I usually prefer going to movies when there is no one else around or, if there are people, there are little more than a handful. A casual movie meet-up with six friends where I play the stranger in the back of the theater who might get labeled as creepy, weird, or both: this is the ideal movie-watching experience. But I rarely learn this way. Being relatively alone with my thoughts in a theater lets me process my own reactions without any sort of influence from crowd noise but I miss out on things.
For example, I saw Baggage Claim and found out “Gay PDA” still warrants an “ewwww” from young Black boys and girls. I watched Boyhood and found hyper-conservatism was funny to a Mid-western crowd that I perceived to be right of center. And I stood in line for Gone Girl (my second viewing) and discovered that for one older Black gentleman, the film was not good because “the woman was crazy”.
Gone Girl frustrated this man. He actually had trouble naming the film or discussing it beyond Amy Elliot-Dunn’s psychotic behavior. And I think I understand why. As many reviewers have pointed out, Gone Girl is at its core a feminist critique of dominant male patriarchy in our society. Yes, Amy is crazy, but she’s a product of a society that is obsessed with stories, reflected in the works of her parents, the pick-up line and proposal of her husband, and the carefully crafted public persona of our female lead.
At first I found it difficult to swallow the notion of Gone Girl as feminist in any way. Fincher’s female characters are often just detailed enough to not be completely flat (two-toned at best) and Amy Elliot Dunn plays into the common trope of the psychotic wife, girlfriend, or mistress (Glenn Close at her finest). But watching the film a second time reveals a level of complexity that is reflected beyond the surface level in two ways.
Nick Dunn, our dopey, distracted, husband is caught in a reversal of stereotypes. As I discussed with my good friend, Nick is put in the role of the victim even before it is revealed that he is the victim of Amy’s revenge. In film theory we often discuss how male characters often do things and on the reverse, female characters lack an agency and often have things done to them. These are not always exclusive, but the stereotypical actions often hold. In Gone Girl there is power in the fact that Nick Dunn is constantly having things done to him. Yes, he does things, but the conflict comes from actions being done to him. Alone Nick Dunn has no agency. With others, he often has even less.
Detective Boney controls the scenes where they are together. Margot controls the scenes where they are together. Tanner Bolt controls the scenes where they are together. And the list goes on. The only times when Nick is in control are scenes that we see after they happen, namely his interview with Schreiber. But in the real world, Nick is to be lightly pushed around by any character that isn’t as much of a pawn/push-over as he is (the ex-boyfriend Amy accused of rape).
One might claim that this was a decision to completely align sympathy with Nick once the twist is revealed, but this doesn’t hold up. Nick can only be given sympathy by viewers who feel uncomfortable or frustrated with a male protagonist that is made utterly powerless. In my first viewing, I was teetering between the two characters, but now I stand firmly on Amy’s side.
Amy’s vengeance. The major question that’s going through my mind now is: Who is Amy trying to get revenge on? Why would she go to such lengths to ensure that Nick was firmly punished for killing her dreams and “ending her life”? Torture might’ve been good enough. And the death penalty seemed to be the ultimate goal. Why would she go so far as to even killing herself for the sake of a perfect domestic homicide? Because Amy’s vengeance is meant for Nick Dunn, the Elliots, and every journalist and fan that controlled her life.
Amy, in a deliberately non-aggressive manner, pushes and pulls every single character in the direction she wishes. The only person who is physically hurt (excluding the murder of poor Barn-I mean Dizzy) is Amy, but an entire country cries tears and shouts in anger at her disappearance. Much like Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, Amy can manipulate people’s emotions with the stories she has cooked up. This is “women’s work”.
She reads books. She buys presents. She leaves letters. She’s drinks wine and plays with children. She gossips. She nags. All for the sake of vengeance. This is a woman who has been driven mad by the unwritten rules of femininity and has taken the tools of her imprisonment and used them to disrupt the house she is held in to great success. But she is unable to truly free herself, despite taking control. She is unable to use the “master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house”.
Amy can only take control with the help of the media. She can only take control when she creates fabrications, the materials for which are the tools of “women’s work”. And this control only extends to her household. It only takes a strong man and a savvy women to rob her of her wealth and completely subdue her (partly because of her need to stay undercover, note that she goes for the calendar and doesn’t try to run from the room). It only takes being put in another household (Dizzy) for her to lose control.
For that latter example, we can see Amy and Nick’s reunion as the best possible circumstance for Amy. She can be in control of Nick’s life from a distance, but she still cannot be in control of her own unless she’s with him. Her freedom and power is tied to him and without him, she becomes a damsel in distress at the hands of a “good guy”. She becomes a damsel in distress at the hands of a united couple of man and woman.
So in the end, no one wins. Nick may be the man trapped under the thumb of a maddened wife, but he needs Amy to function. Amy may be the head honcho (even physical violence no longer phases her), but if Nick were to leave, she would lose all of her power.
Gone Girl the film that applies the Master-Servant relationship to Husband-Wife and Man-Woman.