Is David Fincher’s Gone Girl adaptation empowering or merely misogynistic? The answer, as it turns out, is not so clear.
As directed by David Fincher, Gone Girl was always going to be more than just a run-of-the-mill pop-lit adaptation. Based on Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, Gone Girl is ostensibly the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), who comes under investigation when his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Although obviously, Fincher being Fincher, there’s more going on beneath the surface plot. Fincher’s Gone Girl is about the modern media, and how it twists news into convenient narratives for our entertainment. Fincher’s Gone Girl is about marriage, and how the idea of a ‘perfect couple’ can unravel when put under the slightest bit of pressure. Fincher’s Gone Girl is about trust, about love, about power, about how all those things can warp when two people so apparently suited discover too late that they’re actually incompatible.
The women in Gone Girl are irrational, deceitful, controlling; they’re hard-asses, vamps, opportunistic liars and thieves
Above all, though, Gone Girl is a film about gender. Specifically, it’s about its authors’ attitudes towards women, and – on a wider scale – uneasy attitudes towards women that we as a society have become unnervingly comfortable with. Without going into spoilers, the women in Gone Girl are irrational, deceitful, controlling; they range from duplicitous hard-asses and vamps to opportunistic liars and thieves. It could be seen as the self-hating view the author (Flynn also wrote the screenplay) has of her own gender, the misogynistic view of the movie’s director, or a combination of both. Which is to say that, at first glance, Gone Girl doesn’t appear to hold women in the highest regard.
Ricocheting between his critical twin sister (Carrie Coon), the cynical cop handling his wife’s case (Kim Dickens), the TV anchors baying for his blood (Missi Pyle and Sela Ward) and his condescending, suspicious mother-in-law (Lisa Banes), Affleck’s Nick is ultimately under the thumb of Pike’s Amy, the dissatisfied wife whose damning diary and America’s sweetheart exterior is turning public favour against Nick even in her absence. Without even being present, Amy is the one in control, and she has Nick, along with the American public, shaped in her hands.
It’s the males who appear as the weaker sex throughout Gone Girl, in fact. Aside from Nick, Amy’s father is a mere loyal sidekick to his wife, while Patrick Fugit’s young detective is, in a role reversal almost unheard of in Hollywood, a subordinate to the more tuned-in female superior played by Kim Dickens. The only major exception comes in the form of Tyler Perry’s hotshot lawyer Tanner Bolt, though even he before the end resignedly admits the danger of the female, by cautioning Nick about his new role as a pawn in the game of women.
By turning gender stereotypes on their head, Gone Girl just might be asking us to examine our world and our expectations
As such a portrait of ‘the fairer sex’, Gone Girl could be seen as deeply offensive as much as it could be seen as empowering. Could Gone Girl’s female characters simply be players in an alternative universe where it’s women and not men who hold all the cards? We’re used to Hollywood’s cops, crooks, good guys and not-so-good guys being played by men, with the only real recognition that there’s an alternative brand of human without a dick usually arriving in the form of the wife, the mistress or the damsel in distress.
Here, the balance is tipped the other way, and what would have seemed normal had the more unsavoury characters been male seems unusual with those same roles occupied by women. The women in Gone Girl are not Hollywood-passive, but instead aggressively active. By turning cinematic gender stereotypes on their head, Gone Girl just might be asking us to examine our world and our own expectations. The female is taking action in Gone Girl; here, the male is largely submissive, and not every critic loves the way that’s been handled.
Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood observes how, “It’s too easy to dislike the uppity, snobbish, perfectionist, anally retentive female,” adding that the Gone Girl film clearly favours Nick more than the book, even adding a pet cat to make him appear more sympathetic. Thelma Adams also checks what she thinks is a rocky past when it comes to Fincher getting the portrayal of women right in his films. But where Owen Gleiberman and Richard Lawson see misogyny in the way the authors have Gone Girl’s women behave, others see strength: Gillian Flynn, for one, sees “a modern woman…having it all.”
We must recognise how under-represented women are in film and acknowledge that Gone Girl gifts a handful of actresses some of the meatiest female roles of the year
Stepping outside of the picture itself, we must also recognise how severely under-represented women are in film and acknowledge that Gone Girl gifts a handful of actresses some of the meatiest female roles of the year. These aren’t roles that would be typically considered feminine, either – the women of Gone Girl are not the usual housewives, manic pixie dream girls or ‘strong, ass-kicking women’ (the latter in particular a lazy male riposte to on-screen sexism that’s long overdue retirement). Instead, they’re cops, media personalities, trusted siblings and shady new allies. They’re characters who aren’t necessarily gender specific, who would probably normally have been played by men, but who here are – shockingly – female.
All different kinds of arguments could be made about the gender politics of Gone Girl. It’s a film of hard/detestable/empowered (delete where appropriate) women, played by an ensemble of actresses doing career-best work, in some of their finest roles – if Pike, Dickens and Coon ever again get offered parts as good as these, they may consider themselves blessed. Or will they come instead to bemoan that they were part of a directorial vision that saw the world populated by cold, untrustworthy, manipulative women out to criticise, belittle and punish the menfolk? It’s a picture so layered and complex that it offers no easy answer. Trust David Fincher to take a pulpy bestseller and turn it into the catalyst for a battle of the sexes both on and off screen.
Read more: Should David Fincher stop making thrillers?
All images: 20th Century Fox