Movie Review: “Gone Girl” (David Fincher, USA 2014)

Gone Girl opens with Nick Dunne lovingly describing how he wants to bash his wife’s head in, going out and drinking with his sister early in the morning, and returning home to what immediately appears to be a badly staged crime scene of broken glass and a missing wife in an otherwise undisturbed home. It appears immediately that what’s coming is a film about the breakdown of a relationship using a “disappearance” as the MacGuffin that will end with the already-obvious “shocking” conclusion that she actually faked the disappearance to punish him for his transgressions. But the film doesn’t really go there. It goes somewhere darker.

For all that I love film noir as a genre, its depiction of women often reminds me of a college professor’s shorthand description of the Grotesque (the genre, not just the colloquial term for “disgusting”): that which both attracts and repels. While noir was one of the few places Hollywood would admit to women being capable of having brains and showing some independence, it was also suggesting that independent, smart women were by definition dangerous, controlling, manipulative, and often downright evil. Cora Smith uses her wiles to get her husband’s new handyman to murder her husband, then tries to sell him down the river. Brigid O’Shaugnessy lies, steals, and kills at seemingly every turn, only showing any genuine emotion when the man she has spent the entire film manipulating turns out to have seen through it all.

Gone Girl attempts something similar with its psychopathic protagonist: she’s beautiful, smart, quick on her feet, and tough, but she’s also conniving, controlling, deceitful, and seems to have no emotions beyond her desires for control and attention. The thing is, the film so delights in exposing her psychopathy that it’s all we’re left with. Tanner Bolt may comment that her husband “must have a grudging respect” for her and that she is “skilled in the art of revenge,” but his appreciation of her disturbed mind is essentially all we have that makes her anything but a monster. And in the very concept that a woman who seeks control, especially a directly sexual type of control, must be a manipulative monster, there lies the most disturbing misogyny imaginable. It’s impossible to leave this film feeling like Amy is “amazing, but . . . ” She’s “evil but . . . ” and that is an important distinction that makes a huge difference in what the film has to say about women.

The way the film deploys this character only adds to its disturbing attitude toward them. Go look up any news story about a rape anywhere online and there will be a man in the comments saying, “I hate how women can just decide afterward to call it rape. They agree to have sex, change their minds, and hurl accusations at the guy, and suddenly he’s the asshole.” It’s a misogynist fear–if women have the power of consent, they also have the ability to abuse that power, and of course women will. The fact that Amy actually does this several times, and plays out variations on this theme, only adds to the bizarre culture that considers this possibility an important societal ill.

In a seeming attempt to combat its own misogynistic tones, the film gives us a female lead detective who, in a rarity for a film cop, is completely reasonable and even–shock to end all shocks–respects her suspect’s rights. However, by sending her down the wrong path while telling us the story from Nick’s perspective, it consigns her to being a bungler. You have to think about what it looks like to her to realize why she thinks Nick did it. The audience has to fight past the Nancy Grace social satire and the sympathy for Nick that it conjures to see what she sees and realize that she’s the one woman who is neither “bad” nor an idiot. Meanwhile, we have the evil Amy; the violent, thieving Greta; the judgmental, stupidly trusting Margo; the dumbly selfish, uncaring Marybeth; and the dumb-as-a-post Noelle Hawthorne and Ellen Abbot. With the noteworthy exception of Sela Ward’s Sharon Schieber, whom Ward gives an intelligence and strength that the film otherwise does not provide her, the females in the film fit one of two categories: bad guy or airhead. If we were watching from Amy’s perspective, that would make sense–it’s how her twisted mind views the world. But we’re not. We see a seemingly objective world. Which makes the female characterizations frightening indeed.

As disgusting as this film’s apparent misogyny is, one would think that it is a sign of a well-focused film that it has such a clear attitude about women. But the film isn’t content with making that point. It also tries to make a point about Nancy Grace and the culture she foments–those who fetishize hatred and punishment, jumping to conclusions as soon as a story begins and pushing those conclusions to the exclusion of all possible mitigating facts. But it isn’t interested in developing any ideas relating to this theme–it just says, “This is what Nancy Grace does. She decides he’s guilty and whips up public hatred of the dude.” And the fact that it even gives us a decidedly different type of television news magazine star in Sharon Schrieber even suggests that it isn’t saying something about the culture that creates Grace so much as it is saying something about Grace herself. It also tries to discuss what marriage and family are, but it is so unwilling to commit to any particular ideas beyond, “not what Amy thinks” that it becomes nothing more than pretentious writing.

