Patriarchal Parody: The Rom-Com Logic of David Fincher

by Kiva Reardon


Disclaimer: If you don’t know what happens in Gone Girl by now, please send me an email explaining how that is even possible. Otherwise, be warned spoilers lay ahead.

Like six million other people, I read Gone Girl. I’m assuming that, like many of those six million people, I read it in a matter of days (one and a half, to be precise). I binged on Gillian Flynn’s easy-as-breathing prose and nearly ripped out the last page of each cliffhanger-concluding chapter in excited frustration. When I finished, I texted the friend who had loaned me the book, admitting I’d skipped dinner plans to stay in and read. She replied to the effect of, “It’s great, right? But aren’t your feminist senses tingling?”

Gone Girl, with its false rape accusations and domestic abuse-inventing protagonist, Amy (played in the film by Rosamund Pike), represents what can be construed as terrible gender politics. To me, however, Flynn’s book read as a satire of the very kind of man who dismisses women as “crazy bitches.” But given these murky misogynistic grounds, I understood where my friend was coming from. In fact, I assumed it was this aspect of the book that compelled bro-fave director David Fincher to adapt it for the screen.

Instead, it’s the opposite; Fincher has made Gone Girl into one of the best satirical romantic comedies of recent memory.

Satire isn’t easy to define, but, like pornography, I know it when I see it. That’s the point of the style: it’s meant to intentionally fly under the radar of political and cultural censors, slipping in critiques of the status quo.

The tricky thing about satire is that it can exist even without the artist’s intent. Ascribing notions of artistic intentionally to any work is a fool’s game, but in the case of Gone Girl I bring it up because I don’t think Fincher set out to create a work of patriarchal parody. (Flynn, who wrote the screenplay, well, that’s another story.) But in so completely indulging the male fantasy of a world where women have the ultimate power, a voice, and public credulity, Fincher ended up making one.

Gone Gone begins with a shot of Amy’s head, the object of much fascination for the book and film: the police, who will eventually wonder if someone smashed it in, and what thoughts it contains, as her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) wonders in voiceover.

Fincher sets the scene with a series of simple shots of the town of North Cartage, Missouri, capturing the ruins of middle class America in the subprime mortgage suburbs. Almost immediately, Amy goes missing and Nick becomes the main suspect in her disappearance.

Now the twist: Amy faked her death to get revenge on her adulterous husband.

In adapting her novel for the screen, Flynn keeps the same temporal shifting structure, using Amy’s diary entries as flashbacks to paint the picture of the couple’s early days of idyllic love. Set to softer sounds in Trent Reznor’s score, these moments are marked by a feeling of conventional romance that stand out from the grey dreary present of the police procedural unfolding in North Cartage.

The flashbacks sketch the well-known rom-com trope of the blonde, media maven New Yorker searching for love (also indexed by a series of Legally Blonde-esque pink pom-pom topped pens Amy uses). But here the sending up of such conventions begins: instead of flowers and chocolate, Amy’s diary entries recall Nick’s enthusiastic act of cunniligus and their public fucking; Nick’s proposal includes a shout-out to her “extraordinary vagina.” It’s not the stuff of Elle Woods; although it’s worth noting that Reese Witherspoon, an actress whose career has been defined by contemporary romantic comedies, served as producer.

Just as Amy doesn’t turn out to be the passive rom-com blonde, Nick doesn’t properly play his part. In Amy’s diary version, he is a spousal abusing, over-spender; an all-too real character that lives in countless homes across America. Indeed, if the North Carthage community that Amy and Nick moved to wasn’t abandoned, statically speaking, there would be many more Nicks living on the same block. Based on figures from 2000, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

