Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl Subverts the "Woman in Peril" Genre. I Love It.

I would like, for a moment, to transport you all back two days to Saturday, when I was leaving my local movie theater and walking the fifty feet to my car after having seen Gone Girl. As I gently stepped through the wooded parking lot (setting the mood, okay?), I found myself softly repeating a single word.

"WHAT. What. What? WHAAAAAAAAAT? What."

Exactly like that. This continued through the process of unlocking my car, sitting down, turning the key, and starting driving. I think I realized I was doing it aloud about five minutes into the drive. I still have no idea if I was saying this audibly while I was still in the theater. If I was, I like to think that the people there understood and forgave me.

Suffice to say, I found the ending of Gone Girl a little bit perplexing. Awesome, to be sure, but kind of strange. Good strange. I really liked it. I just sort ever come out of a movie feeling vaguely like you've been hit over the head with a steel pipe and you have a rather pleasant concussion? Like that. Exactly like that.

Now, admittedly, I haven't read the original novel by Gillian Flynn. I'll be honest and say that I didn't read it in part because it was (is) super popular. I rarely read realistic fiction to begin with, and a novel about a nice white lady who disappears and whose husband is suspected of murdering her sounded precisely not up my alley. Also I might have kept getting it confused with Wild, which I am now aware is totally different, and the real life disappearance of Laci Peterson. I'm not good at remembering this kind of stuff.

Anyway, I hadn't read the book, so everything in the movie came as a complete shock to me, and I mean that in the best possible way. As I'm sure you've realized, I watch a lot of movies, and I have my Master's degree in understanding them. It's pretty rare for a story to take me by surprise these days. And I don't mind that. I take pride in guessing the endings or twists of books. It's fun.

But it's more fun when someone really does manage to get me. There's this sense that I'm in expert hands. I like it. I feel safe. Or rather, pleasantly unsafe. If that's a thing.

That's about all I can say about this film without starting to give away the major spoilers. For those of you out there who, like me, didn't read the book and have no idea what you're getting into, I'll just say that, yes, it does feel like your average "woman in peril" movie, but only for the first half. The second half is pure psychological thriller/black comedy, and it's amazing. So stick with it.

For those of you who've either seen the movie, don't care about spoilers, or have read the book, meet me after the page break.

So, I hate "woman in peril" movies. They're a big pet peeve of mine, if a film genre can be considered a pet peeve. I really hate the idea of a whole form of storytelling that revolves around the outdated concept of feminine weakness and danger. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good movie about a female protagonist in tough situations. That's a different matter. What I mean is that I really don't like movies that are about sweet, nice women whose terrible husbands/boyfriends/fathers are abusive and bad and mean and they're in danger until some nice man can come along and save them. I hate those movies.

Gone Girl takes those movies and rips them to shreds, then uses the same cliches and tropes from those films to create a moving and surprising narrative that completely subverts the genre expectations.

I'm in love.

The first half of the movie really isn't worth talking about in any real critical sense. Not that it's not good - it serves a clear and necessary purpose - but because it's not nearly as interesting as the midpoint on. Still, let's get this clear. The first half of the film establishes this movie as existing within the woman in peril framework. It sets the stage. 

Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is a sweet, gentle, lovely woman. She's beautiful, blonde, Ivy League educated, polite, and missing. On the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappeared while setting up a cute scavenger hunt for her husband, as per their tradition.

Her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), is a schlubby, spineless, brooding beta male, who makes it clear from his first line that he really doesn't like his wife. He has just enough heft to look really threatening if he wants to, his marriage is fraught with money troubles, and he's cheating on his wife with a college student. 

Nick Dunne looks super guilty, and only continues to look moreso throughout the first half. From smiling during a press conference about his wife's disappearance to hiding evidence to the voiceover narration from Amy's diary, it's clear that Amy Dunne was a nice sweet lady whose terrible brute of a husband might have done her in.

That is, of course, until Nick manages to put the pieces together and the audience realizes that not only is Amy not dead, she's just messing with all of us. Literally. She faked the whole thing, the crime scene, the disappearance, the blood on the floor, to make Nick look guilty and to make him suffer for what she considers her "murder". That, of course, being the horrific sin of asking her to move to Missouri and to love him unconditionally. Also the cheating on her thing, but that seems mostly an afterthought.

What makes this transition work isn't just that it's shocking, which it is, but also that it throws into question all of the facts we've previously been accepting as rote. The voiceover from her diary? Mostly lies that she wrote in order to implicate Nick. The clues he's been hiding? A twisted game she was playing with him all along. The money troubles? Created by Amy in order to give Nick a motive. Heck, the pregnancy that made her incredibly sympathetic and even more archetypal? Faked, with the unwitting help of a pregnant door neighbor and her urine sample.

In other words, all of the woman in peril tropes that we'd been casually checking off on the list were actually machinations of the woman in question. Amy Dunne isn't in peril. She's completely in control of her situation, and also a freaking psychopath.

