The Problem With "Gone Girl" Is That There's No "Cool Girl"
David Fincher's film, based on Gillian Flynn's novel, doesn't so much bring the "Cool Girl" polemic to the masses as dilute its scathing argument. Warning: This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS if you have not read or seen Gone Girl.
I spent the first hour of David Fincher's Gone Girl watching Rosamund Pike's performance as Amy Dunne very, very closely. I've admired Pike's work ever since her turn as the amiable eldest Bennet sister in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. But I also knew that she could play icy: Just looking at her in the mostly forgotten 2007 movie Fracture, playing alongside The Gos and Anthony Hopkins, you can see that this doe-eyed girl was capable of menace. Not like Helena Bonham Carter-style menace, but Ice Queen, passive-aggressive, manipulative-bitch-with-a-perfect-manicure-style menace.
That's the sort of menace you need to pull off the Amy in the second half of the movie. The Amy who's not evil so much as cunning and fiercely unsentimental. The Amy who speaks truth to the lies of performance set up in Part 1 — the performance of the "Cool Girl."
Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl became a publishing phenomenon for its deft plotting, riptide of a narrative, and complex net of twists. But lots of books have good, addictive mysteries at their core. What's set Gone Girl apart, then, is the incredibly culturally resonate trope of the "Cool Girl." When the narrative switches to Amy's perspective in Part 2, the character offers a trenchant commentary on the type of femininity she had been performing — and with which her husband, Nick, had fallen in love — in the first half of the book:
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.
I quote the passage at length because it's just so incredibly on point — and reflective of a certain mode of femininity that our current cultural moment valorizes and celebrates. (See especially: the star image of reigning starlet Jennifer Lawrence). And Flynn, who also adapted the screenplay, recognized its importance, so much so that it's reproduced, almost verbatim, in voiceover as the "Gone" Amy drives toward her new life. As the voiceover points to the various iterations of the Cool Girl — the one that matches the vegetarian, or the hipster artist — the camera cuts to other cars on the road, filled with Cool Girls matching that description.
I'd been waiting to see how Flynn and Fincher handled the evocation of the Cool Girl, and the scene— the one time in the film that the camera focuses on someone outside of the narrative — definitely felt like a disruptive turning point, and not just because Amy's voice is inflected with the menace and misogyny that would flower for the remaining 90 minutes of the film. It feels disruptive because the Cool Girl that Amy is describing — and that the character Amy portrays so convincingly in the first half of the book — doesn't match the script's characterization of her. Put differently, the First-Half Film Amy isn't, well, cool.
She's smart, of course, and beautiful and maybe even likable, but the only time you see a hint of the Cool Girl charisma is during her and Nick's "meet-cute" at a friend's party. There, she comes off as a match to Nick's quick-talking seduction; a tit to his tat, a well-timed raised eyebrow to his well-honed yet seemingly unpracticed pickup line. Her hair is up in a thoughtless ponytail, tendrils haphazardly hanging down in that sexy way that seems totally without artifice. It's the first time we meet Amy, and it sets the tone for the Cool Girl to come.
Only that Amy goes away, replaced by an Amy that's almost annoyingly passive-aggressive (the tone as she "narrates" Amazing Amy at the wedding party) or blandly supportive (her we'll-make-it-through-this recession speech). That's not Cool; that's just an amalgam of various female characters from the last 10 years of bad rom-coms and harping wives in Judd Apatow movies.
Amy needs to be Cool. She needs to be that unbelievable mix of charisma and chill, and to give zero fucks and be all the hotter for it. It's Kate (Olivia Wilde) in Drinking Buddies meets Jamie (Mila Kunis) in Friends With Benefits to the every-public-appearance-of-Jennifer Lawrence power. And while First-Half Amy might have that body and that beauty, she doesn't have that ineffable something, that irresistible gravity. That indelible sense of Cool Girl.
Now, I get that the Cool Girl is a performance. She's a projection of the impossible contradiction of contemporary femininity, which Flynn, ventriloquizing through Amy, describes with such skill in the second half of the book. But in order for us to see Amy's skill and insight — the clear-eyed way that she saw what was expected of her and performed it, immaculately — she has to actually be Cool. She can't just be beautiful, or fairly likable. She has to be transcendent — and then, when the twist turns, and she becomes her "real" self, it illuminates the Cool Girl not as a natural state, but a performance calculated to attract, please, and sate a man's desires.
Without that contrast — and, by extension, the understanding that Amy was motivated by her frustration with the impossible expectations of "perfect" femininity — Amy comes off as a one-dimensional sociopath. The woman with the box cutter and the bloody body of a man who loved her. A caricature. A piece of high camp. A "crazy fucking bitch." And so, the sublimated ideological critique of the book disappears, replaced by the pat narrative logic of the film noir, with a fumbling, rather stupid, yet ultimately victimized male at its core.
Don't get me wrong: Amy is a femme fatale. But the best noirs always showed that the women who provided their narrative combustion weren't born evil; society, and the way it forced women to maneuver within it, made them that way.
The Amy of Fincher's Gone Girl isn't Cool, or complicated, or sympathetic. She's the "crazy fucking bitch" that Nick calls her, yet another example for the eternal argument for women's unhingeability and hysteria.
And the film's avoidance of an engaged interrogation of Cool Girl ideal is what makes it just as hollow, dismissible, and superficial as the version of Amy that inhabits it. It's the major failing of the movie — and what downgrades a transgressive meditation on the politics of gender performance into a run-of-the-mill, if entertaining, thriller.