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Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
Twentieth Century Fox

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Gone Girl is the most feminist mainstream movie in years

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: The following article discusses the plot of Gone Girl in its entirety. For a spoiler-free article about the film, read this instead.

From a certain point of view, director David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl is one of the most misogynistic movies ever made. It depicts a men's rights activist's worst nightmare come to vicious, bleeding life.

Its primary "villain," if the film can be said to have such a thing, is the monstrous Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a woman who fakes rape to get men who displease her punished, aims to control her husband down to the slightest gesture, and reacts to the news that said husband is cheating on her by faking her own death and framing him for the murder. She's effectively giving him the death penalty for sleeping with a college student. While his indiscretion might be bad, it's clear the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

But Gone Girl's apparent problems with women lurk beyond just Amy, too. The film's male lead, Nick (Ben Affleck), Amy's husband, laments that he's spent his life with women controlling his every move, and when he settles in at her side by movie's end, he's been completely broken of his spirit. This, it would be easy for an anti-feminist critic to argue, is the logical conclusion of women's dominion over men — a mostly good guy imprisoned by a vile monster who holds him in place with her womb.

Couple that with Fincher's ... let's say ... less-than-perfect track record with female characters in the past, in films ranging from Fight Club to The Social Network to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and you have a perfect storm, just waiting for thinkpieces to erupt.

But open up Gone Girl and dig around in its guts, and you find something surprising. This is perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want. Amy Dunne might be a monster, but she's no sui generis psychopath. No, she's Frankenstein's monster, stitched together by a husband, parents, and a social order that demanded she be certain things, rather than who she really was.

And in destroying her husband's life, she's symbolically taking back power for women everywhere.

Through the looking glass

The thing you need to understand about Gone Girl is that it's a mirror.

It opens in one place, then heads toward a center (Amy's monologue about not actually being dead), then spirals back out toward the other side. The images that open and close the film are the same. And along the way, the film keeps visually rhyming itself, only with positions slightly shifted and power dynamics unbalanced in ways that keep the audience guessing.

This is not a terribly new trick. Directors have always used visually similar compositions to trick our brains into drawing subconscious links between things, and Fincher is nothing if not an exacting composition artist. But the more you examine the film's images, the more you realize something: in the first half of the story, Fincher is giving Nick much of the power, situating the story on him in many ways. And once Amy reveals her full plan, the film starts to shove Nick off to the side (literally in many cases), as his wife comes to occupy the center position in their universe. It starts as a story about a man, a good-hearted American lummox who made a few missteps, but it becomes a story about a woman. And the only way she can take it over is by being as vicious as possible.

To understand what's going on here requires some basic knowledge of shot composition. Think of an image, moving or still. Now divide into thirds both vertically and horizontally. (Basically, you're drawing a Tic-Tac-Toe board on the image.) Because our eyes look dead ahead as a default, they are naturally drawn to the centermost square of the loose grid. But that also leads to shots that can feel staid or trapped. The rule of thumb for most still photographers, in fact, is to disrupt the image by moving the subject off to either side of the center. By placing the image left or right of center, the photographer can then make use of "negative space" (everything not featuring the subject) to make the subject stand out even more.

But remember how your eye wants to default to the center? That can be enormously powerful in a moving image, and Fincher is a particular fan of using this trick to highlight important moments or sequences in his work. When he wants you to know a character is having a big moment or doing something we should pay attention to, he will place them dead center in the frame, often in close-up, and it becomes a kind of cheat sheet for how to read the film's emotional peaks and valleys. Fincher has frequently been accused of being a cold, clinical filmmaker, but if you pay attention to his centered compositions, you'll get a rough read of the emotional journey of the film.

And how Fincher uses centered compositions in Gone Girl is part of what makes the film so feminist.

