“Even if a husband lives two hundred fucking years, he’s never going to be able to discover his wife’s real nature. I mean, I might be able to comprehend the universe, but I’ll never discover the truth about you.” – Paul (Marlon Brando), Last Tango in Paris
For years, Hollywood has been nibbling around the edges of full surrender, as if to prepare us for the eventual doomsday scenario to come. Slowly but surely, movies have sensed a moral rot, and while occasionally manufacturing sufficiently nightmarish scenarios to keep us, at best, nervous and edgy, they’ve refrained from administering last rites, if only to uphold the bottom line. With Gone Girl, however, the coffin has at last been closed. More than that, the lid has been nailed shut for all time. Only it’s not our time on this earth that’s at an end, nor have we met our match with some interstellar force of evil. No, the enemies are decidedly within, and until now, have often been the very reasons we even bother to wake up in the morning. I speak, of course, of love and marriage. And while the religiously inclined might blame the gays, a permissive culture, or even a lack of patriarchal assertiveness, the fault lies squarely with our all too human capacity for self-delusion. I mean, if love and marriage don’t work, it’s because they never could. And it took David Fincher (and a best-selling novel) to help us face our demons.
I know what you’re thinking: God Almighty was declared dead and buried years ago by Time, yet his hold on billions of sad sacks continues unabated. Churches thrive. Even the Pope has become a reluctant rock star. How, then, can anyone claim to have witnessed love’s final thrust? Surely it has something more up its sleeve? Perhaps, but here, it’s all finally out in the open. Further mistakes will be our own. In that sense, its pursuit will be deliberate sabotage, and we’ll all smile knowingly. More than channeling the zeitgeist, Gone Girl will be the textbook we all consult when future generations ask how and why we took a different path. It’s the Bible for a new age. A post-mortem where our entrails have been sliced, diced, catalogued, and preserved in amber for further study. At the very least, no one will be able to say we weren’t warned. Not a singular case for idle chatter, but a stand-in for the whole damn enterprise. The ultimate blueprint. If it’s been done before, it ends up here. And if it’s done again, it will suffer by comparison. And with the closing credits, an end to the conversation.
Let it be said: if you do not see yourself in Gone Girl, you’ve never been in love. If it’s dismissed as foreign, or odd, or hyperbolic, you’ve lived a lie. For as trashy, outrageous, melodramatic, and preposterous as the movie is – proudly so, from start to finish – it’s never anything less than a veritable smorgasbord of realism, truth, and damning insight. It’s as if the world entire had been blended together and spooled forth as the ultimate reconstruction. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are not fantastical absurdities, but the Everyman and Everywoman we always feared were coming. Their path – our path – begins with small talk and ends in blood-soaked despair, with an accumulation of tedious evasions acting as filler. They first meet, of course, at one of those standard parties where everyone regurgitates their lines with all the spontaneity of a political stump speech. The flirtations are clichés, the meet-cutes pre-ordained, and those who pair off are sent on their way with about as much chance of ultimate survival as a bleeding man in a shark tank. What other prospect have we with so much remaining unknown? Such couplings are, in fact, an indirect defense of arranged marriages where, at least, you know what you’re getting.
All lovers believe themselves to be trendsetters, when all are mere marionettes acting out the same doomed storylines with but one denouement. No exceptions. Yet with that first blush of love, the world unfolds as if in a dream, with plans and hopes and jobs and kids to distract from the inescapable truth that each cannot stand the other. There is need, yes, but think of how passion-deprived such a word really is when sitting naked and unadorned before us. The need, then, is about us, and one will do as well as the next, much as we approach the redesign of a living room. Marriage, then, is a grand psychological experiment, where we project upon the other all the frailties and scars earned over a lifetime, expecting rescue and resurrection in turn. And when they fall short, as if by design, we damn their inadequacy. Nick and Amy are no different. Well before they left that party, each had sized up the other for how best they could be exploited. Love is less a surrender, then, than the drawing of battle lines for the war to come.
But while Nick is just biding time until he predictably falls for the next set of tits to flatter his sense of self-importance (read: self-loathing), his “issues” are, in a sense, comparatively harmless. He tries to have it all, yes, but by doing so, he essentially admits that he wants to satisfy everyone. Cowardly, perhaps, but in the context of a madhouse, eminently sane. Amy’s game, however, goes beyond the mere nursing of a wounded ego. She wants to destroy. And destroy she can, because society has bestowed upon the female of our species an exception to every rule; at least every rule worth a damn. Granted that free pass, she can escape undetected into a netherworld of deceit, cold-hearted calculation, and eyelash-batting insincerity. It’s that much more possible with a great ass. For all of feminism’s attempts at parity – and yes, ladies, we’re so happy to have your athletics pile-driven down our waiting throats – they conveniently left out a co-equal capacity for cruelty. Only it goes beyond a shared sadism; it’s superior in every way but the execution. Men might take more obvious routes, with bolder, immediate drama, but women kill over the long haul. Soul-crushing, as opposed to the quick and dirty bludgeoning that’s actually more humane.