As the movie goes on, and devolves into a terrifying cat and mouse game where both Nick and Amy are trying to take the other down from a distance and without revealing what they're doing to outsiders, the use of tropes to dismantle the narrative becomes even more skillful. At one point, Amy, having been robbed of her cash reserves, calls an old boyfriend for help.

It's a scene you've watched in dozens of these movies (usually based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, right?), where the woman tearfully tells this handsome rescue stud about her abuse and how horrible it was, and he tells her that she's safe now. Only, instead of being relieved, you're terrified as an audience. Not for the woman, but because of her. She is the single most threatening person in the film. You have no idea what she's going to do next.

By the time the movie has dragged you, screaming, to its conclusion and the existential horror has fully gripped your numb body, the trope has been very successfully subverted. Where in your usual woman in peril movie a final shot of the lead actress, blonde and beautiful, laying her head on her husband's chest and gazing dreamily up into his eyes would evoke calm, because she's finally found the right guy, in this movie, it's horrifying. That shot, with Amy's big eyes gazing up at Nick, is the single most frightening moment in the film. Because you have no idea what is going on in her head. And you really don't want to.

So, yeah. This movie is an alarmingly successful destruction of the trope. But it's also, impressively, not a sexist screed against women. It would have been easy for the film to fall into that trap, but it doesn't. Yes, Amy is a man-eating harpy who needs to be stopped, but that's not because she's a woman, it's because she's crazy. Fortunately, there are a lot of other women in the movie. Amy doesn't stand in for all of woman-kind, she's just a person.

I mean, you've got all of these different representations of femininity. From Nick's awesome sister Margo (Carrie Coon), to the lead detective on the case (Kim Dickens), to Amy's overbearing and aristocratic mother (Lisa Banes), to Nick's college age girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski), to the Nancy Grace style newswoman committed to taking Nick down (Missi Pyle), to the nosey pregnant neighbor that Amy "befriended" (Casey Wilson), to the talk show host who finally gives Nick a chance (Sela Ward), to the girl who'll sympathize with you and steal your money (Lola Kirke). 

All of these women are complex, interesting, and completely different from each other. So Amy doesn't feel like a statement about the nature of women, she just feels like a statement on the nature of one woman in particular. One very scary, very messed up woman.

See, the real reason I hate woman in peril movies isn't so much that the women are kind of wussy or that they need to be rescued, or even that I find the tropes kind of grating. No, the real reason is that when I watch those movies, the women in them never feel like people to me. Like, they're so pure and so innocent and so good, they clearly cannot be human.

And it's important to remember that putting someone on a pedestal is another form of dehumanization. It's got a better face on it, but it's still degradation. When you idolize someone or when you demonize them, in both cases you are denying that they are human, like you. You are making them other. I hate woman in peril movies because they're not about human beings. They're about beautiful mirages that need to be saved. And that's just not healthy.

By making Amy the acting agent in her own disappearance, by making her almost preternaturally good at controlling her circumstances, the movie does more than make a really good thriller. It shows that women are capable of evil too. In most woman in peril movies, the women are uncomplicatedly good. Amy Dunne isn't. She's kind of basically the devil, but it's a compelling evil. She shows how much we need to see everyone, for better or worse, as human.

I have so much I could keep saying about this movie, but I really need to wrap it up. A few final points: Tyler Perry is great and hilarious in his role as Nick's defense attorney, and I hope he does more roles like this in the future. Neil Patrick Harris is alarming and sad as a jilted boyfriend vying to win back the girl of his dreams. Also, Patrick Fugit is surprisingly good as a dubious detective, but I spent most of the movie marveling at how much he looks like Jerry O'Connell now. It's weird, right? 

All of the actors are doing basically the best performances of their careers, and the direction and writing are freaking awesome. David Fincher as usual makes the film look and feel as creepy as it should, and Gillian Flynn seems to be the rare novelist who can write a decent screenplay. So props to her. 

I'm sure I'll write more about this movie at some point. It's that kind of film. But for now, I think this is what I've got. Gone Girl really, really surprised me. It deconstructed a genre I've always hated and explained to me exactly why the genre is problematic. And it left me standing in a parking lot saying, "What?"

What's not to love?


  1. I do wish it had subverted it without becoming a screed straight from the MRA wankblogs, though.

    Yes, Amy is a man-eating harpy who needs to be stopped, but that's not because she's a woman, it's because she's crazy.

    And since crazy people are also targeted by violence narratives while being disproportionate vitims of violence, I can't say this makes all the difference.

    So this is one of those few times we disagree. My opinion is of the book rather than the film, but my loathing of it is pretty much boundless.

    1. Eh, that's fair. I thought this article did a good job explaining the story.

  2. I highly recommend this book and Gillian Flynn's other two books Sharp Objects and Dark Places. All three are amazing, focusing on women who are complex and compelling. These were all books that I stayed up all night to finish.