, bled dry of their facile illusions.
By the end of the film, the bourgeois social order has been completely destabilized. Amy has taken the social defense mechanism by which we hide our worst selves and turned it against us, against Nick—for fear of the inevitable public backlash he would receive if he left his pregnant, “victimized” wife after she returned home to him, he is forced to pretend their marriage is blissfully happy. The irony is, of course, that he has been unhappy with their marriage all along and has for years maintained the illusion perfectly well on his own. This return to “normalcy”—the normalcy of deception—openly mocks the happy endings that involve a restoration of social order, doing so by showing us both the semblance of order and the cruel reality which that order belies. This revealing of “order” itself to be a space of false security is ultimately Gone Girl’s greatest weapon. Taking advantage of our position as cinematic spectators and Amy as a satirical/horrific figure, the film dissects the bourgeois organism before our eyes, peeling back the tissues and membranes that have long died to the ways of humanity. We can only hope that, somewhere within this dying body—perhaps in Fincher’s own films, which despite their dark tone are very much attune to the nuances of human experience—there is life.