OCTOBER 22, 2014
I WATCHED GONE GIRL in a full theater, and after the big reveal [enormous spoiler alert!] that Amy is alive and sociopathic, each new twist generated a substantial amount of communal laughter. Much of the laughter was subdued and uncomfortable — we weren’t slapping our knees or rolling on the floor. But we followed her into her madness and scheming, and in order to accept and enjoy it all, we had to laugh. We laughed when [blanket spoiler alert for the rest of the essay] she hit her own face with a hammer; when she took out her ex-boyfriend with a box cutter; when she coolly revealed that she’d stolen her husband Nick’s sperm. Her behavior was so extreme it sprawled out of darkness into the realm of the absurd — which has been cited as a failing in both the book and the movie.
Whether this absurdity is a failing depends, in large part, on how we classify this movie, directed by David Fincher, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a tragedy or our time,” while Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com, borrowing a term from Anne Billson, pegs it as a “preposterous thriller,” a subgenre encompassing both Basic Instinct and Vertigo. But tragedies and thrillers, even preposterous ones, are not designed to make you laugh. In these genres, humor is often accidental, an indication that the writing or directing has stretched into the ridiculous — see, e.g., the cult hit The Room, the end sequence of The Departed, or every scene where a character cries in Spider-Man 3. In Gone Girl, though, we laugh because we’re supposed to laugh. The absurdity, its laughableness, is a necessary part of the film.
This is because at its core, Gone Girl is a domestic comedy.
This is true in the classic, Shakespearean sense — it is a story that tilts and swerves, yet resolves, in the end, in marriage. It follows the structure of every romantic comedy from Pride and Prejudice to Silver Linings Playbook: boy meets girl, obstacles appear, but boy and girl end up together. These days, marriage isn’t even a requirement. Making out as the credits roll is enough to satisfy the audience, so in that sense, Gone Girl is even more traditional than your average millennial rom-com. We get Nick, Amy, and the baby carriage.
And while it’s true that this happily ever after doesn’t make anyone feel good, since when has that been a requirement for the genre? Plenty of movies end with the girl walking off into the sunset with a boy that has diminished, disappointed, degraded, and stalked her. Both My Fair Lady and She’s All That are based on the myth of Pygmalion, in which a man falls in love with a statue of his own design. The woman is controlled and rewarded with a man. So why not a comedy where the shrew does the taming, where Galatea gets what she wants?
Obviously, this movie is twisted and evil, and you wouldn’t find it listed as a comedy on Netflix, but that’s what it is. Gone Girl has been accused of reckless misogyny, and comic intention is the best defense.
It’s been widely observed that Amy Elliott Dunne is the bogeyman of the men’s rights movement (whatever that is): a beautiful, evil woman who fabricates rape from consensual encounters, who invents stalkers, who steals sperm and gets pregnant against her husband’s will. She reacts to the pedestrian sins of her insecure doofus/dickhead husband with an elaborate plot framing him for murder, turning him into the victim of her vengeful feminine wiles. That husband, Nick, is much more likable in the movie. Maybe I just like Affleck, whose picture was once tacked to my bulletin board in high school, but I thought the entitled smarmy men’s magazine writer attitude the husband has in the novel lost some of its intensity in the adaptation. As a portrait of a crazy bitch, Gone Girl goes way over the top, and the dark comic elements come from Amy’s extravagant, unrealistic madness.
I’m reminded of the great defunct Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle’s subversive sketch comedy show of the early aughts. Chappelle’s Show appealed to two audiences — the people who got it, and the people who didn’t. In one sketch, Chappelle imagines a world in which African-American descendants of slaves are awarded reparations. He shows black people flashing cash, lining up outside liquor stores, and driving up the price of chicken. It’s a remarkably funny sketch that indicts racists by playing out their fears and beliefs. Of course, it’s also a sketch about the stereotypical behavior of black people — if you happen to be a racist.
Taken at face value, Gone Girl is a deeply misogynist movie about a psycho bitch, and it is possible, especially with its blockbuster status, that a horde of idiots will walk away thinking it’s a fair representation of a scorned woman. But like Chappelle, Fincher and Flynn play with fears about women by incorporating them whole, then exaggerating with evident glee. The scene where Amy rams a wine bottle up her vagina to simulate rape — it’s horrifying, yes, but it’s also grimly funny. Because guess what, everybody: no one actually does that.
There are a few moments that nevertheless leave a bad taste. When Amy is established as the unhinged villain, we are invited, again and again, to rejoice in her degradation. We see the justice in her capture by her ex-boyfriend, creepy creepy Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), and we sympathize with Nick when he calls her a cunt and bangs her head on a wall. But unlike a movie like, say, Horrible Bosses, which ends with the words “crazy bitch whore” after an hour and a half of dude-ish fun, Gone Girl is a movie that empowers its female lead — with its dedication to her character, as well as with a box cutter.
In the end, Amy gets her man, a result that is both ridiculous and somehow inevitable. Nick asks, “Why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you, and then, all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.” Amy’s response: “That’s marriage.” Wicked, terrible, cynical, but funny — the moral, and the punchline, of this movie.