Love is a Battlefield: Gone Girl Aims, Fires, Misses

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Ben Affleck is a lumbering lunkhead of a man — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As the quasi-Neanderthal lead actor in the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, Affleck is aptly cast as Nick Dunne, the remarkably un-self aware husband of Amy (Rosamund Pike), whose disappearance is the axis on which this David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) directed movie spins.

Amy is the indulged daughter of earnest parents who’ve mined her childhood for the plots of their successful Amazing Amy book series. Whip-smart and beautiful in a Seven Sisters preppie way, Amy is understandably unable to live up to her doppleganger’s achievements (flesh and blood real Amy wastes her talents writing relationship quizzes for lifestyle magazines). Believing she can’t be loved for who she is, Amy retaliates by turning herself into a succubus (well told in backstory) who preys on the men she snares in her tangled web—a spot-on swipe at dating mores where everyone is at the mercy of someone else’s pathologies.

GoneGirl1Enter Nick, a freelance writer for men’s magazines (instead of vapid relationship quizzes, he probably writes articles about how to get better pecs in ten). Nick and Amy meet during a hipster party, and before you can say “Arcade Fire,” they’ve hooked up and are soon living in high boho style in a brownstone; so in love with being in love that they actually kiss in a storm of blown sugar. Gag.

The heavy-handed imagery foreshadows that it’s not all unicorns and rainbows in Amy and Nick’s future. Real life intervenes via the 2008 stock market crash that caused freelance writing careers to go the way of the brontosaurus. When Nick’s mother develops cancer, the couple move to Nick’s hometown in nowheresville Missouri where Nick and his fraternal twin sister Margo (well played by Carrier Coon) open a bar called, wait for it…The Bar (are you sure we aren’t still in Brooklyn?). While Nick shleps around in T-shirts and a five o’clock shadow, teaching writing courses at a local college and shtupping a student, Amy stews in their  Stepford-like mini-mansion—an incongruous housing choice for ex-writers claiming penury.

And then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy’s gone. Nick comes home after a night at the bar to find broken glass, overturned furniture, and nary a sign of Amy.

We’ve seen this plot device many, many, times before. The twist in this case is Gone Girl’s zeroing in on the Jon Benet Ramsey-like frenzy surrounding Amy’s disappearance. Within 24 hours, Amy’s absence spawns a media circus of epic proportions that includes swarms of selfie takers and women eager to get a piece of Nick. While Nick smiles for the camera, well-meaning townspeople are tying yellow ribbons around trees and literally beating the bushes to find Amy who has suddenly captured the hearts and minds of America.

Like a thought bubble above a cartoon character, slow-witted Nick realizes that Amy has not only staged her own disappearance, but she has hogtied him to the whipping post of public judgement. You’re meant to get angry at Nick for ripping Amy from the bosom on Brooklyn, then cheating on her, and mad at Amy for behaving like a passive aggressive spoiled brat. I guess they don’t have couples counseling in Missouri.

Midway through Gone Girl I realized that I didn’t care if Amy came back or what had happened to her. I was bored, and that troubled me.  And that’s a shame, because Flynn’s book cleverly detailed the exquisite mind fuckery between Amy and Nick. By the end of the book the reader can’t help but admire Nick’s anti-spiritual awakening as a master game player in a profoundly dysfunctional relationship that includes domestic violence.

A large part of Gone Girl’s problem is the casting of Pike as Amy. Pike is too mild to play devious Amy. Even when Amy supposedly hits bottom while hiding out in the Ozarks eating junk food and hanging out with trailer park trash (a ridiculous scene that falls flat in both the book and the movie), she looks like she’s on her way to shop at Talbots. Another Amy—Amy Adams—would have narrowed her green eyes, tossed her red hair, and fully embraced the deeply sociopathic nature of Amy’s character.

Although somewhat miscast as Desi, Amy’s long-ago paramour who still has the hots for her, Neil Patrick Harris brings the right amount of creep to his louche playboy. Desi rescues Amy and sets her up in his luxurious lake house like a pampered house cat. Desi’s the opposite of Nick: hyper attentive, flush, and willing to wait on Amy hand and foot. But girls being girls, we only want the boys we can’t have.  For Amy, that means a bloody escape from Desi’s gilded grip (I haven’t seen that much blood on silk sheets since the horse head scene in the Godfather) and a return Nick’s not so loving arms. As TV crews film Amy’s miraculous homecoming, once inside their house, Amy and Nick circle each other like two cats ready for the next battle.

On a meta level Gone Girl is about the vicious games lovers play (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?), why people stay in relationships even when their expiration date’s long past, and how we delude ourselves about love and honesty. I wish David Fincher had used the same unsparing gaze he applied to his characters in The Social Network. It would have made Gone Girl more of a character study and less of a domestic set piece.

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