My tiny blog is currently experiencing something like an 800% increase in traffic due to “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism,” which has been linked to on a number of sites, including the msmagazine.com blog and The Guardian. I’m extremely proud of that piece, so it’s quite gratifying that so many other people have found it useful. I hope that continues to be the case.
That said, “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism” was pretty much the only serious feminist critique of Gone Girl for at least a year, and has consistently gotten the most hits/comments on my dumb little blog. What I’m saying is: Hey media outlets, Gawker, etc. My name is Robert Palmer. I’m totally available to write feminist stuff for you. Call me. Please.
Anyway, it seemed only natural to supplement the initial novel review with a review of the film that was released this past Friday. If you’ve read the novel, my initial review, and you’ve seen the movie, you’ll notice that there’s not much that’s different. I stand by that review, and I think the critiques apply equally well to the film. Everything that was so troubling about the novel (the multiple false rape accusations, the pregnancy-as-trap plotline) is still there and still draws from grossly misogynistic stereotypes.
One thing that intrigued me is that the script has been scrubbed of references to feminism. There are no jabs at “post-feminist” men, and Amy doesn’t sarcastically label her parents as feminist while describing how they exploited her childhood. I know Flynn has been besieged by feminist critique, so I wonder if she opted to leave out the word altogether, or if it was something that just didn’t make the cut.
I think Gone Girl is a spectacular film, probably one of the best of the year. This shouldn’t be surprising, because despite all of my problems with the novel, I really enjoyed parts of it, which I pointed out in the original review. I say this only to highlight that it’s important to understand that folks are capable of being deeply critical of a thing, while also really enjoying or even loving that thing. It’s a simple point, but it’s one that a lot of folks miss.
Over at Jezebel, Jessica Coen argues that “Movie Amy pales in comparison,” and this fact “does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel.” I think there is something to this — Book Amy is sometimes inscrutable and often full of contradictions; those moments are (predictably) somewhat lost in translation. This makes some of Amy’s decisions feel more bizarre in the movie (though I’m not sure how much more). If Coen’s problem is that Amy feels like a “crazy fucking bitch” in the movie, I think 99% of that is coming right from the novel, honestly.
Overall, I’d actually argue that the movie improves on Amy. This improvement has a lot to do with the difference between the mediums. In film, you’re interpreting through a lot of layers, including the script, actors’ performances, and the direction, among other things. This is basically my way of saying that Rosamund Pike’s performance is magnificent, and it totally elevates Amy to another level. One of the things that struck me most about Pike’s performance was the voice she chose; it feels, at times, utterly ethereal, going a long way to support the idea that Amy lives on some other fucked up plane of existence. At the same time, that otherworldliness is backed up by a kind of sternness, the whisper of a threat. In my review of the novel, I said that Amy wasn’t “an interesting or compelling villain,” but Pike’s performance brings so much life to Amy that she finally becomes that great villain.
But Pike is doing great work in a movie filled with exceptional performances. Affleck hasn’t been allowed to be this interesting in a while, though I was never a detractor. He has to do some complicated bits of acting here — working through several emotions at once, or displaying emotion even as he’s trying to suppress it. Affleck’s best moments are when he gets to reveal how awful Nick actually is; his sleazy smile at the initial press conference is a highlight. Carrie Coons makes Margo feel absolutely essential in a way the character didn’t feel at all in the novel, while Tyler Perry gives a great turn as sleazy smart attorney, Tanner Bolt. And finally, Kim Dickens delivers a charming and smart performance as the film’s lead detective.
As I said, the film and the novel are not all that different. This is a remarkably faithful adaptation — something that doesn’t always work, but it works perfectly here. I don’t have a lot negative to say about it. The bits that were gross in the novel are still gross here, softened a bit by my distance from the novel and by the general strength of the filmmaking.
Most of the negative things I have to say concern the response the film has received from various critics. There’s been a real rush to label the movie as “trash” or “trashy” (in a complimentary way), or to note that it’s pulpy, or that it’s an adaptation of a “beach read.” I’ve really been trying to make sense of this over the last few days. What is so trashy about Gone Girl that we can end up with a headline like this?
I’m being serious here. Would we ever get a headline like that about other films, like The Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier? I’m zeroing in on Marvel, because their movies are pretty much at the height of pop cultural relevance, but despite the fact that they’re often silly, meaningless, and relatively hollow, no one ever really acknowledges that, and no one really ever calls them trash.
But I think they are trash, especially if we’re taking “trash” to mean “silly or excessive spectacle/genre material done exceptionally well.” The Marvel movies might be the height of pop culture trash. They follow the same factory-line formula, and despite some compelling performances and strong character interactions, they’re often really empty experiences that are just building to bigger spectacles. What do they have to say about anything, other than, like, selflessness is important? In fact, they often studiously avoid saying anything at all, like in The Winter Soldier*. It might seem like I’m being a bit hyperbolic and unfair here, and I am, but no more so than the folks who rushed to dump this label on Gone Girl.
I think this reaction is tainted by a kind of privilege, particularly because most of these critics are men. The impulse to, for example, call Gone Girl a “trash masterpiece,” while completely avoiding terms like that for almost every other pop culture experience, has to stem from a kind of sexism. All of these male-centered properties get a pass, but the “beach read,” the book and movie that have a large female audience, have to be immediately qualified. Our enjoyment of them has to be explained and rationalized.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I will say it again: Despite its gross misogyny, Gone Girl is exceedingly well-written and has insightful things to say about marriage and relationships. They may not be original observations, but “original” is a pretty high bar to clear. What matters to me is that those observations are thoughtful and the manner in which they are presented is compelling. You might think that the misogyny, or the increasingly silly second half of the novel, detracts from all of that. And that’s fine. So do I, to some extent. But not enough to ignore the parts that really work.
And they do really work. Much of what is substantive in the film — the insights into how people hurt each other, the critique of the media, the idea that things become true if you just say them well enough and at the right time— all of that is in the novel. I love Fincher’s work, but I imagine the strength of Flynn’s novel, as well as her screenwriting credit, are what prevented this movie from being another blue-grey, emotionally cold disaster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Gone Girl is really the perfect post-feminist novel. It uses and restates feminism, only to devour it and vomit it back up as some kind of gross distortion of itself. In that way, the novel only underlines how important feminist critique is. It seems like the critical reaction to the film also underlines that importance. While there have been pieces on the film’s misogyny (as if the book isn’t really popular and also 2+ years old), still other pieces have ignored gender altogether, or have been uncritically condescending. In these moments, it seems as if strong, thoughtful feminist critique is as important as ever.
*The Winter Soldier builds a critique of surveillance and extrajudicial government powers only to end with “Fantasy Nazis did it.”
*Another bothersome thing about some of the reactions to the film: the bizarre laughing at Tyler Perry, divorced from any actual critique of him. Look, we all know Tyler Perry is gross, and his films play uncomfortably on racist and sexist stereotypes, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what people are laughing at. It feels like they (white critics) are laughing at the silly black guy who makes movies with black people that they don’t understand.