The Artfully Crafted Toxicity of David Fincher’s Gone Girl

I’m going to proceed with a fair degree of caution as I write this, and you should probably do the same while reading it, because I’m about to level a pretty serious charge at a film I generally liked, and try to avoid too much by way of “spoilers” while doing so, even though it’s a pretty safe bet that almost anyone who’s interested in seeing David Fincher’s highly-acclaimed Gone Girl has probably already done so. Why the tip-toeing, then? Well–call it a courtesy simply because, hey, not everyone has seen it yet, as evidenced by the fact that I just caught it at the local discount house (the Riverview in Minneapolis, for those interested in such details) tonight and the joint was packed to the rafters.

First, the good: Fincher is certainly in top form stylistically here, and handles both his actors, and his admittedly combustible subject matter, with the deft touch of a skilled and schooled veteran. He doesn’t go overboard on the “flashy” stuff as he did in his generally failed take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and he shows a previously-undisclosed penchant for handling humorous material (parts of this film are actually very funny) with a degrees of subtlety and sympathy that you never would have guessed at based on his work on, say, Se7en or Zodiac (no offense to either of those modern crime masterpieces, but let’s face it–one thing they most assuredly lacked was any sort of comic relief, and for good reason). The “how he goes about his job” is most definitely not in question here–but the nature of said job certainly is.

As for the cast, Affleck has rarely (if ever) been better, Rosamund Pike delivers a performance that should finally get her on the Hollywood “A”-list, and some eyebrow-raising choices that Fincher has made, most notably in casting Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, pay off big-time, especially in Perry’s case, who proves once and for all that when he’s given good material–my polite way of saying “stuff he didn’t write himself”– he can really hit the mark.

But ya’ know what? For all that, I feel more than just a bit guilty for liking Gone Girl as much as I did for one simple reason: it’s the most blatantly, nakedly, and unapologetically misogynistic flick to come down the Hollywood pipeline in ages and makes notoriously anti-woman fare like, say, any “slasher” horror franchise, seem positively tame in comparison.

Yeah, I know–I actually like most “slasher” flicks, so who am I to cast stones, right? The key distinction, though, is that there’s no pretense involved there–you know exactly what you’re getting into, and I admit: I’m capable of locking my conscience away in a strong box and going along for the ride when it comes to indulging my way-too-numerous-to-mention cinematic guilty pleasures. Gone Girl, on the other hand, is a film buried under layers of “importance” and “respectability”–the self-appointed arbiters have taste seemingly all judged it to be an “important” movie, one with a “message.” Unfortunately, that message is: women are deceitful, calculating shrews who will do anything to twist and shape a man into exactly what they want them to be and then trap them, via marriage and pregnancy, into mundane, emasculated existences that they never asked for and certainly don’t deserve. They’re heartless ball-busters, I tell ya, the lot of ‘em.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “isn’t this movie all about a guy who may or may not have murdered his wife?” Sure it is–for a time. And here’s where that whole avoiding “spoilers” thing gets tricky: yes, for about the first half of the film, that’s definitely the “big question.” But once Fincher resolves the issue of whether or not Nick Dunne murdered his wife, Amy, the whole enterprise takes a massive 180 that’s definitely exciting from a purely narrative standpoint, but more than a bit nauseating from a psychological and sociological one. Sure, Nick’s a rotten husband–he’s inattentive, self-absorbed, and is even carrying on an affair with one of his students behind his wife’s back, but the clear editorial viewpoint taken Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the novel on which said screenplay is based) is–the bitch had it coming.

Scene after scene (much of this films is told via flashbacks) shows Amy to be a calculated schemer, a petty and resentful nag, an ambitious social climber, a sociopathic puller on the heartstrings of several men, an inveterate liar, an accomplished con artist, and a remorseless manipulator. Sure, her old man’s a bastard, but as any good crisis manager will tell you, the best way to control the public’s perception of a situation is to “get out in front of the problem” early on, and then rebuild your image and credibility later. The phrase “own it” is generally PR shorthand for “pretend to take responsibility so people will buy your excuses later,” and that’s precisely what Fincher and Flynn do here: they show all of Nick’s flaws first, so that we can forgive him for being such a dickhead once we learn that his “long-suffering wife” is anything but. It provides for a nifty and unexpected plot twist, to be sure, but it’s all in service of a toxic as hell message.

Whether or not Nick is actually guilty is a revelation–shit, the revelation–I’m taking such pains (it hurts, dear friends, it hurts!) not to give away here, but  I can safely say this much: once the fact of his innocence or guilt has been established, he becomes the victim of the story all the way.

To be honest, the only reason I think Gone Girl isn’t being more thoroughly raked over the coals for its obvious (and frankly sick) biases is because Flynn is a woman herself, but that’s no excuse–I don’t recall anyone giving anti-female crusaders like, say, Phylis Schlafly a free pass just because her gender matches the same one she’s trying her damndest to oppress, and by the time Flynn ends her story on a “maybe the two of them deserve (or deserved–again, don’t want to give anything too crucial away here) each other” note, the damage has been done. Women–particularly educated, self-actualized, strong-willed women like Amy–are dangerous. They exist only to slowly wear men down and those magical days of early courtship? Guys, don’t buy it–she’s just buttering you up for the ultimate defeat that is domesticated family life.

In the world according to David Fincher and Gillian Flynn, anything a guy has to do in order to escape that is perfectly acceptable. It doesn’t even matter whether Nick Dunne killed his wife or not–she had been killing him for years, and hey,if he did what everyone thinks he did, then he was just fighting back. After all, men gotta do what men gotta do, right?