And therein lies the fundamental flaw in this film: surprisingly enough for a film with a director this powerful, it would seem that Gillian Flynn had far too much control. The film comes across as one directed by a novelist. It tries to make too many points. Its plot is overly convoluted. The dialogue is stilted while trying oh-so-hard to be clever. (Flynn saying, “Hey, listen to how smart this is!” while writing dialogue that could be written by a high school student is fascinating if she is a good novelist, because it shows you how different screenplays are from novels. Admittedly, for all I know she’s a hack novelist as well, but it’s something to think about.) It’s too busy with the details of its plot to continue advancing its point.

David Fincher and his frequent cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth have had a clear visual pattern. They love empty spaces. They love darkness. They love low-key lighting. They love longer takes. They love longer shots. Interestingly, they don’t go for that pattern in a film whose story would seem ripe for that style. Instead, the film is absolutely cold. From the opening montage of North Carthage, Missouri that cuts from sign to sign and house to house so quickly that it feels like Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter want to get it out of the way (and it is really very unnecessary), it maintains a detachment that Fincher normally does not have. Fincher typically uses a cool color palette, so it’s not surprising that he uses one here, but the cold blue of the film still contrasts with the empty darkness of his other work–this is a film that just doesn’t want you to see the direction. It’s a film that wants its story out there but doesn’t want to tell it visually. I’m not a Fincher fan, but he’s capable of far better than this visually. Again, it’s as though he spent the film under Flynn’s control, subservient to her story instead of able to make his own film.

Fincher has a history of poor performances (He somehow got the normally good Brad Pitt to put together one of the worst performances in history in Se7en [USA 1995], and that wasn’t an aberration.) and a number of the actors in this film are already proven poor performers. So, it’s not a surprise that the acting is generally bad. Ben Affleck has some surprising flashes of competence in a role that requires little of him in Nick Dunne, but he’s often stiff and wooden when meant to be charming and his sense of fear and worry in the film’s final act are simply nonexistent. Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Missi Pyle, and Casey Wilson are all cartoonishly outsized and only Pyle seems appropriately so. Perry’s smug self-love and Harris’s confidence in particular seem rather out of place for their characters, so much so that even in small roles they are problematic. Through much of the film, the only person to provide any life is Carrie Coon, who is fantastic in her role as Nick’s overly-trusting twin sister. She is often in an actor’s danger zone, having to play someone who really doesn’t know what to think or how to feel, but all of the confusion comes out in her performance so well that it works and Margo becomes the one person we can care about and the only one who seems real. In the first half of the film, I kept wanting everything else to go away and just leave us with Nick and her. Patrick Fugit also deserves special attention for his bizarrely distracting performance in a minor role–it was like he was trying to be bad.

Rosamund Pike falls into a terrible trap: she’s given a role that barely makes any sense and so she has to try to stitch together a coherent character. She tries, and she comes closer to succeeding than many would, but it’s just too difficult a task. Like Oskar Schindler, this is a character who starts off as something complex and interesting and devolves into something nonsensical and two-dimensional, leaving the actor out to dry. She’s also given the unfortunate task of playing Amy’s “fairytale romance” with Nick with the stiff coldness of a psychopath before we really know her psychopathy, which just makes her stiff, awkward scenes with Affleck almost painful in an unintentional way.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a score that is mesmerizing. I have a feeling that it will not work as well at home, because the actual feeling of the speakers in the theater was part of what made it work so well, but it imbued the film with all of the atmosphere that the visuals were lacking. It was a strange, tense, discordant score that provided all of the dread and weirdness that the film needed. Reznor has in the past sometimes been overly intrusive with his scores, but that didn’t happen here, and the result was impressive.

Overall, Gone Girl isn’t really a bad film, but it’s not very good, either. It’s trying to do some interesting things, but it’s trying to do too many of them, which leaves it as something of a mess. Truthfully, Flynn probably just wanted to tell a fun story about a psychopathic woman, but it comes across as a very disturbing statement about women that can’t confine itself to the one point, and Fincher seems oddly powerless to shape his own vision.

Notes

  • I really hope the chin thing was a joke about Affleck being Batman.
  • I’m not the only one who thought sometimes they were trying to make Rosamund Pike look like Deborah Kara Unger from The Game (David Fincher, USA 1997), am I?
  • The audience was laughing an awful lot in the theater–often at things that made me cringe a bit.
  • How is Carrie Coon 33 years old with only six screen credits (only one film, and it was a short) to her name before this, if she’s capable of this performance?
  • David Fincher’s scary army of internet fans will probably be here within ten minutes. I’m sorry, but I can’t pretend to think this is a work of genius.
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Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

