Dialogues: David Fincher's "Gone Girl"

A discussion from the New York Film Festival on David Fincher's cinematic adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel.
Daniel Kasman, Doug Dibbern

From the New York Film Festival, Doug Dibbern and Daniel Kasman continue our series of festival dialogues. David Fincher's Gone Girl had its world premiere as the opening night film of the festival.

DANIEL KASMAN: I'm glad to be discussing this film, which opened the New York Film Festival on Friday, with you Doug. Several friends and acquaintances of mine in the film world are either unduly fascinated by director David Fincher (along with Steven Soderbergh, brothers in cinema, I'd say) while an equal part seemingly has no interest in him whatsoever. I don't believe we've ever talked about him before, so I'd be curious to know what you thought of his work, and especially his work over the last decade or so, after Fight Club.

To get to Gone Girl, which revolves around the case of a missing bottle-blonde housewife in Missouri, Amy (Rosamund Pike), and how suspicion—that of the audience, the town, and of crappy television media—revolves around her hunky husband Nick (Ben Affleck), I must say upfront that discussing this movie relies on spoilers of both Gillian Flynn's novel (which she adapted herself for the film), which I haven't read, and the film, both of which feature major narrative twists. So for those who interested in being surprised: read no further!

Rather than discuss the film straight off, I thought I'd throw another movie at you, as I thought of several movies while watching this long, morphing beast—it's variably at least two procedurals told at once, a cynical romance, a dark comedy, a portrait of sociopathology and of a particularly sick marriage. That movie is one of my favorites of the maligned American films by Fritz Lang, The Blue Gardenia. It's conceived around a single concept: the possibility of being a murderer. Anne Baxter goes on a date with a typically (for this era) violent Raymond Burr, he mauls her, she blacks out, and when she awakens he is dead. Did she kill him? She must have. The rest of the narrative proceeds under the assumption that this decent girl is a killer. Later, of course, it's revealed she was not, but for a long spell the movie operates under this fog of what if, to such a degree even Baxter's character thinks the capacity is within her. This is the terrifying haze that permeates a key film connected to Gone Girl as well, Hitchcock's Suspicion, another sinister what if: what if that handsome man you were so charmed by is actually capable of, and desires to, kill you?

Gone Girl similarly opens this gulf; its elaborate narrative technique involving flashbacks that may or not be imagined and fragmented scenes of the present destabilize our ability to nail down who Nick and Amy really are, what they really think or did. The game playing, the shifting audience awareness and sympathies between characters, is constantly being toyed with through the two and a half hour runtime of the film for this precise reason, this possibility. If Eyes Wide Shut—another touchstone of this film—opened up this gulf that my faithful spouse can cheat in her/his dreams and dreams and reality are interchangable!, the Fincher-Flynn film, taking Kubrick's comedic tone and cynical irony even further, exchanges "faithful" for "asshole," "cheat" for "kill," and the sense of dreaminess with a more modern sense of playing a part for those around you.

DOUG DIBBERN:  Fun to be talking to you, too. I think I’d categorize myself as one of those people who has no interest in Fincher whatsoever. I’ve only seen about half of his main features, partly because he strikes me as more of a metteur en scène than an auteur. I don’t see much of a philosophical thread running through his work.

That’s why, like you, I think of this as a Gillian Flynn movie as much as I do a David Fincher film. I wasn’t crazy about it, mostly because all of the narrative morphing and shifting audience awareness that you talk about made me question whether or not the filmmakers were always in control of the picture’s tone.

That is, the character of Amy Dunne and her story are both wildly, insanely improbable throughout. On the surface, the story is a camp hoot. But even though people were laughing in the theater, the film often presented itself as a straight thriller in a realist vein. The lead investigator, with her accent and workmanlike demeanor, places the film in standard police procedural territory. Fincher accentuates the authenticity of his middle-American settings. Affleck’s untucked shirts and whiskey drinking in dive bars makes him seem one of us. At every turn, the movie demonstrates how the later media caricatures of him came about innocently, so that it positions our sympathies with him. But Flynn and Fincher make his wife, on the other hand, one of the most outlandish caricatures I’ve seen in years. Rosamund Pike plays her from the opening scenes with a vacant, ice-princess stare as if she’s always posing for a George Hurrell glamour shot. Her voice-overs have a disembodied ethereality to them, made all the more strange by the accompaniment of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s aqueous synthesizer bleeps. Her parents, too, are frigid nonentities. We’re led to believe in dollar-book Freudian terms that her mother’s disinterested manipulation of her daughter’s childhood turned her into the soulless being that she’s become. The Nancy Grace-like caricature of the media, too, seemed particular silly. The film acts as if there’s not one single intelligent journalist in the entire nation. And Affleck’s decisions at the end of the film struck me also as impossibly implausible.

