By Dan Poorman
Friends, Internet dwellers: There are many spoilers sprinkled throughout this essay. I have marked some in convenient BOLD CAPS. In any case, I recommend reading this thing after you have read and/or viewed Gone Girl.
In the acknowledgements of her 2009 novel Dark Places, New York Times Bestselling Author Gillian Flynn thanks her aunt and uncle for their understanding and support of her distinctly angled writing—and for it, she coins the term “gonzo feminism.”
On Flynn’s official website, under the heading “For Readers,” is a short personal essay entitled “I Was Not a Nice Little Girl…”, in which she argues for the “ferocity of women,” positing that such a thing is all too often kept hidden or made palatable by the media at large. We are so used to the presentation of men and their casual recounting of “childhood aggression,” “their disastrous immature sexuality.” Male-targeted comedies, for instance, might consistently play up “jerking off” jokes. And we just laugh and accept it. Boys will be boys, right? Cue a kind-of-hard shoulder-punch.
Flynn cites Sex and the City and its “cutie-pie spin” on the modern female openly discussing masturbation and orgasms as one attempt at dissolving the stigma, and yet, she sees this problem of unnecessary softening persisting in national reports on female criminals like Susan Smith and Andrea Yates. These are people who have drowned their children, and Flynn argues that their stories are still approached with a kind of gentleness. She writes, “We want somber asides on postpartum depression or a story about the Man Who Made Her Do It.”
But, in real life, not every murderess calls for a Lifetime movie, or even an episode of Snapped. And not every strain of violence can be attributed to some preconceived hyper-masculine influence. Violence doesn’t always sport tattooed biceps; it’s really not so discriminatory. Life’s scarier than that.
Flynn understands this, and she’s made it her mission as a writer to show us. She started in 2006 with Sharp Objects, which can boast a manuscript devoured and praised by Master of Horror Stephen King. It’s a terrifying murder mystery that places its narrator, the damaged journalist Camille Preaker, on an uncomfortable assignment in her childhood home of Wind Gap, Missouri: a land of simple country folk drenched in gossip and moonshine, and rocked by a few sinister kid-killings. Camille faces three terrible females in her time on the case: her cold and uppity mother; her all-too-mature and tyrannical thirteen-year-old half-sister; and herself, a depressed alcoholic with a deadly affinity for the “shapes” of the English language’s wickedest words—a romance that’s yielded years of self-carving. Gonzo feminism is at work constantly, as Camille pleads for the equal dismissal of evil women, and with back-handed sympathy, soliloquizes, “Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed.”
Dark Places came next, a further display of Flynn’s (a native Missourian herself) powerful personification of the American Midwest. Here’s a tale that the author charmingly promotes as one of “heavy metal, Devil worship, and farming,” and which shoes in alternating point-of-view as a trademark-Flynn device. We follow two female figures in two different time periods in Dark Places: present-day Libby Day, the sole survivor of a gruesome, axe-and-shotgun family massacre in the winter of 1985 that’s pinned on her older brother, Ben, a rumored Satanist and child molester; and Patty Day, Libby’s hard-up mother, in the days leading up to the murders. We also follow Ben Day in the ’80s, and his toxic relationship with the mysterious new-girl-in-town. SPOILER ALERT: The real villain of Dark Places is in fact not the imprisoned Ben Day; we find instead that this particularly vulnerable dude has been sold out by his own girl, a nasty, manipulative woman with whom Libby must spar at the novel’s climax. And it’s not just the narrative structure that foreshadows Gone Girl, it’s also the beautifully cynical Libby, who informs us that she is genetically at-risk of Flynnian violence in the opening line of Dark Places: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.”
So then we come to Gone Girl, which has undoubtedly garnered the most critical acclaim. I’ll admit, I was late to the party on reading it (reading all of Gillian Flynn, really) but decided to embark on the journey this fall in anticipation of the film adaptation by David Fincher.
And, just as I’d fallen in love with Flynn for Sharp Objects, I fell harder for her in Gone Girl. It’s a piece that plays, again, with timeline and point-of-view; a piece that salutes to a Gothic Midwest; a piece that fulfills Flynn’s mission to expose real people to gonzo feminism and to argue for the power in writing villainous girls. It is a bleak story, but as it is Flynn’s, it’s ornamented with an uncomfortable hilarity present not only in witty one-liners, but in overall narrative arc. Maybe a story with its tongue in its cheek, a story constantly rediscovering real-life skeletons in real-life closets, a story too good to play good-and-evil like ping-pong and then end neatly, is the scariest story ever written.
I read all 400+ pages in one day, at breakneck speed. I felt great about it, too; I felt like I was reading it how Flynn intended to write it. She has a talent for crafting cliff-hangers, for egging you on—of course, like every good horror writer is supposed to do. But there’s a class to Gone Girl that is not akin to the breed of suspense in which we engage with blockbuster action flicks or episodes of The Following. The adrenaline rush from Gone Girl is dressed in designer clothes, wrapped up with a bow, and it’s tipping over drugstore book racks like cows. These aren’t cheap thrills. They’re at the cost of you analyzing your own true-life relationships, they’re reiterating the questions Nick Dunne begs of the idea of marriage on the very first page: “How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
As a freshman in high school, I remember fearing the prospect of a girlfriend after viewing Teeth (2007). In retrospect, and now in considering Gone Girl, that was kind of stupid of me. That’s a story that explores raw femininity fairly, for sure, but which doesn’t tackle the female antihero (or, the outright female villain) with as much power as Flynn in Gone Girl.
