Every failure, every road not taken is a Gone Girl all its own, Regular Amy’s story a machine for the draining away of these idealizations till she and we are left with the difficult, complex, and ultimately disappointing reality of ourselves and the awful things we’re capable of. As a fiction within a larger fiction, Amazing Amy may be the gone-est girl of all.
If you accept the familiar analogy of films as dreams – wish-fulfillment fantasies enacted by ciphers on a field of symbols – the best place to begin understanding them is by identifying the dreamer. Locating this central (or surrounding) personality, not necessarily the main character, helps answer other questions at the same time: What is the dream about, why was it constructed, whose interest does it serve? As it’s in the interest of the self to conceal itself in order to play out these often taboo and possibly threatening scenarios unmediated, identifying this figure can be tougher than it sounds.
For purposes of simplicity if nothing else, consider the situation of an actual dreamer in an actual dream. If all aspects of the dream are an element of the dreamer, then not even the dreamer within the dream is the dreamer per se: it’s an avatar, a stand-in, a fabrication of the mind for the purpose of acting out some occult mission the sense of which even the ego may be unaware of until subjecting the material to analysis. There is a dreamer, then there is a “dreamer,” and all the archetypes, illusions, and desires it interacts with in that compressed and possibly synaptic moment.
Since the interpretation of film, or dreams, mimics the solving of a mystery, we might take the least-likely-suspect principle as guide and assume the governing intelligence or superconsciousness of a drama to be the least-present of those personalities, someone everyone refers to but who never actually appears, someone who’s seen only fleetingly but who exerts an influence beyond the measure she occupies – a dead mother, say, an ex-spouse, the missing corpse in a murder investigation, a twin separated at birth, even a wholly fictional contrivance.
We are, of course, talking about Gone Girl, which announces its absence from the first word in its title. At its forefront is missing-presumed-dead Amy Dunne, presented for the first half of the film via diary entries we later find are fictitious. Since the entire story is bookended by brief narration spoken by her husband and prime suspect in her disappearance, Nick, there’s the possibility it takes place in his mind, as well. Nick has a twin sister named Margo, nicknamed ’Go, as in “gone;” both sibs share the loss of a mother seen only fleetingly in the film, dead from cancer before the start but whose influence lingers over all throughout.
To take each separately:
Amy is a born-and-bred Ivy League New Yorker and failed writer of “personality quizzes” (think about it), who finds herself in the Midwest when Nick’s mother takes ill. What’s “gone” for her is, first off, her dream of a literary future, then her mind overall when she discovers Nick’s dalliance with a student in his writing workshop. She orchestrates her disappearance on their anniversary as payback, intending to kill herself eventually but retreating from this when more inviting options arise. The revelation of her fabricated diary makes of her entire personality an enigma even to herself, a textbook example of the unreliable narrator.
If she isn’t who she thinks she is, there’s good reason: Amy’s personality is informed by a series of children’s books scripted by her parents, often when her real life let them down. Amazing Amy, as she’s known there, is the doppelganger Regular Amy carries through life – that unlived history every child knows, the shadow of our parents’ expectations of and aspirations for us; not to mention our own. (When her parents plead for help in finding her, it’s Amazing Amy they plea for, that idealized dream of a daughter they’ve mistaken for the real.) Every failure, every road not taken is a Gone Girl all its own, Regular Amy’s story a machine for the draining away of these idealizations till she and we are left with the difficult, complex, and ultimately disappointing reality of ourselves and the awful things we’re capable of. As a fiction within a larger fiction, Amazing Amy may be the gone-est girl of all.
You can’t talk about lost femininity without taking into account the male lead. As one half of a twin, Nick possesses an inherent Gone Girl, his sister a split-off facet of his own personality and the embodiment of the biological fact that all males begin life with feminine sex characteristics and as physical extensions of their mothers. (Early in the film Nick orders a drink in the bar they co-own and ’Go pulls down two glasses, then proceeds to tell him a story of a doppelganger.)
For her part, ’Go seems the most together, or “there,” female in the story (after investigating Detective Rhonda Boney), suggesting either a red hot herring or the essence of what is, finally, Gone. At thirty-something, she takes Nick in when he becomes person of interest in Amy’s disappearance but seems to have no romantic history of her own. In fact, there are glancing references to incestuous feeling toward Nick, probably complicated by their prenatal (and implicit psychological) heritage. Viewed in the context of Amy’s more dominant personality, though, Margo comes to represent a part of that psyche similarly alienated at birth, the possibility of a simple life in a simple town. Much as Amy chafes against becoming “a Missourian” (as she touts in her – unreliable – diary), it is a real physical escape from the pressures of being Amazing.
Peripheral to the psychological core of the film but significant in their own right are Boney and the student Nick takes under his wing, Andie. Boney appears to be the most modern woman in the mix, a senior authority figure in the investigation seemingly unmotivated by any overt attraction to Nick’s chick magnet of a husband. The only apparent thing missing in Boney’s life is her ex-husband, and he isn’t much pined after. Again, though, seen through the eyes of a governing consciousness – putatively Amy’s – she embodies the rational faculty left at the gate of sleep and distanced from the plot’s unhinged mastermind. In the latter’s vast contrivance, Boney is the agent of justice set up to hoist Nick on her elaborately fabricated petard.
