At the Movies

Michael Wood

Warning: Even more spoilers than usual.

‘One can feel that there is always a camera left out of the picture,’ Stanley Cavell wrote in The World Viewed, ‘the one working now.’ The proliferation of selfies has familiarised us with first-person photography but nothing so far has solved the problem of first-person narration in film. Whatever subjective-looking angles the image adopts, the filmed person is not the one holding the camera. Of course you can shift points of view generally, centre the narrative on one figure and then another, but there is something curiously abstract about the process – as if the medium couldn’t get really interested in such stuff. The medium likes what it sees, and what it sees is what is there. The camera working now doesn’t remember the camera working then, only the verbal apparatus remembers that.

This is a way of describing some of the difficulties Gillian Flynn had in adapting her slick novel Gone Girl for David Fincher’s film of the same name. The novel alternates between two stories, a husband’s and a wife’s. Neither is entirely telling the truth, but both are telling us plenty, and novels love this kind of game. The film begins and ends with the husband’s voice-over; starts with a focus on him; shows us flashbacks of the couple’s first meeting and bits of their past life; offers us quick glimpses of her writing a diary; then rather abruptly gives up on the balance, and lets us have her side of a story entirely different from the one we (and the husband) have been trying to put together. We realise, if we have been concentrating, that the flashbacks belong to her rather than to him, and the new story, now involving both of them – the corresponding section in the novel is called ‘Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa)’ – takes us to the end of the film and the husband’s repeated lines: ‘When I think of my wife, I always think of her head … What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?’

The effect of this narration is to create two movies, both pretty good but not really connecting, even when connections are ostensibly made. The first movie is a version of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where a sullen Ben Affleck takes over from a suave Cary Grant. He is Nick Dunne, a writer who is not writing. His wife has disappeared on their fifth wedding anniversary, and the question is whether he has killed her. There are signs of violence in the house, but they look as if they might have been arranged to look like signs. Well, the real question, here as in Hitchcock, is whether dodginess, anger and deceit in a husband are enough to make us suspect him of murder. They are, but though we keep suspecting him we don’t suspect him for long, and we are right not to. Nick has a young mistress, his marriage was falling apart, he drinks too much, and he is still behaving in a way that doesn’t endear him to anyone, but he isn’t a murderer. Cary Grant wasn’t planning to murder Joan Fontaine either, although Hitchcock manages not to exclude the possibility that one day he might.

This sort of possibility in Gone Girl is transferred to the wife, Amy Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, and this is where the second movie starts. She is the daughter of two of the most enticingly awful movie parents in many years (played by David Clennon and Lisa Banes), who created Amazing Amy, a series of children’s books based on their growing infant. We quickly learn that the fictional Amy did all the things that her prototype couldn’t quite manage, but the actual Amy is pretty amazing too: glamorous, funny, and certainly not meant to settle down in a tacky rented mansion in North Carthage, Missouri, Nick’s home town. When things go wrong with the marriage – when she gives her trust fund money back to her parents without consulting him, when he decides they will move to Missouri without asking her, when he loses his job, when he won’t agree to have a child – she concocts a plot that would leave even Hitchcock gasping. She will disappear, scattering clues for the police to find, evidence of Nick’s overspending on her credit cards, traces of blood in the kitchen, a diary detailing the early bliss and late bust-up of the marriage. Even without a body, the police will have to conclude he killed her, and he will get the death penalty, one of the accidental benefits of the shift to Missouri.

This isn’t what happens finally, but the scheme makes it through all the first steps. She disappears, the clues are found, everything looks bad for Nick, and then two events occur that change everything. One is just poor plotting, a desperate ruse on the writer’s part, a hold-up ex machina. Amy is robbed of all the money she was carelessly carrying around to start her new life with, and has to resort to different, wilder methods of survival. The other is more interesting, and picks up one of the central themes of the movie: the media, trial by television. Shifty, sulky Nick, now revealed to have had a mistress, is hated by ‘the whole of America’, as he repeatedly says, and this is where an actual selfie appears in the film. The presenter of a TV talk show catches Nick after a press conference, and takes a picture of herself with him. He is smiling, as anyone would, out of embarrassment if nothing else. Smiling? When your adored wife has disappeared? Doesn’t look good on the front page of the papers or on the TV show. Especially not when the same media have the news about the juvenile-looking mistress. But then Nick, against the probabilities – or against what the probabilities would be if he were not Ben Affleck – masters the media himself, and gives a brilliant interview impersonating the contrite, imperfect, human husband, the man who knows he’s done wrong and is deeply ashamed, but for all that loves his wife and longs for her discovery and return. Now he’s America’s hero. And he does, by a few further plot twists I’ll leave to your imagination, get her back. This is not a happy end.

There are terrific performances in the film. Affleck is unappealing in a discreetly appealing way, the jerk you can’t get quite annoyed enough with, and Pike shows a considerable range of looks and tones, from perky, self-conscious, acting out her own imitation of Amazing Amy, to plain, battered and hopeless. Her methodical, erroneous belief that she can control the world is one of the more touching things in the film. Even more memorable though is Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister, and if anything could hold the two movies together she would be it. She is funny, dry, sympathetic to her brother, outraged at his repeated idiocies, and in the end, a sort of stand-in for us. What do we do when the characters in the story we are watching become determined accomplices in the mess they have made, robbing the narrative of any chance of resolution?

Flynn has listed Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? among her influences, but closer to hand we have David Fincher’s own earlier films, especially The Game and Seven, even The Social Network. He is drawn to, and expert at depicting, modes of manipulation and uncertainty, zones where knowledge is either unavailable or piled up in excess or both. And even if Gone Girl is two films rather than one, they are both Fincher’s films, and we could be in far worse company. The marriage between the suspected man and the fabulating wife was never a marriage, perhaps. But from the start each in his or her own way was hard at work failing to find life amazing enough, and in the process found themselves destroying, as characters in Fincher’s films often do, the very idea of innocence.