When you read it, your pre-meditated, porcupine-cute hegemony looks in the mirror and matures. Amy Dunne’s monologue on the modern male and his quest for the unattainable “Cool Girl” (and the girls who fake it to make it) has startling resonance—but we can’t trust this speaker all the same. She’s a criminal mastermind. A criminal mastermind with good points? Nah. A criminal mastermind with radically good points; outlooks which push her to the fringes of inhumanity, ironically enough. It’s by this token that I imagine Gillian Flynn having a chortle at a bunch of white girls in scarves and Uggs picketing “Girl Power!” and writing sprawling college essays on the “Strong Female Character.” At this point, why highlight Female with a double-underline?
In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne’s showcasing her female identity to a fault, a point of murder and mayhem. My interpretation stands for a more sophisticated look at terrible people trying their hand at preaching: any ideology permits bouts of activism, but when the activism becomes framing an (otherwise) innocent person for murder, killing an innocent person and mutilating oneself simply to win, what do we have there? We just have evil. So that evil is a girl. And so, AH-HA! by law of gonzo feminism, judge her as a monster just as you’d judge a male villain—it’s a cry for equality on all fronts, a violent, exaggerated, quasi-erotic banshee roar that just as easily aligns with the importance of morality at Camp Crystal Lake; with Jason Voorhees as the hand of God—yep, here I argue that Gone Girl lends a subtle nod to the subversive, ultimately progressive qualities of good, old-fashioned horror.
And so, to me, Gillian Flynn’s a new master in the game.
Now, for fear of Nick and Amy Dunne’s twisted tale being diluted by thriller-movie tropes, I was nervous going into the film. I wanted Gone Girl to remain the messy horror story I recognized as at-home reader. My only hope was in Flynn as screenwriter, and Fincher as director (I mean, if there’s anyone to do it, it’s the man who brought us successful adaptations of Fight Club, The Social Network [from The Accidental Billionaires…], and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, plus other scary cinematic gems like Seven, Panic Room, and Zodiac).
As anyone who has both read and watched Gone Girl will tell you, the movie is a very faithful adaptation of the book. Sure, in her penning the script, Flynn counted out a few details that are more inclined for prose—the trade-off is worth it because we get more of Fincher’s lens on atmosphere; his impressive negotiation of the specifically gritty, Midwestern air of a Flynn novel.
Ben Affleck is a suitable Nick Dunne, but the real stars to me are Rosamund Pike as Amy and Carrie Coon as Margo. Pike, for obvious reasons: You need to be crafty in order to play Amy; you have to appear sweet and genuine in the first act, and you have to be the angel-faced, all-American girl (“Amazing Amy,” if you will) that an audience will immediately latch onto with all the sympathy of a newsroom on the topic of the nation’s most recently victimized woman. Then, you need to scare them. And scare them real good, by the final curtain call. I turned to my girlfriend Casey in the movie theater when a blood-drenched Pike does Amy’s triumphant return home, remarked at the amount of blood from the prior murder scene: Flynn and Fincher’s Carrie, admittedly more horrifying than I’d envisioned as I was reading the same scene in the novel.
And she remains coated in innocent blood for the next couple scenes.
Then, Coon as Margo (affectionately, “Go”) because of an effective portrayal of her middle (wo)man status in the plot. Margo Dunne, the voice of reason, Nick‘s voice of reason; the let’s-get-real, actual enemy of Amy Dunne. She’s our resident “Cool Girl,” but a special one that is not contrived as to Amy’s satisfaction. She is authentic. She is conflicted. She is compromised because of her closeness to her twin brother. She toes the line between advocate and for-shamer. She is the every(wo)man in our horror scenario; one who is just as victimized by evil at the film’s conclusion as our butt-chin hero Nick. She’s scared; she has stakes.
I really liked the movie, guys.
As we left the theater, I noticed that the shadows who’d inhabited the screening with me were comprised chiefly of couples of all ages. I remembered a TV spot for Gone Girl, heralding it as this season’s best date movie. Ha, I chuckled, Gillian must love that. Because it all boils down to the self-aware ridiculousness of it—and here I’ll return to my angle—the perfect horror narrative won’t end so nicely, and it will have entertained a part of you that perhaps lies dormant every other day of the year that you are not consuming said content. For many horror stories, it’s death, and the human fascination with mortality that keeps the industry thriving. For one like Gone Girl, it’s a more deeply human intuition: that of existing, that of assignment, to compartments like “man and wife” and “good guy” and “strong female,” of owning one’s identity so as to carry on living. Of withholding the questions about love and life that only something so radical and scary will unearth: “What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
Later that night as we cuddled in bed, Casey turned to me and said, “What if you don’t really know me; what if I’m like Amy?” It was a joke, but it held some creepy air for a moment. I turned to my imaginary diary and scrawled aloud, “This woman may truly kill me.”
Watch the particularly atmospheric first trailer for the film adaptation of Gone Girl here:
And here’s a sit-down with Gillian Flynn which took place just last year for The National Writers Series: