Gone Girl’s Biggest Villain Is Marriage Itself

Gone Girl’s Biggest Villain Is Marriage Itself

“We resent each other, control each other, cause each other pain.” This is the nasty, white-hot core of a toxic relationship. Gone Girl is about many things: revenge, infidelity, the wounds inflicted by bad parenting, the media, an angry wife, her douchebag husband. It is also about a marriage taken to its most terrible extreme.

There’s been a deluge of reviews and analysis of Gone Girl, the David Fincher-directed thriller based on Gillian Flynn’s bestseller about Nick and Amy Dunne, the most fucked-up couple you’ll ever meet. The consensus is that Gone Girl is a great, superbly entertaining movie. Much of what you read will say some version of the following, with which I agree: Ben Affleck, as the aforementioned douchebag husband, is perfectly cast. The screenplay did as well as you could possibly expect with a book that relies on a complicated he-said/she-said narrative structure. Actress Rosamund Pike is a chilling revelation (awards season will be good to her, I suspect), though Movie Amy pales in comparison to the vivid character we meet in the book. Strip away Book Amy’s complexities and you’re left with little more than “crazy fucking bitch.” That makes her no less captivating, but it does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel. That’s a loss, but not enough of one to actually affect my enjoyment of the film, seeing as we ladies are well accustomed to these injustices.

(Two other notes on the female characters as they appear in the movie: Detective Rhonda Boney is described in the book as “surprisingly ugly—brazenly, beyond the scope of everyday ugly,” but in the movie she is played by the decidedly not ugly Kim Dickens. Actress Carrie Coon, meanwhile, is excellent—but she’s almost a decade younger than Ben Affleck, who is supposed to play her twin brother. Don’t change, Hollywood.)

But what interests me is the primary vehicle for the plot: marriage. Gone Girl twists and turns around the story of two very unlikable people trapped in a profoundly dysfunctional marriage, but the role of marriage—not necessarily specific to Nick and Amy, but as an institution, a character in and of itself—is easy to overlook. (To be fair, who wants to think about relationships when you’ve got Fincher happily distracting you with his tense-n-moody magic tricks?) Yet so many of Gone Girl’s smaller details touch on the nature of Marriage™ itself: the everyday conflicts that, if unaddressed, can add up to a meltdown.

Granted, the spectacular disintegration of the Dunne union is not the stuff of your average unhappy marriage—unless more dead-eyed women are fucking themselves with wine bottles than I realized—but there’s a central element in the Dunnes’ meltdown that presents a universal conflict in any partnership: not knowing what’s going on inside your partner’s head. It’s easy to overlook the most telling bits and pieces of dialogue, as they’re so mundane, but unknowability is a common refrain from the movie’s opening scene to its very last. Even when Nick and Amy meet for the first time, the question looms: “Who are you?”

Given my interest in Gone Girl‘s marital discord and my novice-level perspective on the nature of these lifelong partnerships (I’ve only been married a year), I sought deeper insight. So I went to see Gone Girl with my mother-in-law and her gaggle of friends, all retirement-age women with several decades of marriage under their Chico’s belts.

“What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

In the film’s much-referenced opening scene, we hear Nick articulate an uncomfortable truth as the camera focuses on Amy’s skull: you can’t really know that person sleeping next to you in bed. We can’t read our partner’s minds. We can’t feel their feelings. No matter how much we’d like to think we know someone, we can never predict with 100% accuracy what they’re really thinking.

“Oh, I disagree,” says one of my mother-in-law’s friends. “When you fight, that’s when you really learn who they are. It comes out during when you’re dealing with the bumpy stuff.”

Perhaps. But if rough spots are the best opportunities to familiarize yourself with your partner’s inclinations, are they anything more? You can anticipate their reaction or make a pretty good prediction of what they might think or feel about something, especially after three decades of arguing over Wheel of Fortune, but you don’t actually know anything. I realize I’m sounding negative, but another older woman had my back on this one.

“When we first got married, I remember clearly thinking, ‘Who is this person? What I have I done?'” she said. “Even today, even now, I don’t know what goes on in his head, he doesn’t know what goes on in mine. I’m not sure anyone really wants to know those truths.”

Another puts it more succinctly: “I guess marriage is supposed to be two souls melding or whatever, but I don’t think that’s realistic. Women don’t tell their husbands everything.”

True, and husbands certainly don’t tell their wives everything. In the movie, this is taken several bridges too far, but every relationship has its lies. There’s more than one kind of lie and plenty of relationships have the worst of them, lies that cover all manners of betrayal. Poisonous stuff. But biting your tongue, not sharing every little feeling with your spouse, is the kind of lie that I’d wager every relationship needs. They’re emotional lies of omission: the brief sparks of a feeling you keep to yourself.

Despite what we might normally think about lying, these lies—or non-truths, if that makes you feel better about it—aren’t necessarily bad or wrong. They’re almost always in the name of compromise, a matter of self-control. They’re necessary for a relationship to function smoothly. And if you’re a normal, well-adjusted person, these tiny non-truths slide right off your back. The lying, in this case, is entirely passive and hardly steadfast; if someone actually asked when it really mattered, you might actually say what you’re really thinking.

But either you have to be asked, or you have to offer: otherwise, after a certain point, the tongue-biting bites you in the ass. When Nick decides that he and Amy, both unemployed, will sell their Brooklyn brownstone at a loss and move to Nick’s small Missouri hometown to care for his mother, it’s not so much the decision that bothers Amy as her lack of agency. “I don’t mind,” she says. “I just wish he’d asked.”

It’s a common sentiment: I just want to have a say. I want you to care what I think.

No, we can’t ever really know a person. But we sure as hell want them to know us. The problem is that we have to know ourselves first, to know what type of secret each apparently-harmless lie is covering: the necessary little secret, or the spiraling, Gone Girl kind.

Image by Tara Jacoby; photo via 20th Century Fox

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