It’s why Amy’s master plan so terrifies, even as we marvel at its unique genius. From the scavenger hunt clues, to the diary, to the “to-do” list more intricately detailed than the Manhattan Project, Amy has seemingly plotted her married life’s second act from the very beginning. Because, well, she has. Within seconds of that first glance – and the woman always decides where that glance will lead – the remaining chapters have already been written, as if handed down by heavenly decree. For it’s not a matter of if a woman will claim betrayal, dissatisfaction, and identity suppression in a marriage, but when; and that “when” is always at a time of maximum disadvantage for the man. Of course, because the female seems to have her reasons – a compelling case is usually put forth – she is flattered and supported in her desire to break free from tyranny. But as Gone Girl so pitilessly explains, these “explanations” are manufactured rationalizations at best, symptoms of psychopathy at worst, with the latter receiving the more vehement endorsement. It’s why the film will no doubt receive the predictable charges of misogyny. As if men could ever hate women as much as women hate themselves.
Intricately plotted and acted with devilish knowingness, Gone Girl is kind enough to ask Douglas Sirk to sit down for a drink, but would prefer he leave before dinner. He was, after all, too sweet a man to go this far. In this way, social norms are not merely jabbed with satirical intent, but set aflame with nihilistic fervor. It’s a world where 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce, with the other half content to wait for the sweet release of death. Where nasty, self-serving parents grant us large sums of money not as a reward for being brought into this shithouse against our will, but as a demonstration of their own superiority; to be held over our weary heads until it can be snatched away in a moment of savage greed. Where happiness comes less from being just and true than winning at all costs. Hell, where winning itself becomes less important than watching someone else lose. Where we give up too soon, or hang on too long, or whimper and whine because the world doesn’t stand at attention while we make plans. Where we expect a strange, solitary figure we meet often by happenstance to change our lives, right our wrongs, alter our course, and always have a bon mot to bring it all back from the brink. Given the way most poor saps come together, it’s a wonder any of us last the weekend. A more ridiculous method of courtship could not have been designed by a witch doctor.
But for those not wanting to go all the way down the rabbit hole of societal breakdown, there are few off-ramps that allow for a less introspective journey. If you’re inclined to believe that while marriage sucks, yours is a glorious exception, you could debate the tabloid culture’s sick need to demonize over a post-screening coffee with your beloved. Sure, it’s more window than mirror, but not exactly out of left field. You could also blame it all on a rare, specific, mentally ill woman, which would leave the broader world untouched for another day. You could say that if there’s evil afoot, it’s at the margins – very rich or very poor – with the supreme, marshmallowy middle spared any unjust attack. Perversions are for lone nuts, eccentrics behind walls, or shrill carnival barkers on social media. Whatever it takes to get through the night. And who could blame anyone for playing it safe? Gone Girl, even if approached as empty calories, is a remarkable thriller; teased with just enough stylistic flourish to keep it out of the bargain bin. Hell, even Tyler Perry avoids ridiculousness, which in itself should land the film a Nobel Prize.
Or is it all a simple cautionary tale in the vein of Fatal Attraction? After all, isn’t Amy what all men fear when they enter the dating world – a smart, attractive go-getter who sucks a mean dick and in the end, just might slit your throat? All men seem to want what Amy’s peddling, but they’re bred to believe that there’s always a catch. If you want a voracious reader, you’re going to have to accept a fat ass. Has a good job? Fine, no make-up on earth can make her presentable. And a killer body with tits to match? Okay (sigh), I guess I can live with barnyard stupid. Here, then, is the complete package, but she’s detached and unfriendly and impossible to trust. Do all women feel this enormous pressure to be everything to everyone, which in turn causes a break with reality? Fuck, man, is a sociopathic female the natural, inevitable result of male insensitivity and impossibly high standards? I know they would like us to think so. Ah, yes, even as I wrote that sentence I realized I assumed my reader would be a man because a woman is likely off working out or plotting my demise or something. So we all have our biases. Men set the agenda, and women don’t read movie reviews on obscure websites obsessed with homoeroticism. But does that mean Gone Girl can’t be the 2×4 to the face we all need?
If there’s a parting shot here, let it be the only one that really matters, as definitive and final as death itself. Since we all must pursue amour (and will anyway, even if I could prove it caused cancer), as long as we know it requires resignation, it just might be salvageable. There are dents in the armor, but it will survive as a human endeavor. And no, not some “yes, dear” sort of resignation we see in sitcoms, but an existential immersion in the notion that to love is to suffer, and that spending time with one other person – any person – requires that we tolerate an infinite amount of the intolerable in exchange for mere scraps of reward. Raising a family is necessary to avoid extinction, but no one earth could ever really enjoy a school play. Or a child’s first haircut. We fake it, lest we throw the little ones in the river. Women trap men into parenthood; if not always, then most of the time, and for good reason, given that men would rather be doing something else. Anything else. And that for men and women alike, loyalty only goes as far as one’s options. Above all, though, you can be a “gone girl” and plan escape, but you’ll always be back, because true freedom, more than having nothing left to lose, also means there’s no one left to control.