On “Gone Girl”’s Margins and the Dissonance of Economic Crisis

Note: This article is written based on one viewing of the film Gone Girl (2014), and it contains spoilers of both the book and the film. Commenters are welcome to contribute to this conversation with their own observations or, if the case may be, correct observations that I have remembered incorrectly.

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s new film, Gone Girl, has already produced fervent discourse about its gender politics. Its depiction of men and women doing terrible things to each other has garnered critiques of misogyny (a friend scathingly called it a poster child for Men’s Rights Activist paranoia) and misanthropy. It’s arguably one of Fincher’s bleakest—and oddly, funniest—movies, one that revels in the nastiness of relationships gone awry.

The gender politics of this film are absolutely worth debating and dissecting, but after one viewing I find myself impossible to come to a conclusion about them (which may be the point). Does its depiction of a startlingly sociopathic woman translate to a misogynist portrait of Women as Crazy Bitches? Or does it suggest a more universally cynical approach to human relationships that sees us all as fundamentally at war with each other, unable to communicate and cohabitate? You’ll forgive me if I skirt those pressing questions, but I think there is something going on beneath the currents of Gone Girl that figure it as both a film about gender difference and a film about the contingent socio-economic forces that construct our ways of being.

In a hyperbolically odd sort of way, Gone Girl is about the crushing desperation of everyday life in American late capitalism, and the ways people try to cope with, make do, and escape from an economic system that seems to have no place for them. Certainly, the film centrally portrays the importance of money for “making a living”: Nick and Amy move to Missouri only after the former loses his job and the latter loses her trust fund; Amy uses lavish spending and credit card debt to try and frame Nick; her personal savings—and the theft thereof—become a key turning point in the film.

But money and its problems float elsewhere in the film. Fincher’s opening titles have traditionally been lavish, audacious, at times microcosmic exercises: think of the bodies wrapped in computer wires in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the detailed diaries of serial killer John Doe in Se7en, or the trip through Edward Norton’s brain in Fight Club. Even in The Social Network, a scene of Mark Zuckerberg walking across Harvard’s campus becomes a way to portray social alienation—in every shot of that sequence, no character is ever walking the same direction as Mark or looking at him.

Gone Girl’s opening credits are full of emptiness and dissonance. Largely a series of shots of North Carthage empty of people and purpose, of closed businesses and dark homes with no music suturing them together, they portray a world of communities and commodities that is itself Gone. The dissonance comes from the lack of nondiegetic music structuring these shots, along with the decision to not add any consistent “room tone” between them—with every edit, the diegetic sound shifts slightly but perceptibly. From the start, this community feels incompatible with itself.

Other sequences hint at a deeper, socioeconomic crisis that ripples far beyond the marital problems of the protagonists: think, for example, of the brief scene where the film’s two chief detectives head to an abandoned shopping mall to question members of the local homeless population. The mall itself is photographed as a cavernous, destitute space—lit almost only by the detectives’ flashlights, it reminded me of something out of Fincher’s Alien3. What’s more interesting than the threatening, haunted way this emptied capitalist site is photographed is, again, the way sound is used in this scene—a homeless man audibly recites passages from the Declaration of Independence throughout the detectives’ brief interrogation. Again, we have a dissonant combination of image and sound—a haunted space, a politicized voice, and no way to ostensibly reconcile the two. Has America’s economic prosperity failed?

Part of what makes Gone Girl so fascinating is the ways it keeps these homeless populations and these socio-economic questions marginalized in the aesthetic itself. The media attention lavished on Amy’s disappearance and Nick’s status as a suspect—indeed, the movie’s attention to this plot—is thus at the expense of the broader problems of this community. That seems to be largely the point, though—the media scandals and spectacles we immerse ourselves in prohibit us from confronting systemic economic issues.

Gone Girl also traces this through its depictions of home spaces. Nick and Amy’s McMansion feels wholly empty; the neatly arranged furniture has all the personality of an IKEA display, and the lighting and shot scales routinely give the rooms a shadowy vastness. Contrast this to Amy’s modest hotel cabin, stripped of any semblance of luxury and filled instead with grime and wear. The third major domestic space belongs to Desi Collings. A high class, high-tech lake cabin, its panoptic surveillance system (its mobile surveillance system, in that Desi can access it from his phone) portrays the home as a different kind of trap. Fincher here feels like he’s playing with his set-up from Panic Room, where Jodie Foster’s wily Mama Bear manipulated a video surveillance system to outfox home intruders. Amy also learns to “control” Desi’s camera systems, but to a much darker outcome (and one that takes the gender politics of the film to their most questionable level). These are not homes to live in or to make a life in. These are spaces to fleetingly occupy, to hide in, and to invest in because of the belief that they matter. Large and empty, small and transient, lavish but disciplinary, they combine to paint a stark portrait of domestic space’s class politics in recession-era Midwestern America.

Gone Girl is very much about what it means to be forced to ‘make do’ with an oppressive system (whether or not that “system” is localized onto Amy is a discussion I am not yet prepared to have). It is about our inability to reconcile our situations with the “promise” of the American Dream—Amy’s trust fund lifestyle, her literary mirror image in her parents’ Amazing Amy books paint, and her belief in Nick as the perfect partner congeal to depict her as someone who has invested so fully in a version of what life and lived experience looks and feels like, only to be fully unable to deal with the realities of her economic and social circumstances.

Maybe it’s skirting the question to suggest that the real problem in Gone Girl is not mental illness, lack of communication, Stupid Men, or Crazy Women. The problem that underpins and unites all the above may in fact be the problem of an economic crisis without any real sense of systemic recovery. The problem is hopelessness. In this logic, it is the forces of late capitalism and their slow shattering of that mythic “American Dream” that drive us crazy.

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James N. Gilmore is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture. He received his M.A. from UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. He is the co-editor of the anthology Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital (Scarecrow Press, 2014). His current work considers the circulation of media in everyday spaces, as well as the relationship between repetition and experience in American popular culture.

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