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He just can’t help himself. He’s up on a stage, the crowd below, fighting for his attention. Camera shutters snap and flashes pop. All eyes are on him. What is he supposed to do? His face breaks into a wide, charming, movie star grin. He’s already forgotten that he’s standing next to a missing poster for his wife, her huge smiling face looming behind him like a sarcastic rebuke of his own. The cops in the room roll their eyes. How could he be so stupid, giving himself away like that?
And he is giving himself away, but not in the way they think.
From the very first trailer, we already had Gone Girl’s most compelling image. An innocent man accidentally playing the part of a guilty one, simply because he can’t stop himself from enjoying the spotlight. Gone Girl is all about playing roles, and how much of a person’s “true self” is reflected in the way they choose to fulfill or refute societal expectations.
Let’s look at the first of the two people in the shot described above. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is interesting in how uninteresting he seems. Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn give us a series of red herrings based on his behavior. His wife has disappeared and everything he does makes him seem like a sociopath. He just can’t seem to perform the anguish and despair that one would expect from a man in his position. His inability to act the way he’s expected to act makes him seem guilty.
Nick is a man incapable of performing. This, Gone Girl suggests, is his Achilles’ heel in a world where people must perform to survive. Our true selves are sick, deranged, violent, capricious. They must be papered over with recognizable cliche. It’s a cynical worldview, but a compelling one.
Nick’s failure with his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), was a failure to treat her with humanity and dignity, a failure to listen and respond to her needs, a failure to be a good husband or even a good person. But to Amy’s mind, this is merely a failure to play the role of a good husband. To Amy, everything is performance, everything is untruth. This is the way of the world, and she expects him to conform to it.
Amy, as opposed to Nick, is a natural performer. She learned it at a young age, growing up with parents who wrote a series of children’s books about a character based on her. She came of age alongside an ink twin, an improvement on her in every way. She was taught to not be herself, to be better than herself. She learned that the self is an inconvenient truth, but that there’s a way to circumvent it.
She’s such a master performer that she’s able to both convincingly frame Nick for her murder and later take it back and construct an entirely different fiction where he’s innocent. She filled a diary full of fake entries painting Nick as an abusive loose cannon, weaving a narrative that could only end with him killing her. And then she came up with a new ending and somehow managed to make it fit.
Near the end of the film, once Amy has returned home and Nick knows the truth of what she did, she confronts him in private, away from the prying eyes of the press. She insists that he start pretending to be a happy husband by her side, blackmailing him into performing for the first time in his life. Of course, she has to perform too, lest her secrets come out. Amy think that the two of them can work as a couple, provided they continue the charade. She has absolute faith in the power of performance. The film ends with uncertainty over how long this arrangement can last. Amy can lie forever, but can Nick? Does Amy even think she’s lying? Or do they live in a world without any truth, without true selfhood? Perhaps all they can do is perform, and live up to the expectations of others. Perhaps that’s all any of us can do.