The plot of The Blue Gardenia is also nuts. But Lang maintains a consistent tone throughout. Partly because he struggled to get independent financing for the picture, every scene is permeated with a sense of cheapness, tawdriness, and despair. Anne Baxter is just a normal working girl. So when she’s forced to deal with a man trying to rape her and later when she wonders if she herself is capable of murder, we identify with her. Lang’s consistent seriousness, despite the improbability of the plot, makes the issues that he raises seem significant as well. I, too, kept thinking about other movies while I was watching this one. But I kept thinking about Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. The plot of that movie was even crazier than this one, ­but Almodóvar seemed absolutely aware of that fact, toying with his own dizzyingly Feuillade-esque plot-twists while at the same time illuminating the extreme ugliness of his characters’ lives. He maintained a consistent tone throughout that was always on the knife edge between absolute seriousness and high camp.

But when people were tittering in the theater during Gone Girl, I felt like their laughter emerged out of a nervous anxiety about the film’s intentions more than it did from knowingly sharing a joke with Fincher and Flynn.

I think Lang and Almodóvar's consistency of tone made me treat their movies—despite their implausible plots—with a degree of seriousness. Lang wonders under what circumstances an average person might be capable of murder. Almodóvar questions whether or not trying to shape others’ identities necessarily alters our own. But Gone Girl seems to ask the question, wouldn’t it be freaky if you found out your wife was the single craziest bitch who ever lived?

You seemed more open than I did to the notion that this movie was dealing with some serious issues. You said that the movie opens a gulf about certain possibilities. Do you want to try to convince me that I’m missing something?

KASMAN: I don't think you're missing something: your description of the story and its craziness is certainly accurate. We're definitely talking about the same movie! But we may be getting two different impressions.

For one, I found the movie very funny once the main twist is revealed; at this point what one might describe as Fincher's regular tone— inevitable, intractable: an uncontrollable progress towards dismay and dissatisfaction—is flipped for something he hasn't tried since maybe Fight Club: comedy. Of course, what you may find funny or what I do, those are impossible things to argue. But for me, speaking of Fincher's "auteurship," or let's say the qualities that are consistent in his films, I actually would point to tone being the defining factor. I've written about it here, if you're interested; it's a piece I'm very proud of and I think works with Gone Girl. For me, the film is an elaborate, mostly successful manipulation of tone.

Fincher's detailed, anthropological attitude towards shots, editing scenes, and putting scenes into a montage, despite being so meticulously focused on a certain style of realism (which I've associate with German New Objectivity more than cinematic realism), I've always found has a paradoxical affect of dismissing the import of any one shot or scene and instead working to add up—add up not to a solution to the many crimes that his films revolve around, but add up to time and an inability to get to grips with the events which proceed through it. I think Fincher is a poet of time—whether a good or bad poet is up to the viewer. He's a poet not of the moment (like Hou Hsiao-hsien) or duration (like James Benning), but tone: the weariness, the forlorn, the singular loneliness of time passing out of anyone's control. He nearly says it out loud in his recent interview with Playboy: "Everybody dies. And the truth of the matter is everyone is going to die, yet we spend so much time ignoring that fact."

This is the exact feeling you get in the first, let's say, third of Gone Girl: that Nick is caught up in something—whether it's the disappearance of his wife or the investigation into his crime, we're unsure—which he always seems one step behind on. His thick-headed stubbornness and frustration comes less from psychological reactions to either the disappearance or the murder—what the story tells us he is reacting to—than his greater sense that there's this horrible progression to things, a momentum which has destabilized his grip on the world around him.

