***This version of my analysis contains spoilers. You can find the spoiler-free version here.***
David Fincher's latest film Gone Girl has been called many things. A problematic portrayal of women. A postmodern analysis or a pessimistic critique of marriage. One thing most readings of the film can agree on, however, is that—whether or not they take it as a point of contention with the film—Amy Elliott Dunne is a bad person. She's a psychopath. But, while no one denies that Amy embodies the central ethical conflict of the film, surprisingly few critics have looked at the film through her eyes. I'd like to take a step back from making any judgments about her character or the film's portrayal of women for a moment and talk instead about the film as a deconstruction of the psychological coordinates of contemporary identity. I believe the film provides unique insight into the nature of the modern self, and that through this perspective we can gain a better understanding not only of its conception of identity politics, but of feminism as well. I hope to show that Amy is not only sane, but is in fact the moral center of the film.
Gone Girl opens and closes with voice-over narration from Nick Dunne where he discusses his inability to read his wife Amy's thoughts. He cannot penetrate beneath the surface of her facade to reach the inherent "truth" or "reality" of her identity:
"When I think of my wife I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains, trying to get answers. The primal questions of any marriage. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?"By bookending this frustration at the beginning and end of the narrative, the film foregrounds its discussion of the distinction between external appearance and internal reality/truth as they relate to the nature of identity. But where conventional wisdom has it that "appearances can be deceiving" and "it's the thought (inside) that counts"—in short, that the internal takes precedence over the external—Gone Girl turns these ideas on their head. The realm of fantasy or illusion is not populated by the appearances we see on the surface; the real fantasy is this very illusion of internal truth. We don't lie to the world when we put on a happy face; we lie to ourselves when we believe that there's anything different beneath that mask.
The very title of the film itself implies a lack of appearance—"Gone Girl"—but instead, Amy's disappearance highlights the extent to which we rely on appearances as a culture. Once Amy is "gone", she almost immediately reappears in the form of countless posters, billboards, and cable TV specials. For the entire first half of the movie, Amy is absent (except in her flashbacks), but her face constantly stares out the screen nonetheless. At the press conference immediately following her disappearance, there are two giant pictures of Amy's smiling face. A KFC implores its clients to "FIND AMY CALL 1 855 4 AMY TIPS". The talking head Ellen Abbott constantly calls on her viewers to "not forget" Amy, to not let her image disappear along with her body. Amy has been dominated by her own image since childhood, as her parents' "Amazing Amy" books "plagiarized" her life. She is defined by the fact that she is "gone", that her image does not match up with her identity.
Furthermore, the film itself works on a structural level to deny the audience's formation of romantic fantasy. The worlds of fantasy and reality are purposefully kept separate, with the romance of Nick and Amy's early relationship isolated to the flashbacks in Amy's diary, and the gritty realism of the police investigation isolated to Nick's timeline. The sentimentality of Amy's diary builds (aided in no small part by the soundtrack), and just as it begins to reach its climax it cuts away to the mundane existence of Nick in his monotonous search for clues. Nick and Amy's initial encounter culminates in a night of raunchy lovemaking, but this seemingly unrestrained affair is suddenly and jarringly interrupted by the loud but unexciting spin of a Hasbro® Life™ wheel. Nick's proposal to Amy, which made a bad night "not so bad anymore," ends in an unflattering match cut from Nick kissing Amy to Nick having his mouth swabbed by a police officer for a DNA test. Even at the most romantic part of the story, when Nick and Amy are still falling in love, the movie doesn't let us fall in love along with them.
It even takes apart our protagonist, our hero Nick Dunne, and shows us there's nothing heroic about him. He doesn't know anything about his wife, from her hobbies to her friends to her blood type. He smiles at the press release for her disappearance. He admits to his sister Margot that he was relieved when Amy disappeared, and that maybe he even hates her. But worst of all? He has a very young, very pretty mistress. And what does he do? He sleeps with her while his wife is missing. There's nothing romantic beneath his negative portrayal in the media, and if anything this appearance turns out to be precisely accurate, beyond the extent to which Nick can even realize himself. The media accuses him of murder and portrays him as the reason for Amy's disappearance, and while they're not literally correct, Nick did figuratively kill Amy with his affair and his lies and his mediocrity. Nick appearance is more accurate than our romantic ideas of him.
And then the twist comes: Amy's not really dead. As she puts it, "I am so much happier now that I'm dead. Technically missing, soon to be presumed dead. Gone." Amy literally identifies as a "gone" girl. So what does it mean to be "gone"? For Amy, this change means refusing to continue separating her identity into internal and external entities. When she was with Nick, she pretended to be the "cool girl"; now that she's free, she refuses to give ground relative to her desire. And her desire? Revenge. She wants to win.
"Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. "Cool girl." Men always use that, don't they, as their defining compliment? She's a Cool Girl. Cool Girl is hot, Cool Girl is game, Cool Girl is fun, Cool Girl never gets angry at her man, she only smiles in a chagrin, loving manner, and then presents her mouth for fucking. She likes what he likes, so evidently he's a vinyl hipster who loves fetish manga. If he loves Girls Gone Wild, she's a mall babe who talks football and endures buffalo wings at Hooters. When I met Nick Dunne I knew he wanted Cool Girl, and for him, I'll admit, I was willing to try. I wax stripped my pussy raw. I drank canned beer watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size 2. I blew him, semi-regularly. I lived in the moment. I was fucking game. I can't say I didn't enjoy some of it. Nick teased out of me things I didn't know existed. A lightness. A humor. An ease. But I made him smarter, sharper. I inspired him to rise to my level. I forged the man of my dreams. We were happy pretending to be other people. We were the happiest couple we knew; and what's the point of being together if you're not the happiest? But Nick got lazy. He became someone I did not agree to marry. He actually expected me to love him unconditionally. Then he dragged me, penniless, to the navel of this great country, and found himself a newer, younger, bouncier Cool Girl. You think I'd let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way. He doesn't get to win."Amy's "Cool Girl" monologue makes explicit the film's central critique of contemporary identity. We allow ourselves to appear shallow on the surface because other people like us that way. More importantly, we do it because we have our safe refuge on the inside where we can say to ourselves, "that's not the real me." We "endure" subjugating our own desires to the desires of others because we believe in this refuge, but the reality is that we're allowing our identities to be determined by someone else's desire. There's a fine line between compromise and self-effacement, and Amy's critique of modern society is that we allow ourselves to be erased and replaced with someone—something—else. We are exactly what we pretend to be. The distinction between external appearances and internal reality exists so that we can maintain the illusion of being what we want to be while still enjoying our easy, comfortable lifestyles. Amy's argument is that instead we should appear to be the best version of ourselves, because being our best—showing our best on the surface—erases the gap between internal and external identity. Amy kills the version of herself she created to please others and becomes the film's paragon of self-realization. She throws away the Cool Girl and becomes the Gone Girl.
How she does this is crucial. She accomplishes this reversal by means of her fake diary. Because what is a diary if not the singular external embodiment of our internal identity? Diaries are things we use to transcribe our innermost thoughts and feelings and desires, and Amy's is fake. By revealing that her diary was falsified, Amy throws into question the very nature of internal identity. She shows that our internal selves are just as contingent, manipulated, and fraudulent as we thought our external selves were, and that it is precisely this external self which matters most. As she says, to Nick, "The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone [I] might like." We are at our best not when we hide ourselves inside, but when we show our best on the outside, when we believe in the truth of our appearance.
While it's all too easy to dismiss Amy as psychotic, the film continues to side with her structurally. Beyond its use of match cuts and other editing techniques, after Amy returns to Nick we see a final definitive denial of fantasy in the film's score. Previously, its music was used to distinguish Amy's melodious, romantic flashbacks from Nick's mundane reality. Then, as Amy begins to assume the position of the Gone Girl and as we begin to question the truth of Nick's innocence, the soundtrack introduces more and more noise and sonic distortion into its melodies. Finally, it returns to the fantasmatic musical themes it established previously, but finds them corrupted with the noise which developed in between. Thus we can sketch the basic musical progression of the film as follows:
- Track 2: "Sugar Storm" – Nick and Amy first meet in Amy's diary. Melodic, harmonious, romantic. Allows audience to begin to form fantasmatic notions about the characters.
- Track 14: "The Way He Looks At Me" – Nick's violent side first emerges. Tonal backbone, but with atonal noise beginning to take over. The midway point between fantasy and reality.
- Track 21: "Consummation" – Amy kills Desi, decisively rejecting the domination of the desire of the other and fully assuming the position of the Gone Girl. Pure sonic distortion. The "real" counterpoint to the fantasmatic melodies with which the film opened.
- Track 23: "What Will We Do?" – Amy and Nick back together, but with full knowledge of the truth of each other's identity. Returns to the initial harmonies and melodies, but as it plays it slowly fades back into noise and distortion.
Through Amy rejection of the distinction between internal and external identity, and through the film's structural rejection of fantasy, we can see how the traditional dichotomy whereby the distinction body/soul was conceived of as inside/outside today finds itself reversed. If there is a soul, today we keep it on the outside, where everyone can see it. And this is where critiques of the film as misogynist or anti-feminist miss the point: they conceive of Amy as simply a woman who exists to ruin the lives of men, when instead she represents a radical new ethics of identity. She embraces the contradictions inherent to any strong identity as the inherent necessities of the only real path to self-actualization. We need to forget the common knowledge that it's what's inside that counts, and instead learn to recognize our internal identity as the real illusion and to embrace the truth of our external image.
More New (2014) Releases
David Fincher | Top 10 of the 2010's
Adaptations | Girl Power | Digital Cinematography
Tracking 2014: New Discoveries | All Together