Friday, October 17, 2014

Gone Girl Reaction

Eric has challenged me to start blogging more, so done. First up, my response to David Fincher's latest thriller, "Gone Girl." This is the kind of review to read and discuss AFTER you’ve seen the movie. A movie like this hinges upon several spoiler-able twists, and I’m not holding anything back.

I went in to Gone Girl on the recommendation of my boyfriend, who’d read the book; Rotten Tomatoes’ score; and the trailer. I was unaware that the movie had spurred fervent online debate about whether it was pro- or anti-feminist. There are so many branches and waves of feminism at this point that any action can be heralded by one camp as pro-woman and decried by others as misogynistic. So I don’t claim to be able to reveal definitively whether this movie was good or bad for the cause of gender equality. But I would like to point out some evidence on each side of that argument, as well as point out things I thought the movie did well or poorly along the way. It’s a complicated film, and some of that is intentional.

The film opens with the idea of violence against a woman. We see Amy: beautiful, blonde, carefree, upper class, lying in some state of dishabille in a bed I probably can’t afford. And we hear Ben Affleck’s voice (is this his journal?) saying he’d like to crack open her skull to see what’s inside. With a statement like that, suspicion is placed on each of them immediately. Our hackles go up (or are meant to) in defense of this woman, but we also know that this statement is telling us she keeps secrets. Logged that away.

Then we get a scene with dialogue, and for the first time I am worried. As Ben Affleck talks to his sister, we realize this is going to be a cute movie. We’re not going for realism here, we’re going for clever and cute, with characters speaking quirky lines so rapidly they look like they don't know what’s going on. “What’s up, Jitters?” says the sister, because the writer does not trust her actor to be able to portray nervousness. Lots of cleverness with the board games “Mastermind” and “Life” (What, no “Clue?”). This might as well be called Gone Gilmore Girl at this point.

Then something about a missing wife, and then we flashback to our first real scenes with Amy, and there are bigger problems. Off the bat Amy is portrayed as distant and calculating. We believe that Ben Affleck is in love with this woman because he tells us he is, and because she is pretty and we accept the conventions of film. We see her essentially telling the audience that she was raised in the shadow of a fictionalized version of herself written by her mother in a series of children’s books. Why doesn’t this actress act like she cares about anything? Neal, who knew where this was headed, felt she did a good job of portraying the character as a sociopath. I don’t disagree, but I think a real sociopath would probably be better about pretending to have normal emotions, and this actress seemed to spend all of her energy on pretending she didn’t. You got it wrong, blonde generic actress. I’m calling you out on it.

And then we get our first of many discussions about Amy’s genitals, when Ben Affleck interrupts an interview with a bunch of book reviewers to make an official statement to the press about his girlfriend’s “world class vagina.” Naturally, Amy is flattered; everyone is charmed. She agrees to marry him, not bothered in the least that this is only happening because of her mother’s orchestrations through the children’s books.

Much to the movie’s credit, after those early scenes with Amy, I didn’t really think about the glibness of the writing, and besides Amy the characters got a lot more fleshed out and natural. The next section of the movie threw a few twists at us in an attempt to make us question the innocence of our protagonist. He has an affair; his wife reveals that he was violent toward her. Cool, so we’re spending a lot of time on this, which means to me that clearly he’s innocent. Occam’s razor should never apply in a thriller. And really there was never a moment when I thought that maybe Ben Affleck had killed his wife. I was pretty sure from the beginning that she was staging the whole thing, but even that seemed a little obvious. I also considered the idea that they had been in cahoots for the insurance money. When they discovered a lot of blood, I finally believed that maybe Amy was dead, but I never thought Affleck might be behind it.

And then Amy wasn’t dead. I thought the movie was over, and felt a little cheated by how easy it had been to see what was coming. But then I realized Neil Patrick Harris hadn’t been in this movie yet, and I was like WHUUUUT this is only half over. So from here on out I was very engaged in the intricate plotting of the movie. One of the most impressive feats it pulled off was the fact that with each new twist, all of the previous clues still worked. It was clockwork, and I loved it.

Here’s where we run into feminist problem #1. So we’re seeing Amy as Not a Victim. Wonderful. We have a lot of movies already if we want to watch privileged white women as victims of violence. Nice to see this movie portray a Strong Female Character instead, right? After all the movies where men take advantage of women, we’ve turned the tables! But I couldn’t quite rejoice. You see, Amy is not destructively strong in this movie. She is destructively weak. This isn’t a woman who has turned the tables by raping and murdering men. Instead she keeps the tables where they are by falsely accusing men of raping and murdering her. Throughout the destructive swath she cuts across the men in her lives, she exerts her power by maintaining her status as victim.

And we HATE her for it. I mean, we hated her already--don’t get me wrong. When Amy gets her head knocked against the wall and gets ripped off by a lower-class neighbor, we are elated. I’m afraid poor Amy had lost us long ago, if not by being icy cold from the start, then at least by the scene where she insists that losing almost a million dollars is just “background noise.” This is a woman whose problems range from “having to give back a lot of the trust” fund to “not really relating to the small-town neighbors.” I am annoyed that movie succeeded in making me briefly wish for a violent end for this woman.

