David Fincher is a master of directing films and TV dramas with slightly unhinged and nihilistic protagonists. Films such as Fight Club, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the wonderful Utopia on Channel 4, all share an anti-hero or villainous counterpart with psychotic impulses and a largely misanthropic perspective of human nature. At times, these narratives might trick us into actually rooting for the maniac who is largely misunderstood, or whose troubled past explains, and in part excuses, any social disorder of the present. With Gone Girl, however, it is pretty clear that the criminal at the core of the narrative is a clear-cut psychopath without any redeeming qualities. Gone Girl is a very subtle, yet gritty portrayal of the malice which develops early on in a marriage strained by financial difficulties and infidelity. But this malice has a murkier quality than most relationship struggles. Beneath the poise, there is a black hole right at the heart of this character which annihilates affection and skillfully evades detection.
Gone Girl begins when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has gone missing from their home in Missouri. But has she been taken, or has she uprooted her life of her own accord? Parts of the house are in disarray but then the whole thing seems staged. Once the police and the media are involved, it is clear that everyone is anxious to direct their mistrust toward someone, and Nick is the target; ultimately because of his inability to express emotional distress at the right moment in every interview, press conference and at the scene of the crime. Psychopathy is a recurring theme in the film and it is not concentrated in one character alone. Early on we learn that Amy has always attracted a string of admirers, some of them morbidly obsessive and, allegedly, violent in nature toward her. Nick’s fastidious behaviour and his mounting aggression toward the police are indicators perhaps of an abusive husband. But equally, how are Amy’s parents anything other than sociopaths? They have turned Amy’s life into a fictional book, Amazing Amy, the character of which is always ‘one step ahead’ of the real Amy as she herself claims. Having made their fortune from this, they frequently use her commercial success to overshadow Amy’s life and she becomes instrumental in raising public awareness of their product. Even the campaign for recovering the real Amy seems suddenly to serve her parent’s interests in promoting the fictionalised one, and they revel in the spotlight as calculating business partners as well as crestfallen parents.
Extracts from Amy’s diary lead us into flashbacks which establish the origins of her relationship with Nick. He approaches her at a party and his method of impressing her is to sneer at the clichéd routines of the other males there, reading their body language to her as though he himself is immune to social commentary. Their relationship takes off in this vein, always with the pair of them discounting other relationship clichés in the belief that they themselves have an unorthodox and novel approach to romance. Amy is beautiful, witty and articulate, but she is also acerbic, scathing and spiteful. This unfolds with neat precision, and her diary, riddled with expletives and caustic remarks, is one of the features that lets us in on her chronic dissatisfaction with married life. She also uses increasingly manic tactics to keep the spark alive in their relationship; having sex in a public library being one of them.
Their marriage is a fractured thing when Nick becomes unemployed during a recession and Amy’s parents find themselves in debt, using her savings to make up for lost revenue. When Amy is finally gone and basically checks herself out of marriage, it seems like she is fully able to drop the facade she’s always carried to protect her from an empty life, because she can’t maintain it for someone who drops his act first and Nick has already fallen into the forbidden behavioural patterns Amy was so afraid of in marriage: irresponsibility, idleness and (the worst one of all) indifference. I think the brilliance of the film is the gradual way in which the collapse of their relationship unfolds. The non-linear structure of the film aligns the current investigation, in which Amy has left Nick a string of ‘clues’ to find her, with the preceding events that shape her absence, all of which are narrated with Rosamund Pike’s voiceover. Pike is utterly brilliant as Amy, giving her a brittle edge and a carefully withheld animosity, all concealed under an English Rose disguise. It isn’t just that she’s high maintenance. She has a dangerously low tolerance for apathy and Nick’s inability to keep up his end of the marital facade – that of the fun-loving, extroverted couple – makes her harden against him. A secret affair with a young girl (Emily Ratajkowski) is the final tipping point. Amy begins to plot against him with a Machiavellian ruthlessness that releases her from her humiliation, all of which she attributes to Nick and her fictitious alter-ego, Amazing Amy, whom she thought Nick had rescued her from.
In the second half, we discover that what seems like insensitivity on Nick’s part toward his absent wife is actually relief. It’s a film which focuses on female sadism for once. Not once does Amy actually physically hurt Nick, but she’s an expert in mind games and plays the female victim card with ease. I don’t want to give too much of the plot twists away, naturally. The film may have a long running time but the narrative motors on without stopping for a rest and you can’t take your eyes off Rosamund Pike as Amy.