David Fincher’s Gone Girl betrays the crucial balance of Gillian Flynn’s novel

Note: This article discusses major plot details of Gone Girl, both the book and the film.

Can you ever really know someone? Can you ever really trust them? These are the central questions posed by Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s mega-bestseller about how we love now. Flynn applies this existential quandary to the state of the modern marriage, one affected both by changing gender roles and the economic downfall. Nick, a successful men’s magazine writer living in New York, grows apart from his socialite wife, Amy, following his layoff and their move to Missouri after the sudden passing of his mother. As we learn, however, it might take one recession to start a fight, but it takes two to destroy a marriage.

After Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary, two years into their period of low-simmering enmity, Nick is forced to confront a simple truth: He hates his wife, and he’s glad she’s gone. Does that make him a monster? In the eyes of the media, led by a caricature of Nancy Grace, he’s an ideal whipping boy, a yuppie Mephistopheles who can’t stop smiling for the cameras while the search party drags the river for his wife’s corpse. Flynn’s book certainly gives us no shortage of reasons to hate Nick, who sank the remainder of his wife’s trust fund money into a failing bar, only to decide that he wants to divorce her when someone younger comes along.

But as we find out in narrative flashbacks, Amy is no saint herself. Amy’s own version of the proceedings is framed by her diary entries, a too-neat narrative that spins a tale of marital bliss devolving into psychological horror. As she begins to wonder if her husband will kill her, we begin to wonder how full of shit she is. Instead of a single unreliable narrator, Gillian Flynn gives us two: a pair of professional liars whose narrative battle of the sexes proves not that either side is correct but that these two hideous souls deserve each other. Gone Girl is less War Of The Roses than Spy Vs. Spy.

For the most part, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a faithful adaptation of Flynn’s breathlessly twisty plot, one that streamlines the book into a two-and-a-half hour descent into madness. But whose madness is it? One of the refreshing things about Gone Girl is that despite its Fatal Attraction veneer, it refuses to cast Amy as a villain—or worse, another “crazy bitch.” If she’s driven to unspeakable acts in her quest for marital revenge, it’s because Nick drove her to the edge. Like an 80-year-old woman looking at photos of herself at a school dance, she seems to be saying, “You should have met the girl I used to be.”

One of the most powerful (and oft-quoted) sections of Flynn’s novel details the pressures that women feel to conform to men’s expectations, presenting a better version of themselves that men might like: The “cool girl.” Amy explains, “Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

While Flynn, who wrote the film’s screenplay, keeps Amy’s feminist leanings intact—presented in the film through voiceover—Fincher ditches the dual subjectivity that gives her critique power. In the book, there is no such thing as truth. There is no one you can trust. In the movie, Nick might be a liar, a cheat, and an overall bastard, but he didn’t kill his wife, and for Fincher, that seems to be good enough. Instead of Flynn’s competing pair of antagonists, battling for the reader’s sympathies, the movie pulls a different trick: It looks like Nick is guilty, until he becomes the film’s beleaguered hero, searching for anyone on his side.

The film provides an important clue to its stance on the Nick versus Amy debate. In the novel, Nick’s sister, Margo, provides a crucial sounding board. But the Gone Girl film uses Margo not just in that capacity, but also as a surrogate for the audience, directing our sympathies. As Margo begins to question her twin brother’s innocence, the viewer does the same. How much do we know about Nick, anyway? But as the plot slowly exonerates him of Amy’s murder, Margo eventually comes back to Team Nick as her initial supposition is proved right: Amy is just another bitch.

This isn’t the first time that Fincher has struggled with the inner life of his female characters. While The Social Network overtly functioned as a critique of the misogynistic underpinnings of the Facebook revolution, its most narratively prominent woman was an unstable girlfriend who sets a trash can on fire. In Fight Club, Marla Singer spends most of the film being insulted, emotionally abused, neglected, and/or raped by her schizophrenic boyfriend, only to be trapped in a toxic relationship with him when he blows up the world. If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo offered a step forward for Fincher, Gone Girl takes it right back.

It’s a particularly troubling regression considering the cultural moment in which Fincher’s film is being released. On May 23, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger shot and killed six people because he felt rejected by women, and his digital footprint details his feelings of isolation and frustration in a world he felt was slipping away from him. Earlier this February, Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice assaulted his girlfriend in an elevator; his employers originally suspended him for two games before suspending him indefinitely due to public pressure seven months later.

This is the same milieu that told Jennifer Lawrence she “deserved” to have naked photos of herself leaked onto the Internet, after they were stolen from her phone and made public, and it’s one that Flynn engages with head on. In the novel, Nick fights the misogynistic culture he was born into, embodied by his father, who views women as “stupid, inconsequential, irritating.” Whenever Nick has an altercation with a woman he doesn’t like, he hears his father’s words in his head (“dumb bitch”), and he tunes them out. But in Fincher’s version, it’s like Nick has started listening.

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