In the “real” version of events, Nick turns out to be innocent of these crimes, but he doesn’t get off so easily. In both the book and film, Nick is the Mediocre Man™. He is the average dude that gets raised up everyday for the sheer fact of being white, straight, and able-bodied. He was born with life insurance in the form of a penis. We see this when Nick returns home, received by his hometown like, as Amy’s mother says, “prom king.” When women fawn over him in his saddened state. When, with his sister’s money, he hires a multimillion-dollar lawyer who specializes in the cottage industry of getting husbands off the hook for murdering their wives. But most importantly, in contrast to Amy and her brimming brain, Nick is boring. He drinks at the bar he bought with his wife’s money; like a bad cliché, he fucks his 20-something student. While Nick is shuffling around his dying town in bad button-up shirts, Amy is living a rich life of intriguing revenge. It’s no surprise, then, that the first laugh of this dark rom-com comes at Nick’s expense: he’s first seen carrying the board game Mastermind under his arm.

After this, the laughs don’t stop. Nick lives in a comically imaginary world where women are lead detectives and their authority is never questioned (Detective Rhonda Boney); a world where women seemingly run the media and set the stories of the day (pundits Ellen Abbott and Sharon Schieber). Hilariously, Nick lives in a fantasy world where a woman’s story about domestic abuse is believed and not ruthlessly questioned and continually reframed. It’s a made-up world of Men’s Rights delusion where a woman’s word is said to be more powerful than that of a man’s. Nick can’t take it. “I’m tired of women picking on me,” he opines early on in the film. Played straight by Affleck, the line is comedy gold.

A charge that’s leveled at Amy is if she’s so brilliant, why does she go back to Nick? After plotting her own death with precision, when she sees Nick on TV begging for her to come home so he can make amends, she falls for his romantic ruse. But this is the greatest joke of all: the chink in this clever woman’s armor is love. How could it not be? Raised on fairy tale rom-coms, as we are, to hold love and marriage as the be all and end all, Romantic Love — not, to be clear, supportive partnerships — shackles women to the narrow part of playing wife. Those, then, who take Amy’s return home to Nick as proof of her intellectual deficiency fail to see the bigger picture: love doesn’t make us do crazy things, it’s the pressure to find and keep love — and thus happiness, stability, respectability — that does.

Fincher and Flynn further take the dark twisted fantasy fairy tale of the novel and camp it up visually: Amy’s dramatic collapse in a blood-soaked white dress in Nick’s arms when she returns (“You bitch,” her whispers in her ear); her casual crepe-making as she settles back into their life after her death; and, of course, her killing of Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), her fantastically wealthy long-time admirer.

After being robbed while on the run, Amy reaches out to Desi, casting him as her White Knight. She plays on the old narrative of a man swooping in to save the day, but yet again there’s no happy ending: Desi power trips in this part, holding Amy prisoner in his lavish lakeside estate, with financial dependency and, more overtly, surveillance cameras. (White Knights, like rom-coms, rarely are real.) Never physically violent, Desi represents the quiet sexism of forcing women to stay at home, controlling their movements, and placing them on pussy pedestals like exotic domestic pets. And so, Amy kills him. And how! Slitting his neck mid-coitus, she is soaked in his blood as his orgasms, sliding off him to reveal a glimpse of Harris’s flaccid dick (the first of two dong shots in the film, the second being Affleck’s own). It’s gruesome and hilarious, and it’s all for Romantic Love.

Of course, none of Amy’s actions represent any kind of sustainable feminism. But who cares? What revenge fantasy is wholly defensible? In the end, Amy’s revenge is getting her rom-com ending of a husband, home and baby. It’s the latter that finally nearly causes Nick to break, as he slams Amy’s precious head against a wall. Pinning her down, Nick hisses in her face she’s a cunt. “I’m the cunt you created,” she replies, unfazed by his violence. Nick, and all men like him, have to live with that. Joke’s on them.

Previously: ’Til Death Do Us Part

Kiva Reardon is the founding editor of cléo, a journal of film and feminism. She writes about and watches a lot of movies. For proof of this, please see: @kiva_jane