’Til Death Do Us Part
I’ve been telling the same joke for, like, fifteen years. The joke was probably funnier when I was twelve, but it still makes my mother laugh like nothing else: wide-eyed and so serious, I say, “If you really want to get to know your spouse,” with a pause for comedic effect,” divorce them.”
I saw Gone Girl last week and realized that the book and film make the same joke with only the slightest variation: if you really want to get to know your spouse, kill them.
Has everyone read the book? I’m just going to assume you have, and also we’re all adults here, so duh spoiler alerts.
Gone Girl is the story of a certain kind of “perfect” couple: white, young, able-bodied, straight, monogamous, creative, wealthy, New York-dwelling assholes named Nick and Amy. When we meet them, though, they’ve had at least a few layers of privilege stripped away; the recession took away their cute magazine jobs, and Amy’s trust fund, sourced entirely from the children’s books her parents wrote based on her life, has been depleted to pay off said parents’ debt. Thoroughly de-pantsed by life, Amy and Nick move to his hometown, where Nick opens a bar and Amy does…nothing, as far as we can tell.
The book opens the morning of their five year anniversary: Amy has gone missing, leaving behind only her traditional anniversary gift treasure hunt for Nick, and soon the police and media are like 110% sure he killed Amy because look at this fucker, he hits all our recognizable marks for Men Who Kill Their Wives.
Of course, the reason the book has become such a Hot Topic for conversation and the subject of so many Hot Takes is because of its total commitment to fucking the reader over when Amy reappears in the second half of the book, like, “lol, totally faking my own death so I can frame my husband for it, good thing I’m so much smarter than everybody else.”
The book is an immensely satisfying and equally horrifying read; flawed, but fun. I loved it. And I loved the movie.
Earlier this year I read Janine Basinger’s book, I Do and I Don’t, which is all about the lack of marriage-as-genre movies. Her central argument is that there are lots of movies that prominently feature marriages, or that place their central conflict between a married couple, but that these are usually movies really about something else: divorce movies are pretty common, like Kramer vs. Kramer, and movies with really good marriages are pretty common, like Fargo, but that those are courtroom dramas and irreverent thrillers, respectively.
Gone Girl is a marriage movie. I mean, it’s an irreverent thriller too, and it’s that kind of social satire David Fincher has made his personal calling card, the one that so easily veers into sincerity; the way Fight Club is no longer a satire of a certain kind of privileged white male anger and instead a celebration of men who are finally taking their khakis into their own hands, the way The Social Network is both a critique and celebration of that fratty startup bro culture. Gone Girl is a movie that so perfectly skewers an idea of a marriage between equals, of righteous feminist rage, of the much-beloved cable news white-woman-goes-missing-gross-husband-to-blame stories, of people who make writing their living, of New York liberal elite latte-drinking J.Crew-wearing superiority complexes forced to confront the reality of real America, of false rape accusations, of revenge, that it could absolutely become intellectual masturbatory material for a certain kind of misogynist. Like, if you entered the theater hating women, you almost definitely would leave hating women more than ever before; if you already believed that marriage was a cultural conspiracy determined to castrate good-enough men, then you could watch this and feel like it was preaching to your choir.
I’ve seen other critics point out that the book made the satire aspect a little more overt, and I do agree with that, but: I don’t know. I read a few reviews complaining that Ben Affleck isn’t given his due, that he’s just a normal angry dude who feels entitled to a life that’s now out of reach and is lashing out at every woman he can find and so on, but isn’t really painted as evil as he should be. Knowing the big twist from reading the book, I didn’t find that to be true; instead I just felt impatient, knowing we would have to sit through so many scenes of Ben Affleck’s dumb face before we could get to Rosamund Pike’s big reveal.
According to Basinger’s books, at least one of the following seven problems are seen in every movie about marriage: money, infidelity, tension with in-laws and/or children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. Is Gone Girl the first film to feature… all of them? Maybe. The film certainly lays out an anti-marriage agenda: “All we did was cause each other pain!” Nick yells, before Amy resounds: “That’s marriage.”
It’s also one of the very rare films that I’ve ever seen, I think, that celebrate female rage, a certain kind of violence perpetrated by a woman. Like, yes, there’s Catherine Breillat, there’s Virginie Despentes, there are movies about female serial killers and other kinds of truly evil women, but I can’t remember the last time I saw an American movie where an American woman washed off blood in a shower and the blood wasn’t hers. Where the blood was the blood of a man who maybe didn’t deserve to die, but who certainly wasn’t innocent; a former boyfriend that wanted to control everything about Amy, to keep her safely locked up in his ideal version of her.
Amy is not a role model, not some sort of feminist icon, and the answer to this particular kind of gender imbalance is not to make more movies where women kill men (although I know there’s a ticket buying population, just is case any big time movie execs are reading this). But what the movie really highlights, and I think even more so than the book, is that Amy has spent her whole life living someone else’s story: first as a character in her parent’s books, as the right kind of sexually available woman (as described in her infamous “Cool Girl” monologue, a testament to Gillian Flynn’s incredible ability to pinpoint a certain kind of anti-feminist feminist screed directed at other women as well as the patriarchal culture that creates those women), as the right kind of girlfriend, and it’s her role as the right kind of wife that does finally undo her. Marriage is, for a certain kind of viable women in a certain kind of culture, presented as the last stop for your own relevancy. Your marital status becomes a symbol of virtue, of value, at the same time it removes you from the pool of women ethically and morally available for fucking.
During the police investigation, Amy’s diaries are found; painstakingly fabricated by Amy in order to give everyone watching all the ammunition they’ll need to punish her husband better than she ever could. I do think the point of the film, and the book, was to show a deliberately heightened conclusion to the logical progression of a woman’s life: “You want a perfect wife?” I felt like Amy was asking me. “A perfect blonde woman, the better to show the bloodstains? The perfect victim?” Her diaries ask of the police and Nancy Grace-esque reporters. “I’ll show you a perfect victim.”
My mother loves that joke I tell because it’s a joke about her job. She became a divorce mediator when I was ten years old, and her office was our basement, so I grew up with a very… particular view of marriage, I guess, is the nicest way of putting it. There really is — -anyone who has been divorced can tell you — — something incredibly illuminating about a person’s behaviour during a divorce. You really do learn more about your spouse when you see them at their worst, one of those true clichés.
Once my mother told me a story about watching a fight between a divorcing couple and reaching, slowly, so slowly, across our coffee table, and removing a pencil from the woman’s hand; she said there was just something about the woman’s eyes, the tensed muscles in her forearms, that made her think the pencil could have become a weapon.
I wonder where that woman is now. I wonder if she’s going to see or read Gone Girl. I wonder if she’s figured out that the pencil is a kind of weapon even if you don’t plunge it into your ex-husband’s neck. I wonder if she keeps a diary.