Of course I have to compare Gone Girl to Alien at this point. Ridley Scott once explained that he made Alien in part to help men understand the terror of getting raped. They designed the alien to look like a big penis, had it penetrate the men, and then after a gestation period its offspring would come ripping its way out of the victim. It’s very effective, and plays off of an extant human fear of sexual violation and unwilling procreation. The most effective horror movies tap into fears we already have, which is how we get horror films about clowns and viruses and dogs and foreign travel and midgets. And when we look at the horror in Gone Girl, we see that this movie is fundamentally the opposite of Alien. It plays off of not the fear of sexual violation, but the fear of being accused of sexual violation. Any men’s rights activist could watch the scene where some deadbeat talks about how being falsely accused of rape has ruined his life and think, “Oh man, that could happen to me because women are psycho bitches.” The fear that feminism is secretly trying to destroy men is one that we should be fighting to expel from the social subconscious, not reinforce with movies.

Not that we have to see this movie and believe it. An educated audience can still enjoy the twists and turns of this film and then go home and learn for him or herself that only a very small minority of rape accusations prove to be false. We can understand that this movie’s twist is in making the ending the less likely outcome wherein the man was innocent and the woman falsely accused him. We can remember that in the real-life event that gave this story its inspiration, Scott Peterson really did murder his wife. OR we can take the less enlightened path and the next time we hear that someone has been raped or sexually harassed, we can assume that they had it coming or that they exaggerated the facts. That is a dangerous course to take, and thus my apprehensions about Gone Girl. The media are rife with examples of victim blaming. Ask anyone who’s had to report sexual misconduct of any kind: that kind of thinking is already prevalent and harmful.

As the movie enters its third act, Ben Affleck keeps being Ben Affleck (meaning we are aware of what a skeeze he is and we wonder how his charms seem to work on everyone else in this world. I mean, didn’t people see this, a year into his marriage with Jennifer Garner?). The supporting cast puts in a pretty universally great set of performances, including Tyler Perry and especially the 7 or 8 women with interesting characters to play, so we’ll give this movie some more feminist points for that. And Amy takes her game to new levels. In the most shockingly gore-nographic (did I just coin that? [Oh, I just googled it, and no.]) scene I’ve seen since Prometheus, she sex murders Neil Patrick Harris and once again makes it look like she was the victim. Which, can I just say that if Ben Affleck has been aware this whole time that she had a “stalker,” and that stalker even showed up at the search for her body, why did he tell the police to look into the homeless people in the area? And on that note why did he not just tell the police about his suspicion? Or about the trove in the woodshed? Or even move the stuff out of the woodshed? Why don't any of these characters' accents match? /endrant

Back to Amy’s vagina, which is where the movie wants us to go. Among her many crimes, she mutilates her world-class vagina with a wine bottle. We hear the lie that NPH had shaved her down there against her will. And in the climactic scene of the movie, in a final act of unwitting desperate synecdoche, Ben Affleck finally calls her a “fucking cunt” while slamming her head once again into the wall. So here we go again, in one move wrapping up the film’s twin running motifs of bashing out Amy’s brains and reducing her to her sex organs. And Strong Female Character Amy’s reaction? She agrees with him: “I’m the cunt you married.” Then they say “cunt” a bunch more, and yes, we get the point. Women are scary and play up their victim status. Men are hapless cheaters and oppressors, but in the act of accusation, women escalate the game beyond what is fair or deserved. All of this is marriage, and we will all find ourselves trapped in this mind game of violence and secrets and dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, briefly, this movie does subvert the age-old gender trappings in one important regard. In the final moments of the film, Ben Affleck ends up trapped in a marriage to an abusive partner because of his lack of prospects, lack of income, and his concern for the child they’re making (which, where did this baby come from? Is this Neil Patrick Harris’ baby?) But that’s pretty clever, as historically many women have found themselves stuck in that position. That’s a pretty good argument for this movie taking a feminist stance. Even the vagina fixation could be seen as an attempt to de-mystify female sexuality, to make the topic of the vagina less taboo. I support that.

So which column do we put this movie in? The author, Gillian Flynn, describes herself as feminist. That’s a good sign. Then again, my grandparents would describe themselves as not racist. Flynn also said about writing this novel and screenplay, "I've grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionista that stock so many books." If the maker of the film herself is tired of brave rape victims, maybe this isn't someone we should be listening to. As long as sexual violence exists, we need to be actively fighting against it, championing the cause of its victims. It's not a time to lie down and declare ourselves tired of their cause and start producing whatever socially unconscionable art we deem interesting or twisty or money-making.

So did I enjoy this movie? I did. The score, the plot, most of the acting, the art direction really elevated this story. But I did not agree with this movie. If I trusted every audience member to make that same distinction, I could feel better about recommending Gone Girl.

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