Sunday, February 01, 2015

Gone Girl Meddler Week, Part 1: Where the Movie Blows It

Okay folks, we’re going to do a three-part Meddler this week, then a four-part Meddler next week with a different movie before we get to the year-end countdown...
Let me start by admitting that the movie was a lot better than I thought it would be. When I first heard the list of actors, I thought every role was miscast, but the movie proved me wrong about almost everybody (but that’s a big almost.)
  • Ben Affleck is amazingly good. His disingenuous flash of a smile at the press conference totally nails the character and makes all of the pathetic interior life of the character leap from the page to the screen. He’s brave enough to be unlikable and also has enough complex emotion behind his eyes to earn our pained empathy throughout, but just barely, which is how it should be.
  • I originally thought Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris should have switched roles, because Desi on the page was a hunkier, more intimidating guy than Nick. My big fear was that Fincher, in his rush to demonize Amy, would use NPH to make Desi into more of a sad sack victim. But no, I was happy to see that NPH was allowed to be totally creepy and become genuinely threatening. You do fear for Amy when he’s around.
  • Likewise Tyler Perry is a revelation: Funny, clever, and charming. Give that guy a spinoff.
  • A lot of other actors who I thought of as merely okay really stepped up to the plate with smart, funny big-screen-worthy performances, especially Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, and Carrie Coon.
But of course, that leaves one big performance that fails: Amy. It’s hard to blame Rosamund Pike for this, given that she was totally miscast and then undercut by her director at every turn. Even when we’re seeing dramatized pages from her diary, which, you’ll recall, she’s fictionalized to make herself extremely sympathetic, she’s totally cold and repellent. In her first sex scene with Nick, she’s wearing black bra, panties, and leather boots as he kneels at the foot of the bed performing cunnilingus. That’s in her phony diary??

As I mentioned before in the comments, Reese Witherspoon optioned this book when the galley first came out, intending to play Amy herself. I knew this when I read it, and it worked perfectly: After all, she excels at playing both “America’s Sweetheart” and disturbed sociopathic characters, which is exactly the duality this part required. But after Witherspoon hired Fincher, he turned right around and fired her, because he didn’t fit her conception for of the part.

So instead he cast an honest-to-God Bond villain. Now I loved Pike’s pulpy performance as “Miranda Frost” in Die Another Day, and I thought she was even better in An Education as a dim-but-wise moll. She’s a great character actress. But both roles capitalized on her inherently frosty and opaque charm. She’s not even remotely “America’s Sweetheart,” as the Amy of the diary has to be.

Allow me to tell a story I probably shouldn’t: An acquaintance of mine wrote a screenplay that became a hot Hollywood commodity, attracting several stars and big directors before it finally got made (you’ll probably guess who I’m talking about, but please don’t say so in the comments). He was telling me about how he managed to stay on as sole writer over the course of that long process, and said it involved doing a lot of unpleasant things.

Specifically, he talked about the period when David Fincher was attached to direct, and demanded of the writer that he rewrite it as a “domestic abuse comedy”, in which the couple try to kill each other and then go to the hospital and force each other to tell the doctors that they just ran into doorknobs. The writer said that it disgusted him to write those scenes, but he felt like he had to because he didn’t want to be replaced on his own script. Besides, by that point he had already seen so many directors come and go that he felt he could make these changes and just hope that the script would revert after Fincher moved on, which was precisely what happened.

I kept thinking about this story as I watched Gone Girl. Finally, I got to the point in the movie where the doctor asks Pike if she feels safe going home with her husband, and we cut to Affleck giving a little “fuck you” wave to her, which got a laugh from everyone in the room, including me. That was when I said to myself “Jesus, Fincher finally got the domestic abuse comedy he always wanted!”
It didn’t have to be this way. Amy could and should have been much more sympathetic: a sweet-but-spoiled girl with a charmed life who marries a selfish jerk that takes her away from everything she ever loved, soaks up her dwindling money like a sponge, then brazenly cheats on her. Finally, she snaps more than any woman has ever snapped before, launching a truly deranged revenge plot. Then, when she gets robbed and realizes what true desperation is, she turns to her old boyfriend, who tries to turn her into his private sex slave, so she snaps even further, kills him, and, totally nutso at this point, uses a pregnancy to blackmail her husband into taking her back and resuming their sad mockery of a marriage.

One thing that was so clever about the book was that Amy’s “phony” diary, despite her attempts to twist the narrative to her own advantage, actually gives us a compelling portrait of a woman scorned who snaps, revealing more about her true self than she ever intended.

This worked so well that I was really disappointed (as well as disgusted) when Flynn revealed Amy’s history of false rape claims. Not only does this plot twist reflect a totally unrealistic (but all-too-common) misogynistic misperception of reality, it also undoes the subtle cleverness of the first half in favor of a straight-up villainous narrative. Instead of a somewhat shallow girl who becomes desperately deranged, she’s just, in her own words, “a cunt.” (By the way folks, real life women don’t serially fake rape or call themselves cunts. That’s not the way the world works.)

When I heard they were turning it into a movie, I thought, “Great, just take that totally-extraneous part out and it would be a pretty good movie!” But of course Fincher kept it in, and twisted the rest of the story to fit that narrative, which makes Amy consistently repellent in every frame of the movie, which leaves us with weasely Nick as sole protagonist, which doesn’t work. So the movie fails. It’s a shame because Fincher nails every scene that Amy isn’t in, and even a few Amy scenes (like the robbery, and the early NPH scenes). If only Fincher hadn’t fired his boss, it all could have worked!


j.s. said...

I agree with all your praise for the actors. It just goes to show you how great a director Fincher has become -- his skills, taste and judgment can hit home runs with all the little details even if he gets some of the big picture wrong.

It feels to me like Flynn is really great at writing characters until she suddenly isn't. By which I mean that her stories about who they are tend to fall apart in retrospect. She piles on all of these conflicting characteristics and it seems for a while that she's building toward something truly nuanced and insightful as in the best novels and films, where people aren't black and white, where "good" people do very "bad" things and vice versa for reasons that are singularly theirs, particular to their highly specific life circumstances. But at a certain point with respect to nearly every major character in GONE GIRL, you come to realize that instead of actual complexity of character, Flynn is seeking, somewhat sneakily and very disingenuously, to merely have it both ways: to have Amy be both the disillusioned good wife and the very bad psychopathic master-plotter.

(I've written elsewhere that this is a part of the primal appeal of GONE GIRL as genre fiction, how one role here encompasses the split female leads of earlier marriage thrillers like FATAL ATTRACTION)

Getting rid of Amy's false rape accusation goes a long way toward de-psyhopathing her.

It will be a little harder to get around Desi's murder. NPH's Desi is creepy without being dangerously menacing. His embrace of Amy is an inappropriate touch, not a death grip. You'll have to drop the murder altogether or really find some way that both Amy and the audience believe she's truly got no other choice, that it's either his life or hers.

Unknown said...

I think reading the book beforehand can set the wrong expectations for the movie.

honestly thought that Amy was one of the greatest movie villians of all time. And the movie gets us to sympathize with her right up until the climax (no pun intended) of her relationship with doogie houser.

j.s. said...

Q to Matthew O. and all other Cockeyed Caravan readers who would assert that Amy is "one of the greatest movie villains of all time": How does this villain's plan make sense for the villain? How does Amy act to get what she wants and get off scot-free? Follow-up: How do the ultra-complex details of her plan -- like the weird set-up of her hubby's supposedly secret spendthrift mancave -- work? What about all of her digital tracks -- all that Googling and purchasing of how-to books in order to set-up her elaborate plan? Finally: Just how long and how deeply could any non-psychopath keep that anti-hubs hatred burning -- as long as Amy would need to for her plan to take shape and play out? Or, if you're somehow okay with her being a psychopath (and, really, why?), then how do you explain her succumbing to all those ordinary empath problems -- like being disappointed in her hubs (or even falling for him in the first place) or giving her parents back some of her trust fund money?