But then the twist comes, and the sense of inevitability is broken, things are more up in the air, there's a combativeness between Amy and Nick. Recently, working closely with the screenplays the director is so slavish to, Fincher has mixed up the kind of single-minded progression found in some of his earlier films (including his best, Zodiac) by trying for narrative fragmentation: Aaron Sorkin's competing flashbacks in The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's D.W. Griffith-like split characters who eventually cross paths. Gone Girl is working a similar tack: "now" versus Amy's fake greeting card diary entries (you characterize these very well), then later Amy's flight and Nick's investigation. The latter section is pitched as dark comedy, with actual jokes in it unlike the vaguely similar Eyes Wide Shut's more ambient satire. This structure refreshes the beleaguered, woeful and fatalist tone common to Fincher's work. All the zaniness you point to and criticize I think is kept in check by Fincher's sleek, grounded style: the movie is consistent in one way up to the first twist, and then consistent in a second way afterwards. The director's literal-mindedness contains the story absurdity but also is able to contort the tone in an interesting way reminiscent of some of the abrupt tonal changes in South Korean genre cinema. The prestige gloss of his images, the "seriousness" of Affleck's performance, the superficial "media critique" (as you rightly point out), all point to a surface-level graveness that the first part of the film tells us is sincere...and the second part reveals is just as skin-deep as the characters Amy and Nick are playing. All is skin deep here; it's not just their marriage, it's the fabric of this movie's reality.

So is the movie "getting at something"? Probably not, I think it's more gameplaying than having anything particularly clever to say about marriage; especially since we never see either participant in this marriage in any scene that's not mediated by some twist in narration or subjective view. In other words, we can't come to a conclusion about this couple like we can Bill and Alice in Kubrick's marriage film, because all we see are "spun" personalities. Instead, I find the film a very clever tweaking of genres of detection, crimes of passion, and indeed the kind of "meditation of marriage" that the film seems to be; rather than be these things (about a mystery, about a hatred, about a marriage), it is bizarre parody of those kinds of films, and as every parody does, reveals its cards by taking things farther than its sources of parody ever would.

For me, this is a step up from Dragon Tattoo, which despite its sprawling length of investigative detail reveals it's really about a 15 minute or so sequence of intimacy between its two main characters; all the records of detective work, the revelation of a crime of the past and a criminal in the present, the mystery of a missing girl, none of these are actually important in a film which reconstructs them all with equal detail. This meticulous construction seems to me the core value of Gone Girl, a machine of presentation, presentation of a crime, of a marriage, of the story of both.

One particular sequence in this movie is the exact thing Fincher excels at and is really a mise en abyme, a movie inside the movie that represents the movie itself: the montage of Amy setting up and then executing all the facets of her deception. It's very quick and moves, like the rest of the movie on a slower scale, waypoint to waypoint; it resembles that strange post-climax sequence in Dragon Tattoo where the girl (with the, etc.) is shown perpetrating an elaborate con in a montage well under 15 minutes but which has innumerable set-ups, locations, and actions: another micro-film. It's no mistake Fincher is such an advocate for shooting digitally: as a director what he most excels at is data ingestion. And he gives it all this "dark" (the media's catch-phrase for this director and his work), panther-skinned look, gliding cameras, lubricated montages that purposefully offer no tactility or grab for us, we are just carried forward along with the flow, just like the films' protagonists. To go back to the Fritz Lang comparison, Amy is analogous to Fincher the director: the meticulous planning (dorkily so, as one sees in her post-it notes on her calendar, her plenteous, sinister to-do lists), the detailed execution, the controller of the tone, the movement of the characters and the stakes—if there is admiration in this film it's for this dead-eyed, diamond-hard vision of "the single craziest bitch who ever lived," not the pathetic acquiescence of the "hot"/"creepy" Nick.

I don't disagree with your characterization of Amy's character—problematically cartoon-like and inhuman, though perhaps pointedly as empty as her husband—nor with Manohla Dargis's point that despite some ambiguity Nick is simply too "decent." Yet the working with and against audience expectations at almost every stage of the film, this coy withholding about people, their motivations, and indeed even gaming the way this "realistic" world works is exactly what the movie is up to. As the twists come, as the sense of inevitably dissipates, Gone Girl seems to achieve a sense of freedom for itself and for its characters. In fact, in this film you get a sense quite rare in Fincher's work: that after the main twist, his characters are fighting for the present rather than for the past.

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