The tug of war

The very first image in Gone Girl, before the opening credits sequence, is Amy's head taking up the full center of the screen, before her face snaps up to look at camera and occupies all of our attention. (She is more viper than seductress here.) The first image after the credits is of a clock, dead center in the screen, indicating, among other things, that time will be important to this story, and that we're meant to be paying attention to what's at the center of the screen.

And then we see Nick for the first time, and the camera does everything it can to keep him perfectly centered against the backdrop of his suburban life. Though we opened with that shot of Amy, Fincher is telling us here that we are, instead, watching Nick's story. He is the man alone, the man who will be harassed and framed and mistreated, but also the man we are to attach ourselves to.

The first half of the film keeps treating Nick like this. In scenes where he's thrown off his game — say by the police — then one of the detectives might briefly occupy center-screen. But by and large, Nick doesn't let anyone into his territory. And the camera respects this. When Nick moves into frame from off left or off right, it usually follows him once he hits center, so he stays right there. And when he's forced to share the frame with someone — usually Amy — the shots are subtly composed so that he's closer to the center than his screen partner.


Gone Girl keeps Nick (Ben Affleck) at the center of the screen for much of the film's first half. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Gone Girl is, on many levels, a film about knowledge and about narrative control. Nick stays at the center for the film's first half, because he more or less thinks he knows everything — including his wife, including himself — and because he thinks he's in control of the narrative. Yes, he can be briefly confounded (as with the cops), but he eventually returns to his easygoing, Midwestern charm sooner or later, and the film gives him the center back.

But Fincher is also using this technique to subtly manipulate you into realizing why Amy would feel so betrayed by him. In the pages of Gillian Flynn's novel — and it must be said Flynn did exemplary work in adapting this story for the screen — Amy comes across as a collection of plot twists, more than she does an actual character. In the hands of Pike and Fincher onscreen, however, she becomes a kind of exemplar of the things women go through every day. She has her narrative taken from her first by her parents (who literally turn a better version of her into a series of books), then by her husband (who forces her to play at being someone she's not), and later by a former flame (who traps her into being yet another version of herself).

So when Nick is revealed to be cheating on her, yes, she does something completely ridiculous, but she's also sort of justified, within the film's cinematic grammar. This isn't a guy worthy of holding the screen's center. This is a bastard, just like all of those other men who refuse to cede any part of their lives to the women they supposedly love, and he deserves to pay. And more specifically, the whole rotten system deserves to pay — the men who perpetuate it and the women who prop it up. And she's just the one to start burning things.

All of this shot analysis might seem like a pointless close reading of something Fincher has done in all of his films. But Fincher has never quite used centered compositions like this. Because what he's doing is staging a literal tug-of-war for the center of the screen, and once Nick starts to realize what Amy's up to, he's already fighting a losing battle.

Because she's taking the center, and she's only giving it back if he plays by her rules.

The center holds

The central sequence that reveals that Amy faked her death is both the film's highpoint and the moment when the film turns into a true battle within the frame. Finally, Amy is situated firmly and in complete control of the screen's center, as she whips through the process of erasing her old life and beginning a new one (one that, according to her plan, will end in her death, admittedly, but it's the only way to ensure Nick pays). She drives down the highway, tossing pens out the window. She reminisces about what it took to fake her death. She stocks up on snacks, viciously tossing them into the grocery cart.

Her plan is working to perfection. She's enjoying junk food. And because Fincher has cued your subconscious so perfectly, you're ready to go along with just about anything she says, because she's just taken over the movie from a guy you increasingly can't trust. (And, indeed, in the sequences before this one, Nick has started to move ever so slightly off-center, making him feel a little more and more wrong with every millimeter lost.)

There's been some discussion of whether this sequence loses something from the version in Flynn's book, because it directs much of Amy's rage from the men who deserve it toward the women she passes on the highway. And, to be sure, Amy doesn't think much of them or of Nick or of anyone, really. But she's also a warrior on their behalf, someone who sees that the best way to live is to tear down the walls of their own expectations. She's taking control of the movie, yes, but for the first time ever, she's also taking control of her life.