Unknown said...

Well, her plan is too ruin her husband's life for cheating on her and not living up to her expectations in general.
She uses her obsessive planning skills coupled with society's "missing white woman syndrome".
She gets a laptop to do all the digital dirty work and gets rid of it. I don't know. It wouldnt be that hard.
psychopaths can "fall in love" especially if the other person feeds into their inflated sense of self. Thats exactly what her husband did, then when that faded she wanted to ruin him. And no person is a 100% psychopath. And anyone who is wouldn't make it in society very long. The truly dangerous people are the ones who seem normal from a distance.
And please, what great movie villians AREN'T psychopaths?

j.s. said...

What great movie villains aren't psychopaths? I don't know, almost all of them? Especially if you're really serious about a qualifier like "great." You can't have a tragedy without some cognitive dissonance between what a character does and who s/he imagines s/he is. Actual psychopathy makes it far too easy not to empathize with a character. And an accurate understanding and portrayal of a psychopath is exceedingly rare in popular films, novels and TV.

The idea that psychopathy is somehow dysfunctional couldn't be further from the truth -- it's one of the more purely functional human mental abnormalities. Autism, at the other end of a spectrum (one acknowledged by researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen among others), is more like what you mean. The severely autistic might be able to relate to the feelings of others but be completely unable to read them. For psychopaths it's the other way around -- they can read feelings clearly, even clearly enough to pretend to share them. They just can't actually feel anything for anyone except themselves.

As for Amy's motivations and means, it's one thing to be peeved about hubby's infidelity, quite another to hold a severe grudge for "not living up to her expectations." Once again, a real psychopath ought to have seen that one coming a mile away. The truly dangerous might seem "normal" from a distance but "normal" is certainly not the mates, jobs or life situations they seek for themselves. Someone with such an inherently ruthless nature, born into the privileges Amy knew, would never have romanticized Nick the way she's shown to, never have compromised on all of the things she's revealed to have given up for him.

About Amy's digital planning: Even pre-Snowden, it strains the imagination to suggest she wouldn't have considered the fact that Google and her ISP and perhaps the NSA would have a relatively complete record of her web searches. Literally the only thing keeping one local cop, or FBI agent, or private lawyer's private investigator, or media figure, or, most likely of all, a single intrepid tech-savvy blogger from unraveling all of that poorly concealed artifice is unquestioned, unflinching belief in the b.s. she feeds everyone in the hospital.

And you still haven't answered my question about how that pesky shed stash was supposed to have worked? Or why the cops wouldn't have questioned the weirdness of it further.

It's my contention, that, at the end of the day, bravura acting, direction and A-list polish aside, GONE GIRL's thriller story -- especially when it comes to the ultimate motivations of why the characters are supposed to want that they want and do what they do -- is, unfortunately, just as dispiritingly dumb as something like Danny Boyle's TRANCE.

Unknown said...

Care to name some of these non-psychopathic villains? Or even just one?

"For psychopaths it's the other way around -- they can read feelings clearly, even clearly enough to pretend to share them. They just can't actually feel anything for anyone except themselves." Sounds alot like amy to me.
Throughout the film she exhibits almost all of the factor one personality traits of a psychopath - grandiose sense of self, zero empathy ect. She had a history with men. Upon failing to make her feel like the "amazing Amy" she believed she was, she tore their lives apart. In her mind that was fair compensation for tearing apart her fantasy.
As to supporting Nick, she had this idealized view of herself as a loyal wife and was playing that part. Maybe psychpath is too strong to describe her then? Narcissistic personality disorder would be more apt?
And as to her research, I recall her doing most of it in books. A trip to the bookstore with some cash os pretty untraceable.
I believe the shed was just a ploy to demonize Nick to the media. It showed that he was using up all their resources on toys to enjoy after she was dead. And the FBI agent did question the weirdness of it didn't she? I can't remember.

j.s. said...

