I caught Gone Girl on the heels of a debate with another Catholic in the film industry about director David Fincher. “He’s too nihilistic,” says my friend, remarking on Fincher’s forte in the bleak and grim. The director’s slick, glossy films definitely revel in dark themes and twisted characters. But I have—with some qualifications—been a fan. Se7en affected me in a way that a standard thriller from the same cut never had. Fight Club captivated, as it captivated many other adolescent males of my generation. Zodiac and The Social Network heralded Fincher’s shift to his now-signature hazy, aureate look.
My friend and I went back and forth. Perhaps because we had both recently watched Vertigo at the Egyptian Theater, I tossed off a comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, a comparison that—now that I have seen Fincher’s latest film, Gone Girl—seems both more and less apt.
I have not read the novel Gone Girl, but the author, Gillian Flynn, also wrote the screenplay. As a suspense thriller, the movie has a unique structure, which at certain times is the only thing (other than Fincher’s direction) rescuing it from being a large-budget Lifetime Network movie-of-the-week. The plot is complete with a hapless, sponging, deadbeat husband (Ben Affleck), a missing-or-dead, trust-funded femme-fatale wife (Rosamund Pike), and a series of voiceover diary entries tracking their marriage’s movement from liberated, cultured New York to the stifling, repressed confines of a small town in the Midwest. This is the stuff of fairly conventional, tawdry bedroom thrillers.
But old tropes can have new life breathed into them, just as conventional stories and archetypes can be inverted, converted, or subverted in new and interesting ways. Vertigo, a film lauded as possibly Hitchcock’s best, certainly included rather pulpy, romance-mystery conventions. But it’s all in how a story is told, and Fincher, like Hitchcock, is crafty.
The Vertigo comparison is fitting for several reasons. Rosamund Pike’s Amy and Kim Novak’s Madeleine share a physical likeness; both are tall, blonde, slender, and both undergo transformations—urbane to girl next-door—relevant to the plot. Both bury their inner selves beneath their shifting societal roles, but to what end? Madeleine’s story arc brought her face-to-face with her crimes, and with retribution—her sociopathy had depth because she was forced to reap what she had sown. Amy’s direction as a character…well, I shan’t spoil.
The Hitchcockian elements of Gone Girl also visit themselves on the husband, Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne, a washed-up writer turned bar-owner who has returned to his hometown in the Midwest, and has dragged his wife along with him. He spends much of the film keeping his head above the rising tide of suspicion as to his involvement in his wife’s vanishing, while the audience is left to decipher his rather odd behavior over the course of the investigation—perhaps he is involved? The episode ripples from local news outward to the national spotlight, as days go by and Amy is still missing. There’s even a “Midge” of sorts, in another similarity to Vertigo: Margo Dunne, Nick’s twin sister—plucky and grounded—assisting Nick, as Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie was assisted by his old flame in Hitchcock’s film.
With Nick’s character called further and further into question by damning diary entries depicting him as a violent misogynist, and the relentless indictments of the 24-hour-news, Nancy Grace-infotainment culture, the film brings to mind real-life incidents, such as the Scott Peterson case. These allusions have prompted some rather interesting criticism from feminist circles, criticism not just of the film, but of the book on which it is based. Author and screenwriter Flynn has wittingly or unwittingly tossed herself into the heated trenches of the “gender war,” as her story casts doubt on Amy’s descriptions of abuse, provoking the ire of those vested in unmasking the “rape culture.”
I could hear the feminists groan as these things came up throughout the film (indeed, I groaned a bit myself). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that we were being asked to empathize with Amy’s disillusionment with her marriage, to see that it had sucked her dry of all her ambition and done nothing for her except ask her to give things up. In places, the film can be viewed as a feminist revenge-fantasy against patriarchy and married life. “We resent each other, control each other, cause each other pain,” says Nick at one point. “That’s marriage,” is Amy’s response.
Marriage certainly takes a hit in this movie. Not to blame the woman, but I suspect this has more to do with Gillian Flynn’s source material than David Fincher’s views on the matter. His film is no more a commentary on how horrible marriage is for women than The Birds is Hitchcock’s commentary on avian conservation.
Any doubts we have on this are vanquished by the very simple principles that shape the two directors’ thinking. “I think people are perverts,” Fincher once stated, with a somewhat bashful smirk, during an interview. “That’s the foundation of my career.” Hitchcock had similarly base suppositions about the people he made films for and about. To Hitchcock, people are voyeurs; movies are, at their core, voyeuristic, and so people like movies. These directors’ similar viewpoints guide their visions and cause them to gravitate toward darker subject matter.
So my contention that Fincher is the modern Hitchcock is not simply to highlight Fincher’s finesse, or to emphasize the macabre sensibilities of both directors, but also to draw out their personal differences and the differences in their respective eras of filmmaking. It is, perhaps, a subtle difference between a voyeur and a pervert, but a difference nonetheless. And it’s a difference that makes a movie like Vertigo great and a movie like Gone Girl, ultimately, flat. Hitchcock’s leering, suggestive, subtextual filmmaking turned suspense-building into the art of which he’s now known as the master. Where Hitchcock’s grim fascinations are retributive, Fincher’s are fatalistic.
Just when Gone Girl has you in suspense, caring about the fate of its characters, it explodes into the gratuitous and shallow. The film’s pivot, unlike Vertigo’s, morphs into one-dimensional, Basic Instinct salaciousness. Hitchcock teases, and ultimately exposes, his voyeurs. Fincher just feeds his perverts. This is where the comparison between Fincher and Hitchcock falls apart.
“You can do anything,” Fincher stated at one point. “It’s about what you don’t do.” Such a directorial philosophy could easily have been inverted for Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock couldn’t “do anything”; he was limited by the sensibilities of his era. Lately, in Gone Girl as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before it, Fincher has been leaving less and less to the imagination. I suspect he is being undermined by his own self-awareness in the age of the “auteur.” According to the director, he has made “films” and he has made “movies.” The former are for critics to return to for insight, the latter are mainly for audiences’ entertainment.
But using this distinction, I think Alfred Hitchcock just made movies—that is, entertainment for audiences. His skill and subsequent notoriety as one of the greatest filmmakers, so studied by students and critics, was earned through adversity. He was an artist honed by a delicate dance with formal censorship in the film industry. Gone Girl’s director is, essentially, a skilled artist hindered by an unconstrained modern film industry.
Fincher thought the grisly and gratuitous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a little bit of both a “film” and a “movie.” Herein lies the problem. His craft as a filmmaker gives way to his gaudy sensationalism as a moviemaker when both are attempted simultaneously. Gone Girl captures this perfectly. My friend and I both walked out of the theater disappointed by what could have been.
Perhaps this is unfair. After all, it’s entirely possible Hitchcock would have indulged and gone down a more exploitive path, if placed in the permissive environment of modern filmmaking. We will never know. But it’s another example of how limitations can make an artist.
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