Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Counterfeit Sex

Gillian Flynn's novel of a highly dysfunctional couple, a marriage of ciphers, was a sensation when it came out. When David Fincher directed the adaptation, many admirers cited the satire. Nick Coccoma in Critics at Large couldn't find it.

S&M: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Ben Affleck stars in David Fincher's Gone Girl

This review contains major spoilers for Gone Girl

“It was long. It was awkward. It had a terrible ending.” So one fellow patron declared at the conclusion of Gone Girl, the latest offering from David Fincher. I might nuance the first statement a bit. Fincher’s movie clocks in at two and a half hours, and though you don’t feel every second ticking by, you certainly sense the lugubrious pace by the second half. As to the ending, it’s insane for sure. The truth is, though, that the wheels fall off this bus well before the finale—about the same time the minutes start to hit you like a bag of rocks. And finally, some might dub the film’s feeling as awkward, the go-to adjective of we Millennials. But I would reach for a stronger descriptive. Sadomasochistic, for instance. Despite these quibbles, the tenor of the moviegoer’s opinion I’d agree with. Fincher’s taken Gillian Flynn’s novel and rendered it into a narrative that not only lacks almost any dint of crime genre thrills, mystery, and tension, but also exposes the shoddy character of the author’s writing. Not having read the book, I don’t know if these problems derive from the source material or Fincher’s direction. What I do know is that Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick Dunne saves this movie, even as it turns the filmmaker's intent on its ear.

This is a tale of two movies from the opening: We first get a dreamy image of Dunne’s wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), or rather the back of her head, while Nick’s disembodied voice muses that everyone wants to crack open his wife’s skull and find out what’s really going on inside. Ostensibly, what’s to come will unpack the dark dynamics of modern spousal relations. But then Fincher cuts to a montage of vacant storefronts and businesses of a small town, cast blue in the rising dawn, ending with Affleck’s silhouetted frame as Nick stares at his suburban neighborhood from the drive, shakes his head in despair, and walks inside his McMansion. Suddenly we’re in realism, and the contrast in styles defines the movie’s first hour. After stopping by the local watering hole that he and his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), own and operate, Nick returns home to find his wife missing and his glass coffee table shattered. The police are summoned, an investigation is opened, and soon they stumble upon a series of envelopes marked as “Clue One” and so forth. Nick claims they form part of a scavenger hunt he and his wife play on their anniversary (she disappears on their fifth). But the detectives become wary of him due to the lack of overt concern he displays over Amy’s abduction.

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
As the various parties follow the clues, the film flashes back to the beginnings of Nick and Amy’s romance. The dreamscape style returns: The pair share a kiss in the midst of a sugar storm from the Manhattan cake shop they stand before, the air full of milky swirls that settles like dust on Amy’s lips even as Nick wipes them with his fingers. These images are classical Hollywood; the pair are lit with a warm glow and frame right out of an old MGM picture. Amy provides voice-over narration as she writes up the meeting in her diary—we’re in her head, it would seem, getting her perspective on her time in New York with Nick. It’s a fantasy world, as each these flashbacks retains the same glossy stylization. It’s supposed to be the fairy tale romance that every woman must dream about. By juxtaposing this perspective and style with the realism of Nick’s present day North Carthage, MO, Fincher heightens our curiosity as to how the couple’s life went from glamorous to bland. The set up’s got problems from the start, though, mostly with the lead actors. Affleck’s Nick always remains grounded and real, coming across—even in the flashbacks—like any relatively adjusted adult male would. Though the whole world around him is heightened, he isn’t. Amy certainly is, though, and it’s alienating. A trust fund baby and Yale alumna, Amy’s the real-life corollary of a fictional character from the young adult books that have made her family rich and herself a kind of literary sensation. But it’s actually Amy who strikes you as fictionalized. With her pale face drawn as tight as her blond pony tail, she’s a prettified, anonymous kind of beauty—a fashion mannequin come to life. Every line of hers sounds like an actress from a shampoo commercial, hollowed out and breathy. It’s Uma Thurman’s voice from Pulp Fiction mashed up with a Grace Kelly face. Nick and Amy never gel as a couple in our eyes, though the script would have it so.

