a theatre, film & pop culture review
Warning: There will be spoilers because I don’t give a shit.
About halfway through Gillian Flynn’s bestseller-turned-box-office-champ Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher, comes the moment. It’s the Cool Girl speech:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)
I quote the speech in its entirety because it’s a smart, sharp piece of writing about a type of woman that has proliferated in our culture, and though I can’t remember precisely, it seems that Flynn (who adapted her own script) and Fincher keep it largely intact. As of course they should. The speech reveals the groundwork upon which Nick and Amy’s relationship blossomed, and then, as expected when anything is built upon a foundation of pretense, it’s what splays open the marriage and incites the plot-twisty, noir action about a femme fatale wreaking havoc on the man who wronged her.
But Fincher misses it. He treats the Cool Girl speech as almost a throwaway. It’s a voiceover as Amy speeds away — far, far away from her philandering, dopey husband — and comically shovels junk food into her mouth as miles of highway disappear behind her. As Amy talks about the tattooed hipster girl, there she is in the next lane, all comic-geek cool. There’s also a pair of sorority-type girls speeding by, raucously laughing at something, but their connection to the speech is vague: Can’t girls just want to have fun, Mr. Fincher? Where are the men that these women are trying to be cool for? They don’t show up during this voiceover at all, which implies that the speech is a condemnation of these women. It is not. Amy isn’t putting down the women that like poker and burping and three ways (these women exist, though perhaps not quite in the abundance that Hollywood would have you believe). She’s critiquing the women who pretend to like those things, and the men that want — no, expect — women to like all those things even if they’re pretending. But even as she calls for women to think for, and be, themselves — albeit in more of a twisted, less of a you-go-girl way — Amy herself is the ultimate Cool Girl, because there’s power in being cool. She’s hot, she’s brilliant, she’ll be whatever you want her to be, and you’ll love her all the more for it. And that’s when she has you.
But you wouldn’t know it from the film, because Amy never has us, not for a minute. Fincher unravels Nick and Amy’s story in his characteristically sleek, gripping style (aided perfectly by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s eerie, uneasy score and Jeff Cronenweth’s tight cinematography). He cleverly guides us through Amy’s — the title character’s — disappearance, but it’s not Amy’s story that he tells so masterfully. It’s Nick’s.
Pause. This is when I tell you I haven’t read the book. But before you get your panties all in a bunch about that, I have read another of Ms. Flynn’s novels, Sharp Objects, and the women in that book are even more delightfully fucked up than Amy. But Ms. Flynn is not a misogynist, nor is she a misandrist (though Gone Girl has been read through both lenses). She’s a proponent of bad women. She advocates for the complexity of women — the good and the bad (but mostly the bad) — in all their un-pretty, complicated glory. Because if men can be charming psychopaths, so can women. Gender equality, hear hear.
The one problem with Fincher’s (and Flynn’s) film — because, let’s face it, it’s nothing less than entertaining, all 2 hours and 25 minutes of it — is that it fails Amy. From what those who have read the book (ahem) tell me, more time is taken in introducing us to her, to fully developing her charisma and likability as a Cool Girl, as well as firmly establishing the envious bond the couple shares during their first years together. Instead, the movie opens with a remarkably aloof Nick — Ben Affleck, whose vacant movie star mug works surprisingly well here — wondering what the hell is going on in that mysterious mind of his wife’s. Do you ever really know a person, he wonders? For the next hour, we follow his view of events, and while he’s not the most sympathetic fellow around — he doesn’t remember to call Amy’s parents until a cop reminds him and, well, there’s that gross affair he’s having with his twentysomething student — he’s more available to us, even in his isolation of his own making, than Amy. We root for him, though we know we probably shouldn’t. We like his smart and scrappy sister (the ever-excellent Carrie Coon). We know Amy’s a crazy bitch before we even meet her because they tell us she is, and we’re given zero reason to believe otherwise (the fuzzy memories of her diary entries do little to endear her to us).
And then the film switches abruptly to Amy’s current viewpoint, beginning with that Cool Girl speech. But it’s too late, really, because even the flashbacks of her Cool Girl days don’t depict a Cool Girl at all (except for that first meet-cute at a party in which the witty banter flies, rapid-fire). They reveal an insecure woman who always failed to meet her WASPy parents’ expectations; who moved cross-country for her man, no questions asked; and who, even when she knew he must be having an affair, begged, with puppy dog eyes, for a child. Rosamund Pike’s Amy, all chilly stare, is preternaturally calm and scary as hell, and when she slices a man’s throat, we expect nothing less. She’s not a frightening, fascinating quandary to solve; she’s exactly the woman Nick has drawn for us — all one-dimension crazy.
Juggling multiple narratives is tricky, especially when balancing the tight-wire act that is a mystery like Gone Girl, but not doing so well strips the story — and both its main characters — of potential layers of complexity.* Even Nick loses potency onscreen because of it (we see but a flash of his potential to violence, otherwise he’s mostly a sad sack with women problems), and while Amy may be (way) more crazy than amazing, she’s not a woman lacking motivation or intelligence. So, whenever someone in my packed movie theater laughed at her and muttered, “what a crazy bitch,” I pulled out that Cool Girl speech, which had been buzzing in the back of my mind, and, turning it ’round and ’round, and examining it, I used it as a lens to read a character in a way that the director largely chose not to.
Do you think Fincher likes strong women?**
*Here I am assuming that the book offers up a more complex relationship (shame on me).Regardless, the film could have.
**I kid, I kid.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel; director of photography, Jeff Cronenweth; edited by Kirk Baxter; music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; production design by Donald Graham Burt; costumes by Trish Summerville; produced by Arnon Milchan, Joshua Donen, Reese Witherspoon and Cean Chaffin; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Ben Affleck (Nick Dunne), Rosamund Pike (Amy Dunne), Neil Patrick Harris (Desi), Tyler Perry (Tanner Bolt), Carrie Coon (Margo Dunne), Kim Dickens (Detective Boney), Patrick Fugit (Detective Jim Gilpin), Emily Ratajkowski (Andie), Missi Pyle (Ellen Abbot), Casey Wilson (Noelle), David Clennon (Rand Elliot), Boyd Holbrook (Jeff), Lola Kirke (Greta) and Lisa Banes (Marybeth Elliot).