As the rest of the movie plays out, more and more of Amy's signature motifs begin to infect every frame of the film. Nick will briefly grab hold of the screen's center now and again — like when he's hired a lawyer and thinks he's on top of things — but even in a scene when he's asked by a newscaster to look directly at the camera and tell his wife what he wants to say to her, he can't quite get back to the position where he would have the most power within the film's visual narrative. The camera stops following him once he reaches center-screen. He is a man adrift, no longer the compass for us to look toward.

And Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score — formerly stuck only in the fabricated flashbacks from Amy's diary — begins to play throughout the rest of the film. This is Amy's reality. Everybody else is just slowly starting to realize they live in it. You can even see this in the film's use of brief nudity — it objectifies women on Nick's side, but it objectifies men once we're in Amy's world.

It's worth pointing out that Amy doesn't command the center nearly as often as she might like. She's thrown off by a few flaws in her plan that leave her imprisoned by a former lover. But every time she launches a new scheme, every time she spins a new story, every time she tells a new lie, every time she gains more knowledge, she moves closer and closer to commanding that center entirely. She is turning the tricks of the movie against it. She is turning the lies of her husband against him. And she is taking back the center of the screen for women everywhere. She was made to be the supporting character in somebody else's story, but now, she's going to be the protagonist. She doesn't care if you like it.

The last time Nick occupies screen center is in a scene where he's finally acquiesced to Amy's plan, agreed to live with her and raise the child she conceived without even sleeping with him (thanks to an old sperm donation). She sits off to the side gratefully this time, because she's annexed the whole damn movie, and she can afford to be gracious. And the last image we see? Amy's face in close-up again. We're on the other side of the mirror.

A truer self

As mentioned above, Fincher doesn't have the world's greatest track record when it comes to feminist filmmaking. So why this film? Why this character? The answer here may be simple: is it so hard to believe that a director famous for being a perfectionist, for endless takes of scenes and exquisitely composed shots, might identify with a woman who doesn't like her life and decides to completely knock it to the ground, so she might build a completely new one in which she micro-manages every little thing? And why wouldn't the director of Fight Club — a very good film about American masculinity — not similarly be interested in a film about the constrictive roles placed on women in our society, the parts they are asked to play?

But even if Gone Girl is just sort of accidentally feminist, so what? The film is a bracing corrective to years of thrillers on screens both big and small that reduce their female characters to victims designed to die because they were the wrong kind of woman, or married the wrong kind of man (which was completely their fault, of course). They are bait, or objects to be protected, not characters in their own right. And even when these movies try to turn their female characters into something more, they tend to fetishize those characters' suffering — as, ironically, happened in Fincher's own Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But Gone Girl is different. It takes a character who would just be a corpse in so many other stories and turns the entire movie over to her.

The women in Gone Girl, like the women in too many movies, have had their agency taken, have been stripped of their power, by their husbands, or by their boyfriends, or by their parents, or by the system, or just by the horrible turns a life can take. But Amy refuses to accept this. She pushes back toward the center, and she takes what's hers.

For this reason, I find the ending of Gone Girl strangely hopeful — and I assure you you are perfectly fine to find this reading very strange. Nick is finally able to see Amy not as an image he's projecting onto her, but as the person she actually is, the person she's always been. She might be a monster, but he knows her in his "marrow," and there's something poetic, gorgeous, in the notion of knowing all of the worst things about a person but still settling in beside them and smiling for the camera, telling the lie they need you to tell, that the world might believe them someone better.

I doubt Amy would see it this way, though. Amy, I think, would laugh at this reading. Because in the end, what she's reduced Nick to is the character so many women are asked to play in movies just like this — the supportive spouse, who sits by his wife's side and smiles and says all the right things and never once gets to be anything but what she says he is. That, to her, might not feel like hope. It would, I suspect, feel more like justice.


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