I’m not sure if it was Pike’s decision to play Amy in this manner or Fincher’s; I suspect the latter since he exercises such control over his movies. And, for sure, Gone Girl displays his craftsmanship yet again. Whoever’s responsible, the effect is to make Amy impossibly wooden, and that’s being generous. She’s not a real person—we’re never made to care about her in the slightest. This one-dimensionality matters because as the investigation unfolds into her disappearance, Nick becomes the prime suspect. The movie would have us despise him, like the frenzied media circus on his front lawn. But its attempts to milk our antipathy come off as contrived—like when a female volunteer helping search for Amy makes him take a selfie and he reluctantly smiles, or when he angrily picks up his father from the police station and drives him back to the nursing home he wandered from, fuming. These moments don’t really turn us against him; his reactions are well within the range of normality. Nick remains likeable and sympathetic throughout, including when his girlfriend shows up in the middle of the night at his sister’s house, where he’s been sleeping. The revelation of infidelity is meant to throw us into shock and awe, but it only further humanizes him. Emily Ratajkowski plays the mistress Andie, a student from a writing class Nick teaches. Making the girl Nick’s student is supposed to drive up the ick factor in us, as is casting Ratajkowski, who turned heads by bouncing around naked in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” music video. Several female friends of mine expressed outrage at the video, and Fincher’s hoping to play on that outrage to turn his audience on his male lead. I tried in vain to argue that Thicke’s video wasn’t nearly as sexually explicit as any number of hip-hop music videos in which the women actually sport more clothing. Exploitation has to do with perspective and style. Thicke’s video displayed a woman’s body like a classical nude; if anything, the movie was self-deprecatingly humorous, turning male lust into an absurdity.

Emily Ratajkowski in Gone Girl
And so when Andie and Nick have another tryst, the effect doesn’t go the way Fincher’s hoped. Ratajkowski can actually act pretty well, and Affleck plays it with a combination of genuine care for her and reluctant responsibility. And it would never work anyway because Andie comes off like a real person, while the AWOL Amy was little more than a wispy façade to us. Speaking of Amy, the hunt down the trail of clues fails to engender much suspense on our end. Things start to get interesting when Nick withholds the existence of the envelopes from the police, and goes behind their backs to figure it out himself. In one sequence, a character tries to puzzle out the riddle written on a card inside. Fincher shoots it as if this is feverish sleuthing, and you think the movie’s finally going to shift into thrill speed. But the solution is bleeding obvious and the payoff uninteresting. It leads to a woodshed next to Margo’s house that somehow gets stocked with thousands of dollars of merchandise without anyone noticing. Really? This is preposterous.

Not as preposterous, though, as the big reveal. Amy, we learn, has actually faked her own murder so as to frame Nick and send him to the electric chair, all in revenge for his infidelity. The long sequence of her breezing down the highway, cataloguing how she doctored up a crime scene, is full of some of the most ridiculous voice-over narration I’ve heard. I suspect it’s lifted right from the book, but Flynn’s credited as the screenwriter so it doesn’t really matter. Amy ticks off the steps she took with the women’s lib attitude of a power yoga instructor on an exercise video. The masochism takes off from there, with Amy embracing her status as betrayed wife and relishing in it with her new kick-ass confidence. After faux-killing herself, Amy purposely wrecks her already-doctored good looks, fraying her hair and smashing her face with a toy hammer. This is like dragging your nails on a chalk board and loving it. How much more self-punitive can you get? To top it off, she wears new dark shades and speaks as if she's Blanche du Bois post-meltdown. But Tennessee Williams would never give his female characters lines such as this: “Why should I die? I’m not the asshole.” I confess not to know whose bizarre fantasy we’ve landed in. Are Flynn and Fincher speaking to the wives of America here, projecting their secret knowledge that their men are cheating bastards and fulfilling their wish for payback? Or is all that’s happened a giant red herring and we are in point of fact precisely to see Amy as a psycho and Nick as the only normal person in the world? That is to say, the fulfillment of every man’s wish belief that his wife’s borderline crazy? Gone Girl skyrocketed to the top of the bestsellers list; women were quick to divulge that they’d read it. I suspect they found in it some forbidden enjoyment of female empowerment. But what they—and men—should actually find outrageous is the absurd rendering of the desires and behaviors of married folk.