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at, and writes about films and comics for sites such as,,, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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  1. ...James Scerpella says:

    Hey. First post. I hope I don’t break any rules (unwritten or otherwise). Let me know if I do. Thank you.

    I feel that, while your take isn’t wrong from a certain perspective, it doesn’t place enough
    weight on the structure of the film and the feelings evoked by its presentation.

    That structure brought to my mind the novel the Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. I’m not an especially avid reader, so I’m not trying to make myself out to be scholarly, but this book is one with a very nontraditional construction. Chapters and portions are given to the reader out of context, out of chronological sequence, and sometimes not to further the narrative but to engender sympathy. When the book is finished, the reader has a more fully developed understanding of the woman whom it’s about. More fully formed, it can be argued, than a simple narrative arc would’ve provided. The journey and the narrative through-line hold less importance, really, than the character for whom they served.

    Gone Girl utilizes a similar tactic only for a different effect. When the story begins we think ‘he mustn’t have done it. We were with him the whole time.’ Not long after we are given enough information (Nick was neglectful, he appears generally apathetic and self-satisfied, and he’s having an affair) that we think, maybe he did do it. Information is coming quickly,and worse, contradictory information is coming quicker still. Before the viewer is given enough information, or is confident enough to make an assertion one way or the other, we find out suddenly that Amy is still alive. A twist that is, I think intentionally, underwhelming.

    One of the strongest tools used not only by the moviemakers but also within the narrative (an effective verisimilitude) is perception. Like Nick, who has to, against his own instincts, play the game in order to sway public opinion rather than telling what he knows as the truth (which would, and almost does, certainly crucify him despite his innocence), the viewer is at any given time only receiving a message from the film that engenders a specific feeling. The viewer is being manipulated by the story whensoever the story feels it necessary for the viewer to feel a certain way. We’re being manipulated by the film the same exact way the public in the story is being manipulated by the news.

    Now, BIG SPOILERS. The ways in which Amy sabotages Nick are actually quite feminine (which is important to my ultimate statement on the film later). The fact that she keeps a regular diary with periodically incriminating information and worry for her life is something of a piece of evidence that I feel if it were written by a man, would be less meaningful. Her concerns, though they are fabricated, are calling to mind, frankly, a history of corroborated evidence against men (Scott Peterson, O.J. Simpson). The point being, that they are on the surface very believable concerns. Now, while there are certainly historical instances of women killing their husbands, they certainly aren’t as ingrained in the public consciousness. She is tapping into a species-wide natural bias. She counted on his own flaws to further incriminate himself (his naturally disaffected demeanor and smug appearance). With Neil Patrick Harris’s character (whom she murders!) she relies on the public’s perception of her as a victim, incapable of malicious acts.

    Her ultimate snare at the end of the film, is uniquely and unequivocally female. Imagine a man using the same tact: “I impregnated you. Now you cannot leave me!” It is no checkmate. It’s barely even a check! She would still have, basically, all of her options available. When Nick’s sister pleads with him that he could sue for custody, and he responds to the effect of ‘you know I would never win’ it all clicked for me.

    There are characters in fiction who defy their categorization. The Joker comes to mind. The things he does, are horrific. Unforgivable. But we love to see him do it all. More apropos to my argument: Hannibal Lecter. Here is a character who, again, does and has done unquestionably immoral, uncivilized, wretched, and deplorable acts… but he is an infinitely interesting character. Regardless of our understanding that he has, and should have, no place in civilized society, we enjoy him. We respect and even admire his intelligence, his ruthlessness, his cunning, his violence, and his focus while also being able to disapprove of him. These are the feelings I had for Amy Dunne at the end of Gone Girl. Here is an impressively motivated, intelligent, cunning, and ruthless woman… a woman the likes of which I hope to never encounter, for she would certainly outclass me. Fearful respect. That Godly quality. Why should it be reserved for men? Why save it for the Alonzo Harrises (Denzel. Oscar!), the Terrence Fletchers (J.K. Simmons. Oscar nom!), and Hannibal Lecters (Anthony Hopkins. Oscar!) There is no question as to the “rightness” of portraying men in such a way, I believe it to be right that there is similarly no question when handled so effectively (to my mind) when portraying women.

    This is my conclusion. Gone Girl is a feminist movie. Gone Girl is a feminine movie. For decades we have seen evil men commit masculine crimes against women. Gone Girl, while not alone, is a well crafted film about an evil woman committing feminine crimes against a man. The narrative may suggest “the bitch deserved it” but this film communicates a lot more than its story.

    Sorry for the long post.

  2. Ryan C. says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful, articulate response, and I’ve seen several similar arguments about “Gone Girl” ultimately being a feminist film for most of the same reasons you lay out. What can I say? I just don’t buy it, the perspective of this film is so clearly male most of the time, with Affleck’s character played for sympathy for most of its length, that I just don’t see it that way at all.

  3. Ryan C. says:

    You guys raise some intriguing points, but here’s how I see it : they got all the bad shit about Affleck’s character out of the way early so you’d feel sympathy for him once he stared getting a taste of his wife’s dastardly schemes, which dwarfed his own wrongdoing by several orders of magnitude. It’s the old “hell hath no fury” stereotype writ large. Does the fact that the film centers on just one female character mean it’s got something to say about all women? I guess not, but the mindset that leads to the construction of a script of this nature, and the director’s pretty obvious biases toward the male character, do in fact reinforce misogynistic perceptions that are out there about women being devious ball-basters out to tie guys down to lives they don’t want. I don’t doubt for a second that women are just as capable of backhanded evil shit as men are, but a movie that pretty much reinforces every negative gender stereotype about women as if they were checking boxes off a list? That’s pretty much what we’ve got going here, and while it’s all well done, the message in the end remains both an ugly, and false, one.

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