What’s the Real Crime in Gone Girl?


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Gone Girl, both Gillian Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s faithful film adaptation, is a cleverly told story about a deteriorating husband-wife relationship wrapped into an ingenious cat-and-mouse detective story. The disappearance of the wife creates a ripple effect that, among other things, shows America’s rather perverse appetite for juicy, media-fueled cases of marital discord that place one of the partners in jeopardy. The story adroitly manipulates our sympathies, controlling our judgments about who is the greater contributor to the marital wasteland and whether the husband is the culprit, as the uncritical  public, fed interpretations by hysterical media personalities, initially believes. Like any good crime story that offers us various theories about causation and guilt, Gone Girl provides us with a set of narrative options. But what makes Gone Girl interesting is that the competing narratives about the crime are interwoven with competing narratives that the characters manufacture in their attempts to woo a partner, commit to marriage, and sustain marital compatibility and sexual harmony. For in this marriage more so than in most marriages, the urge to shape and define the partner, to mold him or her into a more acceptable spouse, is at the heart of the matter. The fate of the marriage as well as the resolution to the disappearance mystery in many ways hinges on which partner is able to win the story-telling game.

While not deeply interested in examining the milieu in which the marriage and the crime take place, Flynn/Fincher weave into the battle of the narratives some interesting sociological elements that can provide pleasure for readers/viewers looking at the margins of the story, especially those inclined to read detective stories as social allegories.

When looking for the source of a gun that Amy has purchased,  Detective Boney (Kim Dickens)goes looking for an underworld informant. He’s found camped out, with many other outcasts, in a gutted shopping mall at the edge of North Branch, Missouri, where the couple live. Welcome to post-recession America where in “fly-over country” the American Dream has rapidly gone down the drain. We are reminded why Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) have taken up residency in Nick’s Mississippi River hometown, part of St. Louis exurbia. Both are wordsmiths. Nick writes for a men’s magazine and Amy spins out the kind of personality quizzes that appear in Buzzfeed. Both lose their jobs and that requires a sell-off of their upscale New York City brownstone and a reluctant retreat to North Branch. Here they purchase an off-the-shelf suburban mini-castle. It’s a mighty bit of downsizing and relocation, of the kind that George Packer documents in his award-winning The Unwinding (2013), which has been called “a requiem for the Post World-War II social contract.” Nick, who purchases and rehabilitates a shabby downtown bar with his twin sister, could easily have been one of Packer’s case studies of downwardly mobile Americans in crisis. His wife, a New York City child of privilege and a Marie Claire cover-girl beauty, is marooned in middle-America. This relocation serves to accelerate the marital discord that was incipient even from the taking of the vows.

For another bit of sociological backdrop is the collision of social classes represented by Nick and Amy. This is somewhat familiar territory. Take, for instance, the spirited contrasts between the patrician Katherine Hepburn and the rough-and-tumble Spencer Tracey in movies like Pat and Mike. But in Gone Girl there’s no peaceful accommodation of the two world views. Nick proves to be an uncooperative partner in Amy’s Pygmalion plan. She wants to turn this Midwestern hunk into an upper-East Side sophisticate, someone who knows that there is a salad fork and can pronounce Proust correctly. You would think that Nick, the men’s magazine writer, would be fair game, for most magazines of this kind are really guidebooks for aspirational men with status anxiety. Yet a number of years into the marriage, Nick still remains a frat boy in love with extreme sports and Adam Sandler movies, at least according to Amy.

So who do we side with in this battle of the representatives of the super-rich 1% and  Romney’s 47%? There are all sorts of reasons to reject Ben’s hometown as a desirable place to live. Mark Twain, the great documentarian of antebellum Mississippi River culture, would find 21st Century North Branch a very recognizable place. The crowd that bangs on the window of suspect Nick’s car as he leaves the police station seems little different than the Huckleberry Finn lynch mob that desisted only when Colonel Sherburn, Twain’s mouthpiece in the novel, had the audacity to call them cowards. The Dunne’s neighbor, a baby-making woman who Amy befriends to carry out a deception, is one of the town’s grotesques. Only Nick’s truth-telling sister and the female detective give any indication that reason and sanity are still alive in North Branch.

You don’t have to be a member of the Occupy Movement to dislike the culture from which Amy emerges. If you’re looking for a villain in the story, look no further than Amy’s smarmy and well-heeled parents. They are collaborators on a popular series of Amazing Amy story books, inspiration tales for young girls. But they’ve made their fortune by exploiting Amy’s life. They’ve embroidered her ordinary exploits and created a spunky heroine that Amy can never live up to. As Amy reminds us, just when her interest in volleyball waned, they created the next number in the series, one that had Amy as a volleyball superstar. Amy feels mistreated by her parents’ mercenary opportunism, but she has learned from them something valuable: that compelling stories trump inconvenient facts. And on her own she’s learned how to frame character flaws as assets and bad decisions as opportunities for growth.

Amy’s parents may be venal and hypocritical in their sincere concern for their missing daughter, but it is another member of the elite who sets our commoners’ blood to boil. One suspect in the hunt for Amy’s kidnapper is a St. Louis millionaire who stalked her when they were in an East Coast prep school together.  Played with a bloodless creepiness by Neil Patrick Harris, Desi Collings suffers a suitable fate that has the audience rejoicing, not only because he’s sinister but also because an I-can-buy-anything rich guy has been put in his place.

By weaving these elements of the economic zeitgeist into this story of domestic conflict, Flynn/Fincher have provided an additional way in which we can be absorbed by this popular entertainment. But the ultimate message may be a sobering one. The triumph of one of the narratives about the history of this fictional husband-wife relationship also can tell us about whose winning the real world game between the 1% and the rest of us. This may be the real crime.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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