Just for shizzles and giggles, even before my last response I browsed the AFI's heros & villains list (not that I put much stock in AFI lists, but it was an easy one to find) and in just a quick glance concluded that there weren't many actual or accurately portrayed psychopaths who made the cut.

The first two biggies that occur to me are Michael Corleone and Darth Vader. But let's just add, I don't know, Macbeth too. All commit antisocial acts. And it's only interesting and compelling to watch in each case because of what we know (or come to know) about how they've chosen to do this in spite of their previous capacity for empathy.

I think I've not been clear on the shed -- I get why the film seems to think it matters. I'm still asking how it's supposed to work and why it matters. Because Nick's plan to murder his wife is so he can then, what, pay off his late over extended credit card bill and then finally play with his as yet unboxed and by now likely out of date tech toys? Really? Why not just wait till, I don't know, six weeks after the funeral to start buying the stuff? What good is it supposedly doing him just sitting there? Isn't the note she leaves him in the film tantamount to an admission that she's behind all this?

As to Amy's planning books, I thought we see some sort of e-tailer box of them at one point, as if they've been shipped Glamazon? In any case, she's not very digitally wary or privacy and security conscious -- she doesn't use TOR or even private browsing.

But, as Matt Bird has repeatedly taught us, all sufficiently twisty thrillers, even good ones like VERTIGO, have plot holes.

GONE GIRL's biggest problems are centered on character holes/cheats -- the way that Flynn uses Amy's character to create surprising twists with little regard to justifying her choices retrospectively. Amy is, simply, whoever Flynn happens to need her to be to create the most exciting and unexpected choice at any given moment -- more of a plot device than a character.

One of Flynn's bigger mistakes that I haven't really seen remarked upon elsewhere might be conflating her own personal backstory with Nick's and Amy's. Flynn was a successful magazine writer who was downsized and moved back to the midwest, etc. But it's not those details so much as it is Flynn's putting far too much of herself into what Amy seems to want out of life (an empathy heavy writing life) and why she's supposedly attracted to Nick in the first place (his authenticity, those romantic bookstore quickies). Along with Amy's self-sacrifice (moving away from NYC for Nick and his mom, giving her parents back her money), these are the traits that are hardest to square with the Amy who would think nothing of framing her exes for rape and murder or of simply murdering yet another ex who'd outlived his usefulness. There just aren't that many cold blooded killers who aspire to be writers or married to them. So I'd lay that challenge back at your doorstep: Care to name just one real-life Amy -- a socialite who romanticized a life in art devoted to the empathy that she herself could only pretend to possess?

When psychopaths settle for marriages of seeming normalcy it's almost always the case that it suits their purposes in some other way -- like the BTK's perfectly ordinary suburban cover for his surreptitious killings.

Matt Bird said...

Calm down, boys!

Some responses to JS:

Gone Girl is the only Flynn book I've read. I certainly agree that Flynn’s trying to have it both ways with Amy and doesn’t get away with it. I agree that she does way too many non-psychopathic things, such as giving up her trust fund and moving to MO, and that she wouldn’t have romanticized her relationship the way she does if she was as psychopathic as portrayed in the second half.

I still thing you can include Desi's murder if she's not a psychopath. She’s clearly gone crazy at this point, and you can have a temporary psychotic break without being a natural-born killer.

Here's one more Meddler: I think the solution to the research problem would be that, instead of writing personality quizzes, Amy should be a would-be crime novelist who never sold a manuscript. This gives her all the knowledge she needs, an excuse for more internet research, and another motivation: she finally gets to prove to the world how good she is at creating these stories.

I agree that the stash could make sense, but not as it's presented. How and why would Amy have stored it at Go’s? Why didn’t she point the cops in that direction? Or the press? Why didn't Nick call the cops as soon as he found it, or at least after Madea told him to?

I think that it's precisely because the first half so closely mirrors Flynn’s personal details (she’d also just gotten married) that I find it so much more compelling than the second half. The portrait of post-crash America is very moving and acute.

Some responses to Matt O:

Yes, it always totally sabotages a movie for me if I read the book first. Betsy challenged me one time to name a single movie I liked after having read the novel first. I finally came up with “Casino Royale”, but it took a while.

