By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
So, what else shall we talk about?
How about a tame little movie/book review? Well, perhaps not so tame.
My family has recently spent far too many hours watching, reading and talking about Gone Girl. This wholesome little bestselling novel was written by Gillian Flynn. Now it is a highly successful movie directed by David Fincher, starring Ben Affleck and the utterly chilling Rosamund Pike — not to mention a significant appearance by Neil Patrick Harris, with a scene so grotesque it makes me want to reach out to him in Hollywood and see if he is doing okay.
Gone Girl is at one level the all-too-routine story of a normal American marriage gone sour. Nick and Amy are both successful writers in New York when they meet at an insufferable party. Their utterly charming romance eventually leads to marriage. They are the perfect couple.
But Nick loses his job writing guy stuff for men’s magazines and Amy soon loses her job writing girl stuff for women’s magazines. (Gendered references intentional; gender is all over this movie.) The financial cushion provided by Amy’s substantial trust fund — a fund created with the proceeds of her parents’ creepy Amazing Amy novels about a perfect version of their little Amy — carries the couple for a while but eventually Amy’s parents need to take some of it back, because their Amy books are not selling anymore.
Nick’s beloved mother, back home in North Carthage, Mo., is dying of cancer. Nick’s dad is mean, demented and institutionalized. Nick’s twin sister needs some help. So Nick moves Amy — without a lot of consultation — from her comfy East Side brownstone to a McMansion in Missouri.
There everything gradually falls apart. Nick still can’t find work. Amy stakes him some money to buy into a bar with his sister but he spends way too much time playing video games. Amy isn’t working either. Money dwindles. Debt increases. Nick’s mother dies and he seems benumbed with grief. Nick and Amy unhappily reach their fifth anniversary.
But neither of them knows quite how unhappy. On that anniversary morning his plan is to tell Amy he wants a divorce. Her plan is to stage her own death and get Nick the electric chair.
The rest of the story unfolds over 40 days. Amy’s elaborately staged disappearance — planned and executed with a brilliant, manic, angry perfectionism — has the local police, the neighbors, Amy’s parents and all the earnest talking heads on cable screaming for his head on a platter. Nick’s ability to defend himself is compromised by the little detail that he has a bouncy young girlfriend whom he thinks no one knows about — but Amy certainly knows, and her rage at Nick’s infidelity has fueled her plan to destroy her husband. Eventually that little detail comes out in a nationally televised ex-girlfriend press appearance.
Nick realizes he needs help. But he needs a peculiarly contemporary kind of help — a slick New York lawyer who defends weasel husbands while also managing media strategy. This character, played in the movie by a hilarious Tyler Perry, helps Nick fight the PR battle but may or may not be able to help him fight off arrest and conviction.
The plot races toward its conclusion. Amy’s plan to hide out in the Ozarks goes awry when she’s robbed by some characters out of Deliverance. She calls on perfect old boyfriend Desi (played by Neil Patrick Harris) to buy her some time and give her a place to stay. Nick tries to fight off arrest and prove the whole situation is a sick set-up by his wife. Who will win in this brutal game?
I won’t give away any more of the plot.
I will say that the movie made the viewers in our family think a lot.
For example, about money: a sub-text of the movie, and even more of the book, is post-2008 downward mobility. It’s about job losses and towns pulverized by the endless “creative destruction” wrought by our capitalist economy, with individuals, families and communities unmoored by their merciless losses.
About marriage: Nick and Amy’s marriage at first seems only garden-variety dysfunctional but as the plot unfolds we see it is more toxic than that. Amy writes, in the novel: “Our kind of love can go into remission, but it’s always waiting to return. Like the world’s sweetest cancer.” Nick’s sister Go puts it a bit more harshly: “You are literally going to be a nuclear family, you know that?” It’s a story about who we present ourselves to be when we are mating and what the actual reality turns out to be. It’s about various ideas regarding what makes a woman a good wife and what makes a man a good husband and how each side attempts to work its will on the other. It’s about how in marriage two souls interact in such an intense, intimate way that that they can bring either a kind of salvation or a kind of destruction to each other.
About madness: Clearly only a crazy person would attempt to stage her own murder in order to get her husband executed. But was Amy crazy before she met Nick? Yes, there is evidence for this. But in the novel Nick says: “I had to take the blame for bringing the madness to bloom in Amy.” Which means Nick is admitting that he has literally driven his wife crazy. Or is he?
About media: Gone Girl’s pitch-perfect account of what happens when Missouri mayhem goes national and the talk show mavens get on the story is truly chilling. After a while what matters is not truth but public perception. Shaping the latter is a lucrative profession with lots of billable hours. The story drips with a proper cynicism about the media-legal-PR-political-industrial complex, which dominates our public life.
Gone Girl is a riveting story. And very sad. It holds up a broken mirror to the way we live now.