The deference of the lambs: Over the weekend, we noticed that the 2014 film, Gone Girl, was available as part of On Demand's ballyhooed annual Watchathon.
We decided to watch it. We were surprised by what we saw.
First, we were surprised by the way the film derived its juice from the Insanely Jealous Crazy Woman stereotype—the same portrait exploited by Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle before it.
Did insanely jealous, crazy Glenn Close boil a bunny to help sell a film? In Gone Girl, insanely jealous, crazy Rosamund Pike goes her several times better.
We were surprised by the extent to which this absurdly improbable film works from that ugly old libel. We were even more surprised when we went back and reread the reviews.
We seemed to recall a somewhat puzzling real-time discussion about the gender politics of Gone Girl. When we started rereading the reviews after watching the film this weekend, we were surprised to see that the reviewers hadn't seemed to notice the fact that the Pike character was built on that ugly old, bunny-boiling portrait.
Eventually, we turned to David Edelstein, writing for Vulture. We've loved Edelstein ever since his review of In America back in 2003. That said, even Edelstein started off suggesting that the characters played by Ben Affleck and Pike in Gone Girl are pretty much two of a kind:
"Fincher and his cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, shoot their characters from just below eye level. The angles [are] just slanted enough to catch the ceilings, to suggest how hemmed in these people are by circumstance and stupid choices and a house...that’s like purgatory in beige."
Here's the problem with that formulation. While one of these characters may perhaps be "hemmed in by circumstance and stupid choices and a house that’s like purgatory in beige," the other character is a crazy psychopath who 1) successfully frames her husband for murder, actually getting him arrested; 2) plans to kill herself after her husband is executed, just to drive home her point about the way he has misused her; and 3) viciously murders a former boyfriend to create a cover story after her initial scheme starts breaking down.
The husband in Gone Girl is unattractive. The wife is completely insane, in the familiar old way. We were amazed by the way the reviewers kept erasing the latter fact. Eventually, the highlighted statement by Edelstein seemed to confirm a suspicion:
EDELSTEIN (10/1/14): I never thought I’d write these words, but [Affleck] carries the movie. He’s terrific. Fincher exploits—and helps him transcend—his most common failing, a certain handsome-lug lack of commitment... Affleck’s Nick doesn’t mourn convincingly or look remotely honest—even when he tells the truth. In one scene, his hotshot lawyer (a genial Tyler Perry) rehearses him for a TV appearance and pelts Nick with candy when he sounds like he’s lying. He gets pelted a lot. It’s an almost impossible task to get Affleck’s Nick to sound like he’s speaking from the heart, and you can see the frustration in Affleck’s eyes at his own inability to get fully into the role. He’s trying to connect his face with his head and falling short.Edelstein tells us quite a bit about "Affleck's Nick." About Pike and her character, he says he "must say less." He says he must say less "at the behest of the movie's publicists!"
About Pike I must—at the behest of the movie’s publicists—say less, although her acting is also a study in acting. In those few moments when the mask slips, she’s tight, frightened, childishly vulnerable, desperately grasping for a sense of control that the universe has denied her. I loved looking at her.
What an astounding admission! This journalist said less than he was inclined to say "at the behest of the publicists" from the industry he covers!
Did everyone else downplay the crazy bunny-boiling portrait at the heart of Gone Girl "at the behest of the publicists?" Over the years, we've noted that reviewers often seem to defer to major directors in various standardized ways. Was this an especially egregious example?
We call it egregious because this film's reworking of the Insanely Jealous Crazy Woman stereotype was ugly, and cried out for comment. As Edelstein ended his review, it almost seemed that he wanted to complain but couldn't quite make himself do it. This was his closing paragraph:
EDELSTEIN: I can’t leave Gone Girl without going back to its depiction of women, though here I risk the dreaded “spoiler.” (Stop reading if you wish.) The timing for a film that features instances of trumped-up sexual assaults could hardly be worse, and while it’s nowhere near as extreme as Fatal Attraction—which discredited feminist shibboleths by putting them in the mouth of a psychopath—the movie, like the novel, plays to the stereotype of weak men entrapped by pretend-helpless women. The Spider Woman is, of course, a noir archetype, and I’m not prepared to renounce my affection for Double Indemnity and its ilk. But I can’t say those movies don’t have real-world consequences, and coming in the middle of mounting outrage over the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, I’d hate to see the likes of Rush Limbaugh buoyed by the film’s bloodcurdling specimen of a predatory slut. For the rest of us, it’s preferable to view Gone Girl as a profoundly cynical portrait of all sides of all relationships: First you’re blind to the truth of other people, then you see and wish you could go back to being blind. See it with your sweetie!We're finally told, though only in passing, that the film in question offers a "bloodcurdling specimen of a predatory sl*t." (We don't recommend the term.)
Meanwhile, are you shitting us? Edelstein thought the movie he was reviewing didn't put "feminist shibboleths in the mouth of a psychopath?" The Glenn Close character was a psychopath, but this character wasn't?
Gone Girl is a ludicrous film. It ends with the Insanely Jealous Crazy Woman making a falsifiable claim; she claims that the ex-boyfriend she viciously killed abducted her from her home. As viewers, we know this claim is false; we also know that half of American law enforcement is present as she makes this claim, and some of them already know or suspect that she's totally crazy.
But so what? No one tries to confirm or falsify this claim. The police simply give up and go home, and her husband meekly resumes living with someone he knows to be a killer. This is the kind of stupid shit we're asked to swallow all through this ridiculous movie.
That said, the recurrent stupidity of this film isn't its defining characteristic. That would be its use of an ugly old libel straight outta Fatal Attraction. Meek reviewers across the board agreed not to notice that problem. Edelstein seems to have told us why—the publicists told them to chill.
(He then blames his silence on Rush Limbaugh, who he wouldn't want to enable. "It’s preferable to view Gone Girl as a profoundly cynical portrait of all sides of all relationships," he says, describing the very approach that makes the reviews seem so strange.)
The publicists told Edelstein to hush his mouth! Increasingly, this is the way our discourse works in a wide array of areas. Increasingly, it's corporate scripting all the way down, corporate scripting helped along by the deference of the lambs.