Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gone Girl

Alternate Title:  Genesis  3:16

One sentence synopsis:  The wife of a philandering bar owner disappears without a trace, leading to suspicions that he may have murdered her.

Things Havoc liked: "I'm excited to see that new Ben Affleck movie," is one of those statements that I never expected to be saying in all earnestness ten years ago, not in the dog days of films like Gigli or Daredevil. But then we live in a strange world these days, where people speak of things like "Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey", and "this year's cinematic masterpiece from Marvel comics", so perhaps I should be less surprised. It is still perhaps saying something that my first thought on hearing about this film was grave concern that Affleck was merely acting in this movie, and not taking on the director's duties, but one takes what one can get when it comes to serious dramatic films with serious dramatic casts.

Gone Girl, based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), and directed by the incomparable David Fincher, whose resume includes such films as Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the first real sign I've seen that the September slump is behind us, and that we've finally entered Oscar Season. Oscar Season, for those who have not been keeping up with my barely-comprehensible ramblings concerning the yearly film calendar, is the third of the three major seasons into which the year is divided, a time between mid-October and the end of December, wherein the studios release their big-ticket Oscar-prospects, the movies they believe and hope will generate awards for them during the award ceremonies that recap the year between January and March. Not every film that comes out around this period qualifies as an Oscarbait film of course, but Gone Girl, with its accomplished cast, its all-star director, and its dramatic, "serious" subject matter, is almost a perfect example thereof. Lest I sound critical however, Oscar Season is a time I look forward to with great anticipation, as all of a sudden the studios disgorge a plethora of excellent prospects before me, and ask only that I, like the rest of the critics, find something in them that we like.

Well I'm always game for seeing the bright side of things. Let's start, as always, with the actors. Ben Affleck, like other former-pretty-boy actors before him, has made the transition from a critical joke to a critical darling mostly by putting his reading glasses on when reviewing scripts, taking on films that offer greater dramatic range while relying on his instinctive charisma to carry him through the role. McConaughey did the same thing when he made his right-turn into relevance, and Affleck, even when not directing, knows exactly how to deliver a performance like this. He plays Nick Dunne, a failed writer who has become something of a layabout in a small town in Missouri, to which he has moved himself and his wife to be closer to his family. Affleck plays the role distantly, like a playboy who is no longer young enough to get away with such antics, and does not seem to know what else he is supposed to transition into for the remainder of his life. His marriage with Amy, his wife who goes missing early in the film, is highly strained, believably in both of their cases, and Affleck does an excellent job of provoking suspicion from both the audience and the rest of the cast without ever transcending the bounds of reason or lacking for a plausible explanation. It's not easy to balance on the edge of a mystery like this, but Affleck is easily up to the challenge, and never once slips back into the bad habits he demonstrated for the first fifteen years or so of his career.

But Affleck is a rank amateur compared to the real revelation of the film, Rosamund Pike, an actress whose resume previously included such "wonderful" films as Die Another Day, Jack Reacher, and Wrath of the Titans, and who is on a completely different level in this film. Describing the various things that Pike does in the movie would be to spoil the entire thing, but her performance here is absolutely electrifying, an order of magnitude beyond anything I have seen of her before. Through all the tribulations that the movie involves her in, Pike manages to portray everything from quotidian concern to frustrated anger to horrific victimization to... well that would be telling. Her performance anchors the entire film, whether in flashbacks to her and Affleck meeting in New York, to more recent flashbacks to their troubles in Missouri, to the events that actually touch the plot off, and with it, she has instantly elevated herself in my mind to the A-list of Hollywood actresses. This is the sort of performance that Oscar nominations are made of, a riveting, twisting role that can make or break the actor or actress in question.

And the good times don't stop there, indeed this movie was a rather stunning revelation for me, not merely because of Pike, but because of a number of different actors for which I've had no use previously, and found one here. One of these actors is Kim Dickens, a main character on HBO's Deadwood (one of the best television shows of all time), who has previously been decidedly underwhelming in everything I've seen her in, but not here. She plays Detective Boney, the only member of the local police force unable to make her mind up instantly about Affleck's guilt or innocence, whose investigation parallels that of others, as the audience tries to piece the truth together. But the one that surprised me the most, unquestionably, was of all people, Tyler Freaking Perry, once described to me as the least-intimidating six-foot-four black man in America. Perry, a purveyor and star of absolutely terrible movies for the last decade or so, here plays the first serious role I've ever seen him attempt (I contrived to miss 2012's Alex Cross), as a high-priced, high-profile defense attorney specializing in media circuses, and to my abject shock, plays the role perfectly, a sober, collected expert who knows precisely how the currents of public opinion and media cycles function, and advises his client on the best way to avoid shipwreck. Perry is not a caricature, nor an exaggerated farce, and the realism with which he portrays the role actually cements the film's central narrative about the facetious gossip-mongering that the rest of the media and legal system is mired in.

Things Havoc disliked: Given the above, and the effusive praise I have lavished upon so many actors of this film at such length, you might expect that I would have little to complain about, and that this movie was one I was preparing to strongly recommend. And indeed I must admit that when I first emerged from the theater and analyzed my feelings on the film in general, that was precisely what I was preparing to do. Normally my first impression from a film proves to be pretty close to my final thoughts, but in this case, I decided to give the film a little time to percolate before making a final decision, so that I might come to terms with some of the more disquieting elements that the movie left within me.

My conclusion? I hated this film.

Everything I said above, praise for Affleck and Pike and Dickens and Perry, all these things I stand by, as the problem with the movie is not the acting. It is not, by and large, the direction, nor the cinematography, the former of which is at least serviceable, the latter of which is expertly-done by long-time Fincher-collaborator Jeff Cronenweth. No, the problem with the film is something much deeper, much more troublesome, something rooted in but not precisely equivalent to the writing. An accusation that all of you know, by now, that I do not make lightly, and in fact almost never make at all. The major problem with this film is, indeed, something I feel fairly uncomfortable even bringing up, knowing as I do how quick I am to reject such statements as issue-questing and axe-grinding when it is made of other films. But the fact remains that the problem with this film is that it is deeply, pervasively, stunningly misogynistic.

You all know me. You all know I do not press that button of all buttons casually. And yet I have no choice here but to hammer it home because this film is staggering in its contempt for women, all women (with a couple customary exceptions) over the course of its narrative. They are shrewish, empathy-less, judgmental harpies. They are evil, conniving, psychopathic murderers. They are twisted monsters disguising themselves effortlessly from the honest, simple, true-hearted men that surround them, whose virtuous, trusting natures prevent them from seeing the webs of iniquity and vitriol that are being spun around them. Not one woman is portrayed this way, but ALL of them, even when their characters must make right-angle turns in order to support this narrative, even when the plot groans under the weight of contrivances just to squeeze that much more evil out of the female species, even then the film is relentless in hammering home the fundamental decrepitude of women as a whole, to the point where my viewing companion suggested that the film was beginning to resemble an MRA propaganda piece, and I was getting flashbacks to St. Bernard's medieval panegyrics denouncing the race of Eve as sinful, duplicitous monsters.

The typical hypocrisies associated with bigotry of any stripe are front and center here. Some women are ditzy or brainless or simply stupid, such as the majority of the Stepford-analogues in the bedroom community that Affleck and Pike are living in, vapid people with shallow interests and a grotesque inability to empathize. A throwaway character early on in the film, a woman who approaches Affleck after he has lost his wife to a violent kidnapping for which he himself is suspected, presumptuously takes a Selfie with him for no reason whatsoever, and then reacts to his requests to delete or at least not share the picture as an inexplicable and creepy request from a selfish dick, informing him that she will share the picture with whoever she wishes and storming off as if wrongfully abused. Later that very image appears on a talk show run by an evil, shrewish Ann-Coulter analogue played by veteran actress Missi Pyle (who I'm sure is a very nice person, but whose misfortune has always been to have a face that naturally screams "bitch"). What benefit does this mystery woman draw from this act? Nothing. She's simply a stupid ditz who ruins Affleck's life for no reason and can't even realize she's done wrong. Similarly Affleck's mother-in-law, a bitter, sniping woman who publicly denounces Affleck any chance she gets, and his mistress (more on that later), a dumb college student who seduces Affleck with her bubble-headed sexiness only to turn around and put on a virgin's cowl when it's time to tearfully denounce him while being manipulated by other women. Yet on the other hand we have other women who are sublimely clever, twisted, masqued murderers and sociopaths, who delight in destroying men's lives for the fun of it, or for the crimes of having paid insufficient adoration to themselves. Women able to construct the most exquisite frame jobs, fake everything from rape to physical abuse, spend years establishing the pieces only to bring the unknowing men down just so that they can have the pleasure of watching them burn. It's not just Affleck this happens to of course, for these are man-eaters, misandrists of a sort that exist only in the depraved fantasies of men who feel themselves wronged. One man, late in the film, admits to having had his life destroyed by a woman who set him up as a rapist for the crime of not committing to her, while another (played by a surprisingly flat Neil Patrick Harris), showers a woman with money and attention, only to be the victim of a hideous crime largely out of convenience. I have literally known men who were falsely accused of sexual assault in real life, something which is vanishingly rare, and even I was unable to simply accept something like this wholeheartedly. In a film that employed ONE of these characters, such as Jennifer Lawrence's sollopsistic passive-aggressive maniac in American Hustle, I would have had no problem. But this film throws in every stereotype they can find, makes up a few more, and then afflicts them all on the thankless, aw-shucks simple man of virtue that is Ben Affleck, and expects us to accept that this is the stuff of real drama.

