By Jon Comulada
*MORE GONE GIRL SPOILERS AHEAD!*
The mark of a great performance, in my opinion, is a sense of believability as it’s all unfolding. It doesn’t matter if the character is a human being getting his heart broken, or an ape sparking a revolution—you must believe it every step of the way. A bad performance is when you see an actor pretending to be sad, as opposed to a character actually being sad because of emotional circumstances that arise within the context of his story. If you ever stop believing that the actor truly is the character he or she is portraying, the illusion in which you’ve paid to partake falls apart. (And indeed, a few entire films have disappointed me because of bad performances—Revenge of the Sith, to name an obvious one).
If you’ve seen David Fincher’s Gone Girl, you’ve been lucky enough to not only go on one of the best rides of this cinematic year but to also witness one of 2014’s greatest performances. The film is a twisting and turning journey that never for a second lets you know what’s coming next, while never quite being fortuitous. Its lead, the person guiding your hand around all its dark corners, is a character named Amy, and she’s played by an actress named Rosamund Pike. In Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike has to make you believe—truly believe—that she is three characters at three different times throughout the film. It’s a task that is nearly as impossible as it sounds, yet Pike does it so effectively you don’t even notice the switch is happening.
Pike’s “Amazing” Amy is a woman that disappears under mysterious and disturbing circumstances. The film opens on the first day she’s “gone” and carefully traces the events that take place both after and before her vanishing.
The first Amy we meet is Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) dream girl. We get this version of the character in flashbacks that are driven narratively by some entries in Amy’s diary. (This, we will come to find out, is an important artistic decision). We see how Nick and Amy met, we see the proposal and the early, golden years of their marriage. Through all of this we believe that Amy is the Perfect Woman.
Amazing Amy is America’s sweetheart. Nick knows it. Her parents know it. The media knows it. And the film utterly hinges on the fact that we, as the audience, know it too. This sets the table for us to constantly question not only what happened to her, but whether Nick, our protagonist, had anything to do with it. Yes, Amy is so “perfect” that many times throughout this part of the film, we are truly ready to believe that the character we think we should be rooting for has actually killed her.
However, as the story gets deeper and darker, it is eventually revealed that Amy made herself disappear, and as we flashback to see exactly how she did it, we meet our second Amy: Amy the Manipulator.
This turn gives us a couple things here story-wise. One: we see how Amy has manipulated this particular situation to not only escape her unwanted Missourian life, but to also frame her husband for murder as redemption for his adultery. We also see other characters to whom she’s done similar things, including an ex-boyfriend she framed for sexual assault. All of this radically changes our perception of Amy, because we are actually (more than halfway into the film) meeting her for the first time. This is the “real” Amy, if it can indeed be said that there is a real Amy. She’s not perfect. She makes mistakes (getting robbed by some low-life new neighbors), she gets desperate (turning to Neil Patrick Harris’ character, Desi Collings, for help) and yet she still manages to stay a step ahead of everyone, manipulating everyone and everything around her until she manages to finagle herself home safe, and still adored by the media.
During this series of events, if we ever for a second stopped believing that Amy, this character whom we’ve really just met, wasn’t capable of any of these things, the entire story would fall apart. In fact, the world of this story is predicated almost entirely on believing that Amy, this perfect woman we thought we knew an hour ago, is actually someone completely different. Pike’s performance not only makes us believe all of this, but turns it into our new, earth-shattering and deeply twisted reality.
And yet, we have even one more step, because upon Amy’s return home, Rosamund Pike owns one of the most nuanced and unimaginably complex roles I’ve seen in film. Our third Amy: Amy the Manipulator playing Amy the Perfect Woman.
Now that we know who Amy really is, we have to take all this information and watch her transform back into the Perfect Woman. As she sits in the hospital recounting to the FBI her version of the events that led to her disappearance, we don’t believe her. However, we believe that we don’t believe her. In other words, her lies have become the character’s truth. This is who she is. She is a liar with so much skill that almost no one around her can tell the difference between her lies and reality. The only thing that’s changed now, is that we can. Amy is playing a character. Not Rosamund Pike, the actress. “Amy” the character, is playing a new character. That’s an astonishing feat of acting. The character that we thought we knew in the first half of the film has been meticulously and calculatively recreated, as a shell of herself in the second half. Amy the Perfect Woman is back, but she is merely a costume worn by Amy the Manipulator.
What’s remarkable about Pike’s performance is not only the conviction with which she jumps from character to character here, but the fact that the entire film relies on you jumping with her. Amy controls this narrative at every step, and you have no choice but to follow along, caught up in her lies just like everyone else. At first we witness Amy being victimized by an abusive husband. This turns out to not be true, but before the turn, it is the absolute reality of the film. It’s a reality that Amy has created for us. Amy is afraid of Nick and we are right there along with her. We have to operate, as sympathizing viewers, based on the information we have. At the turn, we realize that the information that we have is her information. It’s been carefully crafted and planted to build up the illusion of Amy the Perfect Woman. Meeting Amy the Manipulator shows us the suffering she is capable of causing. We see the lives she has ruined in the past, and the lives she will continue to ruin. Finally, we are essentially forced to watch as Amy the Manipulator puts the mask back on, and despite everything we know, we are helpless.
All of these turns would be contrived and worthless if they didn’t have a great actress controlling them, making them feel effortless.
Rosamund Pike plays Amy the Perfect Woman.
Rosamund Pike plays Amy the Manipulator.
Rosamund Pike plays Amy the Manipulator Playing Amy the Perfect Woman.
If at any point we stop believing that she really is these characters, the world that this story has created would be without meaning. If we don’t truly believe that Amy the Perfect Woman is being abused by Nick, then the turn loses its impact. If we don’t believe that Amy the Manipulator is really capable of turning back into Amy the Perfect Woman to save face, then we are left with a character who is simply mentally undone, as opposed to meticulous and brilliant.
Really, it’s these turns which make for an incredible story, and the fact that we believe Rosamund Pike all the way through makes for a near flawless performance. If the mark of a good performance means you believe the actor really is the character, I think Pike takes it one step further. You have to believe that she is Amy, but not just one Amy. Every Amy. Because if you don’t, you have no story at all.