Bombast: Gone Finching
A big part of the case for David Fincher, at least as I’ve heard it put forward by his more eloquent defenders, is that he’s a throwback—that is to say that, with his unfailing technical luster and easy traverse between genre subjects, he’s a holdover from the days of studio professionalism. Dave Kehr, for example, has compared him to Otto Preminger: “[D]istanced, cool, he’s not making too many judgments for you, he’s amassing data that you can then sift through, very similar camera style, these beautiful long takes.”
The preceding quote comes from 2011, shortly before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film which seems almost universally to be regarded as among Fincher’s worst, arrived in theaters. Fincher was then 49 years old. Almost three full years have passed since. Preminger, in the same stretch of his life (1954-57), knocked out River of No Return, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Saint Joan—not a bad haul, though nothing like his 1960-65 tear. Fincher has since directed the first two episodes of the Netflix original series House of Cards, continues to serve as the show’s executive producer, and fixed in place the overall “distanced, cool” visual template of the program, to which even the demonstrative Joel Schumacher has allowed himself to be tethered. And now we have Gone Girl.
Like Preminger, who established himself as a very successful independent producer-director with 1953’s The Moon is Blue, Fincher at this point in his career presumably has almost total control over his selection of material. Both directors allocate scriptwriting duty elsewhere—neither has a screenwriting credit on any of their feature films. Both have also evinced a partiality for fat tomes with great popular appeal, if only intermittently with egghead cachet. (On the highbrow end, Preminger did Wilde and G.B. Shaw; Fincher, Scott Fitzgerald.) Preminger adapted Book of the Month Club hardcover cinderblocks by Leon Uris, John D. Voelker, and James Bassett. Fincher has now followed Stieg Larsson with an adaptation of a 2012 bestseller written by Gillian Flynn. It’s astonishing that he let The Da Vinci Code slip through his fingers.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Finally, both Preminger and Fincher have a nose for material that will get the chattering classes chattering—or the Twittering classes Tweeting, as it were. The success of The Moon is Blue was attributable, at least in part, to a publicity putsch—it went to theaters without the Motion Picture Production Code’s seal of approval, and this fact promised untold titillation to ticket buyers. Fincher’s greatest box-office successes have come when he has dealt with hot-button issues or the multiplex audience’s idea of the transgressive, with films about serial killers (Seven), anti-consumerist sloganeering (Fight Club), The Way We Live Now (The Social Network), and inside-the-Beltway skullduggery (House of Cards). But where Preminger had the ability to chasten and elevate variously unpromising material, Fincher rarely seems to do the same. For this reason he’s always left me a little uncomfortable, his impeccable, unruffled style putting me in mind of the opening paragraph of Manny Farber’s “Hard-Sell Cinema” essay:
“The figure who is engineering this middle-class blitz has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful nonconforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation. The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief. Avant-gardism has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist.”
This talk of “rebellious creation” against the “businessman-artist” may seem a little starry-eyed as Jeff Koons holds court at the Whitney, but the above excerpt gets at the absence of conviction that I have always felt in Fincher. Even the Fincher films that I’ve admired seem to have their sticking points: The pathos of Mark Zuckerberg F5ing updates on a Friend Request to an ex-girlfriend at the end of The Social Network (2010) is a piece of laborious symmetry only one-bettered by his latest. For many, Zodiac (2007) was the movie that announced Fincher’s emergence as a mature artist, the one where he put aside those gauche CG-generated traveling shots through wastepaper baskets and Mr. Coffee handles and assumed his present observational style. It is an undeniably audacious movie, a maze without a center—or a proper protagonist, shackled as it is with Jake Gyllenhaal, the performer who my colleague Nicolas Rapold memorably categorized as “wombat-eyed.” Of course, Preminger also had a habit of working more-or-less-successfully around casting—see the green Jean Seberg of Saint Joan (not the quantum leap Seberg of Bonjour Tristesse), or poor, poor Tom Tryon in The Cardinal.
Gone Girl is concerned with a missing woman, but the real structuring absence is Ben Affleck, playing Nick Dunne. With this film and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Affleck may have perfected the role of following—as opposed to leading—man. (Since 2006’s Hollywoodland, his good roles have all played on the ridiculousness of his status as a star actor.) Nick runs a bar in “North Carthage, Missouri” (in fact Cape Girardeau, MO) and teaches English on the side, though it’s difficult to imagine this lug finishing a book, much less aspiring to write one. When we meet Nick, he is sullen, pouty, a little ex-jock paunchy. One afternoon, he returns home slightly day-drunk to find that his wife is missing, and that the glass coffee table in their living room has been shattered in what would appear to have been a struggle. From the moment that the police arrive, Nick fails entirely to respond to the absence of his wife with any of the acceptable indicators of grief, and his insufficiency in the role of distraught spouse is all the more glaring when the media spotlight alights on his case. His wrong-ness is quickly picked up on by the pundits of the 24-hour news cycle, particularly the hostess of Ellen Abbott Live, a blathering blonde modeled on Nancy Grace.
It has been interesting to see a film which, in part at least, is about the process of media feeding-frenzy and reckless speculation, going through the mill itself—as its creators had every hope and confidence that it would—in the week preceding and following its release. (I know, I know, I’m not helping matters.) The touchy subject here, originated with Flynn (who wrote the screenplay) and hand-picked by Fincher, is woman hate—hatred of women, women’s hatred. These are also present to one degree or another in the director’s previous work: The boundlessly execrable Fight Club; Panic Room, previously the record-holder for recurrences of the word “bitch” in a Fincher film; and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with its turnabout-is-fair-play strap-on rape. Gone Girl does all of the above one better, a Rorschach blot custom-made for this moment when quantifying works of art according to their relative perceived feminism-to-misogyny content is one of America’s favorite pastimes. So chum meets sharks, and Amanda Dobbins at Vulture confirms that yes, Virginia, “Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem,” while for Todd VanDerWerff at Vox it’s “the most feminist mainstream movie in years.” Among our friends in Canada, it has been received as a comedy, either intentional or otherwise. Just today I’ve caught wind of a rumor that the entire movie is taking place in Nick’s head, the new Gorfeins Theory of the too-much-time-on-their-hands set. And I’ve not even started in on the brouhaha surrounding the side-view of Affleck’s Hollywood loaf!
The dong cameo occurs in a shower scene which takes place after Nick’s reunion with his blood-spattered bride, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, in actual fact no innocent victim but a Lady Macbeth whose conscience presents her no problem in washing herself clean of the taint of blood. Amy is introduced in close-up in the film’s opening shot, in which her husband is heard to fantasize about cracking open her skull in voice-over. Through the first half of the movie, during which we have no reason other than Nick’s limp protestations not to believe that he’s lived out his fantasy, Amy is present through flashbacks narrated by her journal entries, in which she recounts the two years of their courtship and the five years of their slowly unraveling marriage, writing with a girlish script and candy-colored ink entirely inappropriate to a woman over thirty. The visualized scenes from these diary entries play like fairy-tale romance familiar from post-Sex and the City pop, New York City media jobs and skyscraper backdrop and all. It’s saccharine to the point of parody from the moment that Nick takes Amy past an all-night bakery to walk her through a sugar storm, just as the dissolution of their loving foundation plays out as boilerplate domestic melodrama.
There is a reason for this reliance on cliché, as it turns out: what’s being depicted is, in fact, largely the fabrication of a madwoman. (Where the real story of Nick and Amy ends and the fabrications begin is not and will never be explained.) Throughout the media firestorm surrounding her disappearance, Amy has been hunkered up in cabin in the Ozarks, hiding out behind a big-box store dye job and a southern accent. The incriminating journal that we’ve been hearing from was a clue that Amy left behind for the investigating detectives to find, the final piece in an elaborate mousetrap deigned to catch and frame Nick for her murder, as she deems nothing less than the death penalty a just punishment for his affair with a young student.
With this revelation, replete with “This is how it really happened” flashbacks a la The Usual Suspects/Fight Club/Memento, Amy temporarily takes over the narration, explaining how she used the same imagination that she’d once applied to crafting romantic scavenger hunts to trap Nick. Here Fincher is entirely in his element, offering the viewer the vicarious thrill of playing accomplice to a criminal genius—you almost expect Amy to tauntingly direct-address the viewer in the style of Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or his predecessor, Spacey’s John Doe in Seven, and she damn near does. From Doe to Mark Zuckerberg, Fincher’s filmography is littered with blandly brilliant micromanaging geniuses, but here he has one who exudes a bit of gelid glamor. Amy is “methodical, exacting, and worst of all patient,” to use a description applied to Doe, or if you prefer “a manipulative fucking control freak,” as Michael Douglas’s Nicholas Van Orton is described in 1997’s The Game, still by a considerable stretch Fincher’s most completely-realized movie, and the one where his comprehension of movie logic—as opposed to reasonable plausibility—reaches the giddiest heights of preposterousness, up to its final swan dive.
Gone Girl’s single most impressive set piece comes after Amy takes shelter in the security camera-wired lake house of Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), an ex-boyfriend who’s held a torch for Amy since boarding school, who agrees to help her in her hour of need, though his assistance comes with an undercurrent of proprietary menace. This doesn’t sit so well with Amy, especially after Nick sends her a covert message signifying that he knows she’s alive, has decoded her scheme, and seems to want her back. So one morning, biding her time, Amy scrupulously builds a case to prove that Collings had kidnapped her, held her hostage, and repeatedly raped her, putting on a dumb-show for the camera, violating herself with a bottle, shredding her wrists with rope restraints and finally—the piece-de-resistance—slitting her “captor’s” throat with a box-cutter at the moment of his climax, showering herself with a gush of arterial blood with full assurance that she’ll get away clean. “There are parts of the movie where I go, oh yeah, ‘Go Amy,’” Fincher told a Los Angeles crowd at a recent post-screening Q&A, and why wouldn’t he—she knows how to stage a scene for her director.
The victim here, Collings, is a posh spazz who threatens to chain Amy to a future of “octopus and Scrabble” in the wine-dark Mediterranean, and so his passing is not to be grieved. The rich are detestable here, while the middle-class don’t come off a great deal better, represented by the bovine Midwesterners who herd together for a candlelight vigil for Amy—beautifully shot in dusk-light by DP Jeff Cronenweth, as if I needed to mention—and most prominently by a neighbor hausfrau, Noelle (Casey Wilson), covertly befriended by Amy to bolster her case against Nick. (An “idiot” in Amy’s words, but also as presented by Fincher.) As for the poor whom Amy descends among while on the run, they’re treated with the usual repulsed fascination that Fincher reserves for the sight of decay. We have the Morlock-like meth addicts who congregate in the abandoned mall in North Carthage, and the white trash grifters who sidle up to Amy while she’s laying low, Greta (Lola Kirke), a slattern with a cold sore visible from outer space, and Jeff (Boyd Holbrook), a lummox with his arm in a filthy cast. The pair catch sight of Amy’s fanny pack full of rainy day cash and shake her down for it, and as Jeff’s ransacking Amy’s cabin, it’s let slip that the whole thing was Greta’s idea, for the women wield the brains in this movie, against which male brawn is laughably ineffectual. (It’s one of the film’s better gags that when Nick finally puts hands to his wife, as she’d unfairly impugned him for doing before, she scarcely even notices the blow.)
Is Gone Girl misogynist, misandrist, elitist, or sans-culottes? Can I opt for all of the above? And who’s to blame? Once Amy has revealed herself as the film’s stealth narrator, and in the process ceded control, we must presume that the narrative is being overseen by none other than Gillian Flynn and David Fincher. (That is, of course, assuming that it isn’t all in Nick’s head.) It is telling that their storytelling in no significant way deviates from that of their heroine. The “distanced, cool” style tends to deflect claims of caricature, but all things considered, the New York City gay bar in Preminger’s Advise and Consent—made in 1962, mind you!—seems a more pleasant place to spend time than the small-town Missouri of Gone Girl.
If the film has any sympathy or allegiance, it’s a respect for cleverness and ingenuity wherever they exist, most often as embodied in Amy. When she covertly hocks a loogie in Greta’s Mountain Dew, we’re invited to share in Amy’s enjoyment of the payoff. When Greta and Jeff catch her with her back turned, well, she has only herself to blame. It’s a movie that’s on the side of whoever’s conniving enough to get the upper hand, which is why the ostensible tragedy of the conclusion, with hapless Nick pinned in a loveless marriage with a potentially-homicidal monster, feels so wholly unconvincing. Any time someone gets caught out—or, quite literally, with their pants down—you can almost hear Fincher out-of-frame, whispering like John C. McGinley’s gloating SWAT agent to the bedsore-ridden “corpse” in Seven: “You got what you deserved.”
Fincher is a throwback all right, but he doesn’t go much further back than the release of Pretty Hate Machine. For all of Fincher’s marvelous control, I can’t look past the accumulation of Nineties tropes that riddle his filmography, a particular form of PTSD that comes with having gone through adolescence in that era. It’s in his ex-music video director’s fetish for urban/industrial desolation. It’s in his serial killer chic. It’s in his marketable, unreflective conception of female agency—when Amy gives her “Cool Girl” speech, apparently lifted verbatim from Flynn’s book, I swear I heard Jagged Little Pill fading in on the soundtrack. It’s especially in his elevation of cleverness and snark, as epitomized in the zingy patter between Nick and his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon in the Janeane Garofalo part—and while we’re on the subject, does anyone buy this sibling relationship for even a second?)
Like Tyler Perry’s Gummi bear-throwing defense lawyer, Margo is there for comic relief, but as a friend noted, “a comic-relief scene isn’t the same as a film being a satire.” (Is John Ford’s entire filmography satire because of the occasional bouts of knockabout comedy?) Sometime around the point that the lead detective investigating Amy’s disappearance (Kim Dickens) complements the name of Nick and Margo’s bar (The Bar) as “very meta,” effectively directing our reception of the film, I decided I’d had just about enough of exemplification-as-exoneration. Gone Girl reconfirms Fincher as a mastermind, but I only see whey-faced John Doe playing with his “sick, ridiculous puppets.”