And maybe this all would have worked in a film that explored the deep-seated hypocrisies of seemingly-normal people, a Peyton Place-style unveiling of the hidden darkness within everyday people, but the movie refuses to play fair, because Affleck, the afflicted man at the center of this tempest, can do no wrong. Sure, he's a shiftless layabout who sponges off his wife's trust fund, but trying to be a writer is hard, guys, and he needs some time to himself. Sure, he throws his wife into a wall in anger, but she probably made that up as part of a Machiavellian plot to get back at him. Sure he, cheats on his wife with a student half his age, but she was just so goddamn sexy that he had no way to control himself! Just ask his twin sister Margo (played by Carrie Coon, whom I mistook until five minutes ago for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's Aubrey Plaza), who almost alone among the women of the film is portrayed as neither stupid nor conniving, mostly because she has absolutely no reason to exist, either in the script or in the world of the film, save as an adjunct to Affleck's character. She has no life of her own, no family, no boyfriend, no hints of anything else going on except the ability to bear witness to Affleck's travails and fume against his tormentors. At one point late in the film, when asked if she is "with" Affleck, she responds that she was with him before they were born. She exists to complement him, which promotes her to 'honorary guy', something I don't usually mind with female characters, save when that promotion exists purely to distinguish the character in question from the dreaded curse of femininity that otherwise runs through the movie.

Final thoughts:   This review project of mine has been a weird exercise in many ways, but this, for me, is one of the weirdest. I never in my life thought I would wind up denouncing a movie with good acting, excellent cinematography, and at least decent directing (Fincher has a bad habit of stopping the film for ten-minute expo-dumps periodically, but that might be unavoidable considering the subject matter), let alone for reasons such as this, but there are occasions when one must, upon seeing a spade, call it a spade. I know this film has been praised to the skies by every critic known to man. I know it was written by a woman (Gillian Flynn, who also authored the book it was based on). I know David Fincher is a superb director who has done very little wrong in the last fifteen years, and made films of greatness and grandeur, something he will hopefully do again. I know this movie may even show up next March when it comes time to hand out Oscars. But this is my goddamn blog with my goddamn reviews on it and I cannot, and will not praise a movie this badly compromised by a deep-seated sense of misogyny as some kind of daring exploration of the nature of our modern world. I do not require that all men who philander be regarded as satanic and evil, or that all women be virtuous or kind or even sane. But I will not accept a movie that so blatantly gender-codes its roles in such a way and then turns around and tries to pretend to me that it is some sort of deep-rooted mediation on reality and its flaws. If a movie was made this way about men (and there have been some), I and others would be trumpeting outrage to the skies. It is only elementary consistency that leads me to do the same here.

A good movie can be made about any subject, but only if it is made with honesty. This movie is made with cruel and crude simplification and then gathers airs of depth and innovation because of its many virtues of acting and pedigree. I leave it to the other critics this time to praise its glories. For me it is a shallow, ugly thing, that in all honesty, I would simply sooner forget.

Final Score:  3.5/10

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