You say you maintained your sympathy until Desi's murder, but that was after the history of false allegations! You're quite the sympathetic guy!

I agree that, before the revelation of the history of false accusation, then Narcissistic personality disorder would seem more relevant (and more interesting!)

As for the debate about all villains being psychopaths:

A long time ago, I wrote a piece on the 12 types of villains:


I labeled 6 and 7 as psychopaths, but you could also make a case that 1, 2, 3, 9 and 11 are fairly psychopathic. But that leaves 4 (Good Person Corrupted by Money), 5 (One Bad Choice Leads to Another), 8 (The Sycophant), 10 (The Righteous Revenge Seeker), and 12 (Just Doing His Job).

I think that Amy was interesting when she seemed like a righteous revenge seeker.

Unknown said...

I think maybe sociopathic might be a better description for Amy than psychopathic. She still has some moral compass and I think clearly feels fear.

j.s. said...

That's really just semantics. There's no clear or significant clinical difference, though most psychologists who specialize in adult patients who lack empathy or callous-unemotional youth seem to prefer "psychopath."

If you're talking about the DSM, then you're dealing more strictly with behavior, with terms like Antisocial Personality Disorder or Conduct Disorder in younger patients.

I still think Matthew O. is in denial about how poorly Flynn has disguised her character cheats with Amy.

I like what Matt Bird writes here: "I think that Amy was interesting when she seemed like a righteous revenge seeker." Of course, the problem with this is that truly "righteous" revenge for Nick's transgressions would also probably have to be more proportionate and measured, which might mean a smaller scale, less twisty -- dare I say more boring -- story.

Though I'm not sure about Matt Bird's suggestion about Amy being a crime writer -- failed or otherwise. It's a good cover story for her research. But it also feels a bit too on-the-nose. Isn't that exactly the reason everyone spends most of BASIC INSTINCT suspecting the Sharon Stone character, because her fiction is too close to the real murders?

As for the temporary psychotic break that you're positing to justify Amy's killing Desi? I don't know, that just feels like part of a different movie (LOST HIGHWAY or some old timey Preminger noir) and a whole other can of worms.

Matt Bird said...

Nothing wrong with Preminger noir!

Anonymous said...

Flynn sees writing about "bad women" as her subject.


The Amy in the book is definitely more nuanced than the Amy in the movie. I see book Amy as a bit like Shylock, namely, a villain who exposes hypocrisy. It's a risky move, because it muddies the waters. We still don't know how to respond to Shylock. Who can blame him for being such a coldhearted snake in such a anti-Semitic culture, but on the other hand, damn, the guy's a coldhearted snake. I'd say the same thing about Amy, which is why the book sticks in people's craw. The movie Amy fails to hold the same contradictions.


MCP said...

I would say that the book wouldn't exist (or at least be magnitudes less popular) without Amy's big plan, and only someone who is already crazy would be able to execute such a plan. If she snapped righteously she would have obviously just killed him.

Now maybe a crazy person wouldn't move to MO or utilize her money to help them both, but I thought the main point was that she had envisioned this perfect life for herself and he was messing it up. The move and supporting them both being part of her pretending to be "perfect wife". The affair just being the final straw. She also had an obsession about pretending to be perfect (the childhood book series) while also resenting it at the same time, definitely a human emotion magnified for genre fiction.

I didn't see the movie (but enjoyed the book enough to have read another book by the author), but as a character in the book Amy worked well for me. She always had this latent evil beneath her mask, which just needed the right set of circumstances for her to feel justified in letting it run wild.

I think the main risk Flynn takes is that she fills her books with people you borderline-hate, so I would never reread any of her work, but she definitely makes daring character choices.

Parker said...

I love Meddler posts! But I haven't seen this movie yet (or even read the book), so I'll refrain from chiming in on this (somewhat intense) debate until you meddle with the next movie.

...But I will say that psychopaths aren't always the most interesting villains. Having empathy but being evil in spite of it seems more complex to me.