Let’s start with something that everyone should understand before going in: This film is a political film. It is 100% intended to help Barack Obama win re-election. It’s a jingoistic film meant to say, “Oh, look how awesome the USA is! And how peaceful solutions work! And how Muslims are capable of self-sacrifice and bravery too!” (Yes, sadly enough, it has to make that last point.) It’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney’s (also credited as a producer) contribution to Obama’s re-election fund, just as running the trailers for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) since about June is Kathryn Bigelow’s and doing the same for Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA/India 2012) is Steven Spielberg’s. This type of politically-motivated filmmaking and releasing around election dates is not the slightest bit unusual. The only thing that’s unusual is that a couple of big-budget big studio films (Argo and Lincoln) are openly on the Democratic side (Even Spielberg, who made the most obvious piece of pro-Bush propaganda ever in The War of the Worlds [USA 2005], seemingly confirming that his foray into the business side of Hollywood had converted him politically!) where Hollywood’s heavy money is typically entirely on the Republican side (and those are around–Red Dawn [Dan Bradley, USA 2012] is the obvious typical piece of right wing action propaganda).

Unlike Clooney’s own political entry for this election, The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA 2011) (“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns!” It’s great when a movie tells you everything you need to know about it in one line.), Affleck makes his political point with a bit of subtlety and care. One thing that has appeared clear throughout Affleck’s directing career so far is that he’s interested in taking a tight narrative within a typical genre and adding a confounding element, exploring what that confounding variable does to adjust the meaning and shape of that narrative. He’s also shown that he completely lacks visual imagination (which may be a side effect of going into directing immediately able to do whatever he wants, though the aforementioned Clooney has actually shown an impressive visual imagination in spite of the same circumstances), and a disturbing willingness to cast himself in spite of his own extreme limitations as an actor.

Considering Affleck’s career in those terms, Argo is exactly what one would expect. He begins with a fairly typical spy-thriller concept about a covert operation to pull a few hidden American embassy employees out of a riotous Iran filled with anti-American sentiment but adds the twist that the cover for the operation is . . . making a movie! So, we get a little comic relief foray into Hollywood making fun of itself. However, that foray is really nothing more than a short bit of comic relief–the film does not become a self-referential comedic genre exercise along the lines of The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997), The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2011). For me, that was a disappointing non-development, because I love that sort of self-referential comedy. However, I understand the decision on Affleck’s part (and it turns out that doing anything comedic would be problematic, after recent events that Affleck could not have anticipated), because it would have been easy for the levity to take over the film, and he keeps things very serious by putting the relief in its own box separated from everything else. It was almost like Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA 1986), which keeps Allen’s comedic plot separated from the more serious moments. The comedy gets enough breath that it does relieve what could have been an oppressively serious film, and keeping it separated from the serious plot was sensible, if not what I would choose.

Also, while it was a shame to see Affleck cast himself in ostensibly the starring role again, it turns out not to have been a problem in several ways. First, the character doesn’t show much of any emotion, allowing Affleck’s limitations to hide under his bizarre ’70s beard. Second, the few times when the character should show emotions, Affleck smartly doesn’t show his own face, relying on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score and the situation to fill in what he himself cannot do. It’s a too-little-used but often effective trick (Watch The Omen [Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976] and pay attention to Gregory Peck’s emotional breakdown. It happens off-screen. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the best in film history, gives that film a bit of an unfair advantage here, but why are people so rarely willing to admit to their actors’ limitations?), and Affleck definitely deserves credit for being willing to use it on himself. Overall, it turns out that his performance simply does not matter to the film.

However, Affleck once again lets himself down with a complete lack of visual imagination. The film just doesn’t have anything interesting to it visually. It’s competent, sure, but it’s absolutely nothing special, which is a shame for a film that had some potential otherwise. I would love to see him work with a more interesting cinematographer and see what would happen, but Rodrigo Prieto is frankly uninteresting. The genius of Conrad Hall made Sam Mendes look like an interesting director for nearly a decade. I’m not sure there is another genius like him around, but what about Peter Deming or Robert Richardson? Just somebody who’s done something interesting before might be enough to take him from “passable” to “good.”

There isn’t much anyone could do acting-wise throughout the film, so no one stood out in a good or bad way.

Overall, it’s an okay film. It’s nothing special, but it’s certainly decent.

Originally Written and Posted on Facebook October 12, 2012. Slightly edited.

A small update since this film has now won three Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. That award doesn’t mean this film is any better than I thought it was from the beginning, but its win brings up the question of why such an average film would win the prestigious award. The answer is that, while this is a clearly political film, it’s also a film that praises the film industry. The entire movie-within-a-movie subplot, which pulls back from skewering Hollywood in any meaningful way, conveys the message that films have a power to help solve the world’s political problems (a message that could easily be seen as self-congratulatory, given the film’s obvious political goals). It’s not exactly the same message as The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious, France/Belgium/USA 2011) used to take home the award last year, but the spirit is very much the same, and it’s a spirit that wins this award with some regularity.