It’s not that a movie can’t successfully unveil pathologies within marital relations. Often we derive pleasure from such sinister depictions; it’s what captivated media audiences during the Scott Peterson case over a decade ago. And Gone Girl’s really a rip off of that entire affair—the missing wife; the handsome, grinning husband; his erratic behavior; the airing of his dirty laundry; the public estrangement between his in-laws and him after his girlfriend comes forward; even the revelation of his wife’s pregnancy. But Laci Peterson’s remains were recovered, Mr. Peterson tried and convicted. A sensational story for sure, hard to believe, but not beyond the realm of possibility. For all its atmospheric chill and dark palette, Fincher’s film veers into the ludicrous, even for the elastic parameters of the thriller genre. Are we really supposed to believe that a woman who pulls of such an elaborate scheme would make the kind of careless mistake that dooms Amy’s getaway plan? As to that scheme, her subterfuge fails to jolt because Fincher never draws us into the thrill of the chase, never tumbles us down any labyrinthine underworld. The white-knuckle French thriller Tell No One did just that a few years ago, with the similar case of a missing wife and a distraught husband. Fincher did himself with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But Amy never comes off as human in the first place, so why should we care about her fate, or tell her, “Rock on, girl,” when we learn that she’s taken matters into her own hands? By the end of the movie, when the masochism shifts into out and out sadism, there’s no doubt but that we’re supposed to see her as the deranged monster Nick does. And my only question is, why? Are we supposed to take at face value the idea that Nick’s affair threw her into hysteria? Fincher never explores the dynamics that made Amy become what she is—there’s no arc to her whatsoever.

Tyler Perry and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
Nick’s got an arc, and it’s due in great measure to Affleck’s performance. There was a time when I wished he would stay behind the camera, so stiffly did he carry himself. But he’s grown and matured as an actor, and this is the best work he’s done. He works through his scenes with an easy naturalism that’s also concentrated and precise. In my favorite, he preps for a TV interview in his dressing room, his lawyer pelting him with gummy bears every time he comes off as smug or self-serving. Affleck works a delicate mix of humor and earnestness that’s endearing. You can see Nick’s whole back story from the way he delivers his lines, shrugs his shoulders, slouches in a chair. But instead of pushing you away, it always makes you like him more. Nick’s relationship with Margo is the only believable one in the picture, and the credit goes to Affleck and Carrie Coon. Thoroughly grounded in the given circumstances, Affleck and Coon throw their dialogue back and forth like they’ve been shooting the breeze all their lives—you completely believe they’re twin siblings. Tyler Perry shows up as Tanner Bolt, Nick’s hotshot attorney, and he’s a welcomed breath of fresh air. Though they’re out of a different movie, his one-liners—delivered with suave and charm—yield a much-needed dose of humor. “You two are the most fucked up couple I’ve ever met,” he blurts out at one point, laughing, and the audience rolled. Scoot McNairy also shows up, as Amy’s former boyfriend Tommy O’Hara. His one scene, at a bar with Affleck, is a model of acting craft. His nervous paranoia as he describes what Amy did to him, matched with Affleck’s desperate desire for the truth, start to raise the stakes in a movie that fails to raise it for them. For a moment, you sense some urgency to this story.

Most of the other actors fade into the background. Lisa Banes and David Clennon, as Amy’s parents, get lost in the muted, opaque world of Amy’s fantasy life. Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit play the officers leading the investigation, but they’re little more than stock figures without any compelling police work or discoveries. I’m not sure what Neil Patrick Harris is doing in the film as another ex of Amy's; he and Pike share some strange scenes with vague hints of kink that descends into the most grotesque moment of the film. Sela Ward arrests you somewhat as a TV interview personality who’s got her knives out for Nick, but then she’s upstaged by her personal assistant when he shoves a smart phone in front of her face. I don’t know who that actor is, but God love him for breaking the claustrophobic air.

Speaking of television, the movie also intends to comment on the role of the media in these sensational stories. In our modern 24/7 news cycle, the narrative is everything—whether it be in politics or marriage. Fincher wants to play on the way media determine our perspective while missing the truth. But it’s actually he who gets the perspectives all mixed up, just as Trent Reznor’s distracting soundtrack distorts the mood of the scenes, trying to overlay suspense on the most pedestrian of interchanges. There’s never a moment we don’t understand Nick or really suspect him of murder, nor a moment where we ever sympathize with Amy. When Nick gives his televised interview, he thoroughly convinces you with his sincerity. This is Affleck at his best—you really buy his performance. His performance, though, is of a man giving a performance. Amy buys it, too—is she so naïve as to accept his staged interview as the truth? Is this more of the female fantasy, the magical world in which the charming hunk of your dreams romances you at cocktail parties, fucks you in mind-blowing ways between the fiction and self-help sections of the bookstore, and professes his undying love to you before a national audience? Or is it always Nick’s perspective, the only one that makes sense, in which his wife is a complete nutter, flying off the handle when he plays video games and eating up his fake apologies on TV? I’m at a loss. All I can say is that Gone Girl feels like just what it is: the obligatory clone of a slickly-marketed corporate novel, like those annoying questions appended at the end of a Barnes and Noble Book Club selection meant to guide conversation. It certainly sparked a vocal reaction from my audience, but not the one Fincher had hoped.

- originally published on October 8, 2014 in Critics at Large.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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