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Gone Girl's Feminist Update of the Old-Fashioned Femme Fatale

20th Century Fox

Flawlessly coiffed, impeccably dressed, she floats onto the screen in the dim half-light of a smoky nightclub or a foggy back alley. As she moves across the frame, we catch a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror or a shop window. She is, of course, the femme fatale—a recurring fixture of 1940s film noir and its offshoots. As poised as she is pitiless, as charming as she is calculating, the femme fatale expertly balances her image and her true intentions to manipulate a tangle of hapless husbands, lovers, and admirers. Dizzyingly, dazzlingly dangerous, she’s the picture of traditional feminine elegance—but she did real violence, both symbolic and literal, to the institution of marriage, an establishment that kept her a virtual captive within the domestic sphere. “[My husband] keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breathe,” Phyllis Dietrichson, the iconic femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity, famously complained. Moments later, she’s convinced her lover to help her do away with Mr. Dietrichson. This—the overbearing husband, the scheming wife and her dupe of a boyfriend, and, finally, the husband’s murder at the boyfriend’s hand—is a familiar schema, and it recurs in dozens of noirs from the period: in the 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice, the 1947 The Paradine Case, the 1948 The Lady from Shanghai, and the 1949 Too Late for Tears, to name only a few. 

More than any other stock figure in the noir canon (the hardboiled detective, the seedy cop), the femme fatale upset traditional gender roles, upending the nuclear family and its attendant host of expectations, ruthlessly eliminating the men who strove to eliminate her autonomy. But her avenues of resistance were limited, and too often she played into the hands of the system she set out to dismantle. The traditional femme fatale cannot be faulted for availing herself of the only weapon available to her—her sex appeal—but we cannot fully endorse her tactics either. Her beauty was too conventional, too much a realization and reinforcement of male fantasy—perhaps a means toward more radical transgressions, but surely no more than one step on the path toward greater, more destabilizing disruptions.

Seventy years after the release of Double Indemnity, David Fincher’s new thriller, Gone Girl, presents itself as one of these. The film is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, and its protagonist, Amy Dunne, is a new kind of femme fatale, a reaction to a new kind of patriarchy. Where sexism once manifested itself straightforwardly, it has since evolved into a subtler affair. Modern patriarchy is evasive, shifty, slimily manipulative, and it requires a different sort of resistance. The classic femme fatale engaged men on the terms that they had set for her, adopting the persona they demanded of her, using her beauty to rig a game of male making. But Amy Dunne opts out of this game altogether. As cold-blooded as any of her predecessors but far less compromising, Fincher’s provocative anti-heroine refuses to pander to male expectations. She is the most evolved manifestation of the femme fatale yet, both a continuation of and an improvement on a trope that never went far enough.

An homage to its dark roots, Gone Girl is cynical and atmospheric, a jumble of infidelities, conflicting narratives, and abrupt police interrogations. Set in a small town in Missouri, the film centers around the suspicious disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a wealthy New Yorker who has fallen on hard times. When Amy and her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), lose their jobs in the recession, they quit the big city and head to Nick’s hometown, where they use the last of Amy’s dwindling trust fund to settle down and buy a bar. Nick starts teaches creative writing classes at the local university, and the couple eases into the rhythm of provincial life. But Amy is bored and restless, Nick impatient and inattentive, and it isn’t long before their marriage starts to disintegrate. 

Gone Girl opens on the morning of their fifth anniversary, when Nick returns home to find that the coffee table has been violently overturned—and that Amy is missing. What follows is a whodunit in keeping with the very thorniest of the noir tradition, a rich festival of twists and unexpected revelations. Nick, who had been planning to ask Amy for a divorce, is the primary suspect, and the case against him is damning. We learn that Nick has a younger mistress, one of his students, and the police uncover Amy’s diary, which contains a detailed account of her husband’s violent temper and occasional bouts of abuse. We discover that she was pregnant, and we struggle not to roll our eyes. Amy, the loving wife, blonde and Ivy League–educated, adored by all, accomplished in all the usual ways. Yet another lovesick casualty of male mistreatment. 

But then—major spoilers ahead—we learn that Amy has faked her own murder and framed Nick in an attempt to punish him for his affair and his emotional neglect. She dyes her distinctive blonde hair mouse-grey and adopts the trappings of a Southern frump. Everything is going according to plan: The police have fallen for Amy’s trap, and public opinion has turned against Nick, who is lambasted on prime-time television. But when on-the-run Amy is robbed, she is forced to seek refuge with an obsessive ex-boyfriend, Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), who has remained devoted to Amy since their short-lived high school dalliance. Desi puts Amy up in his secluded lake house, and she takes desperate measures to escape, cutting his throat mid-coitus in a wincingly gory scene. Finally, dressed in a spectral white slip, drenched in Desi’s blood, Amy, recalling Lady Macbeth, makes her dramatic and triumphant way home. She blames her abduction on Desi and strong-arms Nick into remaining in their marriage, claiming that she is pregnant with his child. Ultimately, there is some ambiguity as to whether Nick stays solely because he has to. “We’re partners in crime,” he says in a TV interview in the penultimate scene, knowingly squeezing Amy’s hand.

