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Cool girls, mean girls, gone girls

Thursday 9th October 2014

Not long into Gone Girl, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) drops into the bar he runs with his sister Margot (Carrie Coon). He hands her a box-the board game Mastermind. She scoffs at it and exiles it to a shelf with some other games: Let's Make A Deal!, Emergency, and The Game of Life.

It's an obvious joke, but it needs to be. Gone Girl is director David Fincher's first comedy since Fight Club in 1999, but it doesn't feel like one. It's more in tune with Fincher's wintry work on House of Cards and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The interiors are grey and brown and celadon, crisp and disinfected by the lights; outside, the sleepy town of North Carthage is tyrannised by the godless line, McMansions at one end and blocky public spaces at the other. We blink through this world to the beat of pianos and buzzing synths.

Gone Girl is static, geometric, purring with ill intent. The kind of thing you want out of a seedy thriller like this.

It's a comedy, though. Yes, it moves and kicks like the most wonderful white-knuckle thriller (the unbelievably tense peak leading into the second half is a masterclass in editing). But it's totally deadpan, laughing the whole time at the suffering residents of North Carthage.

It's fine, though. They're not good people. This isn't a grim frownfest like Dragon Tattoo, where the world's moral core is held together by a humourless sod in a trenchcoat and an emotionless hacker grrl.

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, a selfish lout leaning on his callow charm.

In North Carthage, there are two people who can be considered decent: Margot, a tired 30-something wise-ass, and Detective Boney, who Kim Dickens plays with the kind of honesty that's long been extinct in this town. Everybody else is either clueless (you'd have to be to put “Find Amy” on a KFC marquee) or just terrible, shifty and entitled and thirsting for mutuall- assured destruction.

Stuff starts getting spoilery here. You know the drill.

This isn't open war, though. Nobody's too keen to admit to being torn down. So they perform; they twist and turn and play the roles that hide their scars and wounds. That's what Gone Girl's about. The act of performance.

It's most obvious in the media sniffing around after Amy, shadowing those left behind like an ancient god demanding sacrifice. From Missi Pyle's pulpit-pounding Nancy Grace-alike to the faceless reporter who yells "LOUDER" at a mumbling Nick, the media treat the disappearance like it's Lost, projecting the story's arc and pulling apart the characters with 20 episodes left in the season.

Gone Girl has nothing but contempt for the caustic ways they talk about crime and for the ways they irresponsibly and indecently build peoples' lives into damaging narratives.

Some people are just better at handling the media spotlight, though, and it's not like anyone decent is under it. Nick's a selfish lout leaning on his callow charm; it's one of Affleck's best performances, if only because Affleck's so good at being a bit of a try-hard. During his first police interview, Nick quips, "I feel like I'm in a Law and Order episode"; Affleck gives the line a little bit of bounce and a shit-eating grin and we're perfectly offside.

Then there's Desi Collings, Amy's high school boyfriend-cum-stalker. Neil Patrick Harris is quiet in the role, but he's not at odds with the film's hysteric crescendo. Desi is so phenomenally earnest that his creepiness shines through; taking that lead, Patrick Harris repurposes Barney Stinson's broad, comic facial tics and truncates them, forces them across his face as he speaks in an affectless monotone.

And then there's Amy. Amazing Amy, who's been performing her whole life. Rosamund Pike is immense, switching on a dime between America's Sweetheart, America's Victim and America's Ice Queen. It's the kind of performance that's a joy to watch, effortlessly steering Gone Girl during an increasingly off-the-wall second half.

Which gets us to both The Misogyny Point and Gone Girl's chief problem. Anne Helen Petersen wrote about That Cool Girl Speech at Buzzfeed and how it stands at odds with the Amy we see in the first half of the film. Without Amy ever convincingly playing that role, Petersen says, Amy becomes just that “crazy fucking bitch”. And Petersen's right that Amy's never the Cool Girl. She plays an aspirational figure, a role she alludes to when she talks to Nick about his performance on ‘Sharon’, but that role doesn't inspire the immediate, visceral impact a switch from Cool Girl to Machiavelli might have. In short, it's not big enough.

That said, both the Cool Girl speech and the film itself are about men who use women as tools, ways to legitimise their choices and performances. Amy may be a different type of tool in the film but the core is the same, and her bloody campaign against the men in her life remains entertaining, in part because you don't feel that bad about what she's doing to these dudes. It just reeks that some misogynistic elements get bundled up in that (the constant refrain of the false rape accusation, for example, is engaged in a shockingly uncritical way).

In Gone Girl, everything is about performance. The men who fail at it (Nick, Desi, the commercialist wasteland of North Carthage itself); the women who reject it (Margot, Detective Boney); the woman who masters it. It's hard not to laugh at the failures; it's even harder not to root for the master.