David Fincher isn’t in the business of making easy films. Not by any stretch of the imagination. This isn’t necessarily to say that his films are difficult. They’re not intentionally opaque, can’t really be considered art-house. But they absolutely aren’t easy. They tackle complex issues, and often many of them all at once. They do so from several angles, and have a tendency to leave viewers with complex, shifting takeaways. Such is absolutely the case with Gone Girl. Fincher’s most recent film is a thorough examination of marriage, gender politics, elitism, the country, motherhood, appearance, and identity...all in equal measures.
It’s also one of the most problematic movies I’ve seen in a long time, when it comes to its gender politics. Gone Girl has a lot to say...but most of it is about Amy, who emerges as the film’s central antagonist about halfway through. By the time we hit the halfway point, the audience is hip to Amy’s plan, and we start to understand why we’ve already spent the first half of the movie with characters who insist upon constantly calling her a bitch.
Because really, nobody likes Amy in this movie except for her parents...and by the film’s end, they’re revealed not only to have embodied the loveless marriage that she’s come to expect for herself, but are additionally implied to be at the root of the entitlement that drives the majority of the plot’s mechanics. Amy’s parents’ alliance shifts throughout the film: they’re initially squarely in line with Nick, ready to help him find his wife. Eventually they turn on him thoroughly, and a reconciliation is never shown.
Almost immediately, Margo voices her displeasure with Amy. In stark contrast to Amy’s classically feminine appearance, we meet Margo in a T-shirt, behind a bar. When Nick asks for a drink, she pours two and downs a morning whiskey with the leading man. The next woman we meet is Detective Boney. She’s a great character: a competent, smart detective. She wears pantsuits. Has a no-nonsense air about her. Clearly runs the show ahead of her male partner. Normally, I’d be talking about how Detective Boney is a great, smart, strong female character...except that she’s not. She’s a male character, in every way except for the actress playing her. There’s absolutely nothing feminine about Detective Boney, and upon examination, it becomes really clear that this film doesn’t really view women that bear classic feminine signifiers in any kind of positive light.
We like Margo and Detective Boney because they wear pants and talk about what a bitch Amy is. By the end of the film, both characters are still hanging out with Nick, still “one of the cool ones,” by the film’s own bizarre standards. Other characters that are more overtly feminized don’t fare quite so well at all. The pregnant neighbor is derided as being “fucking crazy” by Nick, and is referred to as a “pregnant idiot” by Amy. Her actual portrayal doesn’t do any work to combat this. The Nancy Grace character is also overtly feminine, and shown to be a hawksih creature of a woman, operating with clear opportunism and a lack of any kind of integrity. Nick’s young girlfriend is simply a caricature of a human being, reduced to little more than anatomy and archetype.
Amy’s lucky enough to maintain her cool, but only so she can become the most insane and unhinged female villain we’ve seen in a good, long time. Indeed, she’s just about as crazy as it gets, and by the end of the movie, Nick goes right ahead and calls her a “fucking bitch” to her face. It’s a clear hero moment — one that, disappointingly enough, drew a ton of laughs in the theater — and is obviously meant to put a mouthpiece on exactly what the audience is thinking.
But why is Amy such a bitch? What makes her such a bitch? Gone Girl doesn’t just leave it at “because she is!” We’ve got a lot of reasons as to why Amy does the things that she do, and these reasons are what inform a lot of the film’s fascinating central discussions. They’re also what render the film problematic in its gender politics: Amy acts the way she does because she feels entitled.
By too thoroughly casting the Gone Girl screenplay as Nick’s story, Flynn backs herself into a deeply sexist narrative corner. Amy is a psychotic villain, driven to murder by the overwhelming feeling that she hasn’t gotten what she deserves. Nick, on the other hand, just wants women to stop picking him apart. (An actual line of dialogue from the film.)
As such, Gone Girl’s screenplay sides with Nick in a surprising and problematic way. It’s his story, so he emerges as a put-upon nice-guy, with Amy the psychotic bitch. Nick is never shown to do anything that might even come close to warranting the response that he gets from Amy, and such is the film’s problematic depiction of one woman’s warped and tortured sense of overblown entitlement. Nick simply isn’t shown to have wronged Amy enough for Amy to not come across as a totally insane bitch, and as such, the film takes entirely too much glee in talking about what a bitch Amy is, basically from the moment the opening credits stop.
Her specific methods, even, are deeply rooted in sexist male fears — this also being one of the things that makes Flynn’s screenplay so fascinating, considering she’s a woman. Amy keeps the “false rape” page pretty much dogeared in her revenge playbook. She uses sex as a weapon, and cunningly manipulates her appearance to get exactly what she wants. Think about it: as soon as Amy ditches her classically-beautiful, ultra-feminine appearance, she’s immediately seen through. She’s beaten and robbed by drifters soon after changing her appearance, and as soon as she decides she’ll go back to Nick, she does so by reverting to her former looks, expressly for the purpose of sexual manipulation.
At the film’s close, Amy basically wins everything. She uses motherhood against Nick, proving to still have at least one more card up her sleeve, and backs him into a corner for the next couple of decades, if not more.
Gone Girl is a great film. It’s a labyrinth of emotional turns and betrayals. Everybody should see it, and it’s a film that deserves to be paid close attention to from the moment it starts to its final image. It’s a portrait of rapidly-shifting gender norms in America, and looks at a way of life that sees women occupying new roles all the time. Which is why it’s so unfortunate, then, that Gone Girl seems to take so much glee in hating its most accomplished and cunning female character.