The punishment that Phyllis Dietrichson meted out to her husband in Double Indemnity in 1944 was harsh, but there was some sense in which it fit his crime. He was controlling, stifling, all-too-present—so Phyllis got rid of him. But what Nick wants from Amy—and what modern sexism wants from women—is altogether different. Rather than a smitten bride who waits at home impatiently, dreaming desperately of hubby’s return, the new sexism wants a woman who doesn’t care too much, a woman who gracefully bows out as soon as she’s no longer wanted, who makes no demands and puts up no resistance. It wants the Cool Girl. In a monologue lifted from the book that appears almost verbatim in the movie, Amy explains: 

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. … 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.

Nick and Desi want various iterations of the Cool Girl. When Amy ingeniously tells the police that Desi, her alleged kidnapper, “starved her” and “shaved her,” there’s some truth to her statement: when Desi spotted Amy in her dowdy disguise, he muttered, “I just want the old you back,” and he returned home several hours later with blonde dye, fashionable clothing, and tweezers, urging Amy to hit the gym. Nick is even worse. He is dismissive, absent, and deceptive. When the police question Nick about Amy’s friends and hobbies, he cannot answer—he never thought to ask. As soon as she starts to deviate from Nick’s fantasy of easy-going, beer-guzzling affirmation, expressing dissatisfaction with her life and their relationship, Nick abandons her, taking advantage of his position of authority to seduce a student who will validate him in all the unquestioning ways Amy won’t. In the movie, as in the book, Amy is an unreliable narrator. But there is an emotional truth to her account that supersedes factual inaccuracies and even full-on fabrications. Nick may not have hit her, as she claims, but he did make her feel “like something to be jettisoned if necessary … something disposable.” 

Perhaps most insulting of all is his unassailable indifference, his commitment to taking the path of least resistance, no matter the cost to his wife. The most powerful scene in Gone Girl takes place when Amy recounts the tale of Nick’s betrayal to a fellow guest at the rural motel where she’s been playing fugitive. She recalls how he performed the same touching gesture with his student that he once performed with her, gently wiping snow off the girl’s lips before he kissed her. The poignancy of Amy’s confession cuts through all her coldness, all her calculations, highlighting the tender, emotional core of the whole convoluted drama: on the one hand, Nick’s self-serving apathy; on the other, Amy’s warped, ineffectual caring. 

This is the patriarchy that Amy is up against: one in which men don’t have to care, or even respond to female caring, because they hold all the cards. One in which even the most accomplished and capable women are forced to mold themselves into the incarnations of male fantasy in order to matter, in which every heterosexual love story is a retelling of Pygmalion. One in which women are powerless to hold men accountable—in which female emotion is valued as a fundamentally worthless currency. 

But Amy, neo-femme-fatale that she is, holds Nick accountable. And, in the grand tradition of noir retribution, Nick’s punishment is perversely suited to his crimes. He wants to evade responsibility, to wash his hands of the mess he’s made of his marriage—so Amy ensures that the damned spot won’t come out. Rather than murdering him, she forces him to stick around and own up to his misdeeds—on television, in front of a national audience. “He needed to learn…. Grown-ups pay. Grown-ups suffer consequences,” she says, coolly. Phyllis Dietrich killed her husband and implicated herself. Amy Dunne “kills herself”—and implicates her husband. And, in so doing, she turns the Cool Girl trope on its sorry head. “I’m not a quitter,” she tells Nick at the end of the movie. “I’ve killed for you. Who else can say that? You think you would be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? …I’m it, baby.”

Predictably, responses to Gone Girl have been mixed. “Nobody can agree if it’s a sexist portrayal of a crazy woman or a feminist manifesto,” wrote Eliana Dockterman in Time. And it’s true that the film could do better. It could develop Amy’s character more fully, so that she’s less of “a piece of high camp” and more of a three-dimensional person, as Anne Helen Petersen notes on Buzzfeed. It could refrain from explicitly making the hackneyed pronouncement that Amy is a “fucking crazy bitch.” It could condemn Nick’s misbehavior more harshly—especially his affair, which is not only unsavory but also a grave abuse of his power—and it could emphasize that Nick, in the end, chooses to stay with her because she isn’t a Cool Girl. The film, along with the book, could certainly stand to do without Amy’s faked rapes, which perpetuate dangerous misconceptions about sexual assault.

But for all that, many of the problems that critics cite are as much the fault of viewers and interpreters as they are of the movie proper. Commentators who charge Gone Girl with sexism or immorality make the mistake of assuming that its message is literal—that it’s an endorsement of framing your husband for your carefully faked murder. It’s not, and Double Indemnity didn’t amount to an endorsement of murder and insurance fraud either. The currency of film is symbolic: It dramatizes emotional and social entanglements that would otherwise remain imperceptible. 

Gone Girl affords male transgressions the figurative weight they often, regrettably, do not carry in reality. We pass over the subtle indignities, the small snubs and the little injustices, because they are so worn into the woodwork of the female experience that they have become invisible to us. This is the treatment we have come to believe is our due, precisely because it is so pervasive, so normalized, that we fail to take it seriously. Amy, who blackens her own eye in an attempt to impersonate a victim of more “traditional” domestic violence, matches her external wounds to her internal ones. “He took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder. Let the punishment fit the crime,” she says bitterly. And her overreaction is an appropriate reaction to society’s underreaction, her black eye a tangible token of all the suffering that too often goes unnoticed and unvalidated.