Naïve Andie, like Nick’s institutionalized no-account father, is trotted in and hustled out of the story as though purely functional. Barely more than an androgynous name, she does as such suggest a liminal psychological figure, a sort of Nick-Margo, imaginal reconciliation of their lost unity. (While away from ’Go in New York, Nick writes a “How to Be a Real Man” column; once reunited in the heartland he finds himself a dependent living off his wife’s trust fund no doubt dealing with the complications of gender confusion this might awaken in even a reconstructed 21st-century man.) If he shared any of his sister’s repressed romantic inclination, “Andie” would also propose another such reconciliation, the return of the both-in-the-one. It’s not her body so much as her name he’s fatefully attracted to. Finally, as aspiring writer, Andie represents the lost nexus between Nick and Amy, the abandoned idealism each had for their trumped-up literary firebrand of a union.
Like dreams, film also, as a collaborative medium, is a nested doll of egos, otherwise known as authors. Besides the generally accepted premise of the director as signatory of a work, there’s sufficient room for arguing for the screenwriter who would have had any level of influence over the finished work through structuring, plotting, and developing characterizations, or the producer who bought or commissioned the screenplay, secured financing, hired the director, and steered the production from inception to distribution. And, since the author, whoever that may be, is written as much as writes (according to Foucault), a certain meta-consciousness arises from each text as well.
Gone Girl was directed by David Fincher, who through previous works like Zodiac and The Social Network has shown a knack for delineating the web of ties between systems and characters and the multiplicities within individual personalities. From Alien3 through Panic Room he’s also shown concern for a certain crisis in female identity, as well as a tendency to leave ends profoundly loose by credit roll. Girl was based on a 2012 Gillian Flynn novel and adapted by her for the screen, so the story was apparently close enough to her to essentially write twice. If there’s a balance one would tip to gauge authorship, this would probably be enough to weigh in her favor. But taking the Foucault maxim to heart, maybe there’s a larger dream playing out in these 149 minutes, which the moviegoing public has, by making it a hit, shown an affinity for, an identification with. Which brings us to the gone-est of the girls.
As originator of each of the characters in the story, Flynn, or Flynn’s mind, is the de facto container of them all. But what contains Flynn is the concept of woman itself, particularly a woman of her age at this point in evolution. Coupled with another recent film adaptation of a beloved text, The Lovely Bones – about the actual abduction and murder of a twelve-year-old girl – and going as far back as the uniquely influential Twin Peaks TV series, it’s understood that a facet of femalehood has passed, whether through maleficent external or messed-up internal means. That’s where the deceased mother in Gone Girl comes in.
Seen only fleetingly, in cancer bandana welcoming the married couple to their new home in Missouri, Maureen Dunne is the picture of long-suffering womanhood lacking only a hot apple pie to complete the image. In the cultural and economic reality of 21st-century America, she stands for all that women as mothers could no longer carry the burden of epitomizing: faithfulness and sacrifice and virtue, nurturing and patience and warmth, kindness and peacefulness and forgiveness; many of the things Amazing Amy might have modeled, and which broke Regular Amy; the kind of mom Nick and ’Go lament at one point would “fix everything” if she were there. The film is a eulogy for that woman, and a reconciliation with her reality going forward.
In many ways, dreams are our mind’s narrating its own descent into sleep, the gradual – and resisted – loss of the ego’s hold on reason and eventual dissolution into oblivion. Compare this with a dying person’s relinquishing grip on life, the mind sorting out and shedding its inauthentic facets till reduced to the true core self at the moment of passing. (Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin serves as the perfect model for this: Guy Stratten’s mission to identify personages from the title magnate’s past is merely a setup for their assassination, Arkadin dead as the movie begins.) Imagine too the process of writing, especially when writing a corpse: the steady working out of an embodied idea to its resolution, a cleansing of the ego of an obsolete or inauthentic element of the self. Now picture Ma Dunne as the unifying consciousness containing all other personalities, an image or role resolving itself in her author’s mind. All characters within the story then represent a series of nested lenses to the absolute identity.
Nick, whose narration again frames the story, represents the “dreamer,” psychic offspring of the self reframed in order to provide distance and objectivity. When he complains about being “picked apart by women,” it’s helpful to remember that the term analysis means “to break apart”: as a vestige of consciousness, it’s his place in the dream to be so acted upon. As emblem of Real Manhood post-second-wave feminism (the woodshed full of golf clubs, robot dogs, and flat-screen TVs a cubby of presumed icons of men’s interests), it’s his position in society as well. ’Go, his twin and professed “voice of reason,” provides the feminine half of the equation, the two not only twins split at birth but a psyche split at the point of death, each incomplete on its own. (Their Alzheimer’s-ridden father and Maureen’s ex indicate the estranged and compromised condition of what would normally have been a similar counterpart.) Officer Boney articulates an investigative aspect of mind, assisting, enabling, and informing Nick’s inquiry into the nature of a presence gone missing even as it’s very much present to its owner. (Are the recently deceased aware of their new status?)
And Amy, about whom everyone but Nick’s father and spurned lovers has mixed feelings, the physical form of the elusive ideal, objectified, analyzed, and dissected. Like an autopsy. Given the new reality of women in the workforce, military, and politics, different from Maureen’s generation of stay-at-home moms and with the new pressures of these roles on top of the persistent homemaker and parent, it’s unfair to expect the endurance of a flattering but exhausting ideal whose actual drudgery was killing women of her and her mother’s generations. (Something drove the elder Mr. Dunne to his extremes of behavior, too, but that’s another story.)
So the real Gone Girl was an unreal expectation imposed on a real person or persons, whose only possible result could have been rupture (the mother’s cancer). Maybe it matters less now who she was, as who the Next Girl will be to take her place.
Note: All images in this article are screenshots from the film.