Every misanthrope starts out hopeful. Think of the two American misanthropes who book-ended the 20th century, Twain and Vonnegut. The fuel cell for their anger at humankind is disappointment. We could have been so much better.
I’m not sure David Fincher, the most interesting contemporary misanthrope I can think of, really shares that hope. He doesn’t like us very much, and one rarely glimpses any sign of regret about it. His great and creepy film “Zodiac” — the one that bears the closest resemblance to “Gone Girl” –contains a wonderful joke. If you rake off the upper layer of concealment on almost any human life, you find the plausible ingredients of a serial killer. The problem the cops have in “Zodiac” isn’t that they can’t find the guy. It’s that they keep finding so many guys. The rest of the Fincher oeuvre includes “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Social Network.” These are not admiring portraits of our species.
Now, “Gone Girl.” (Can you tell I’m trying to catch up on cinema this week?) Before I go further, I promise to try not to spoil the film, but that’s going to be difficult. It’s not your typical thriller. The big reveal comes about halfway through. The problem was stated differently in a piece I greatly admired (without necessarily agreeing with all of it): “Disclaimer: If you don’t know what happens in Gone Girl by now, please send me an email explaining how that is even possible.”
The literary material of “Gone Girl” is perfect for Fincher’s mood, because he’s under no obligation to sustain the excitement beyond the first 75 minutes or so. Then he gets to look at what really interests him: the degree to which the most basic notions of human happiness are essentially social fictions: stories we construct and — having cast ourselves in protagonist roles — play out to the best of our abilities. Maybe you heard: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
There’s a moment in the film when the husband Nick (Ben Affleck) shambles numbly into his perfect kitchen only to behold his perfect yellow cat and his perfect-looking wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) making something perfectly delicious-looking with lots of little bowls of sweet, fresh ingredients arrayed around her. “Crepes?” she asks. And you realize the movie has now veered irretrievably into social satire and that’s OK. Horror and social anxiety are close cousins anyway. In “Rosemary’s Baby,” the principal source of anxiety is social — sooner or later Mia Farrow is going to have to confront all these smiling people with what she suspects about them….and that’s going to be so awkward I just can’t stand it.
I could keep that parallel going. “Gone Girl” is about marrying into a family of demons. Amy’s parents are monsters who twist her like a Rubik’s cube to fit their excruciatingly sunny children’s books. Amy, in this movie, is what Facebook is in “The Social Network.” She’s a great idea, but the most enduring question about that idea has to do with distributing the money it made. As my friend Peter Shapiro used to say: It’s always about the money. And when they say it’s not about the money that’s when it’s really about the money.
But we’re all monsters according to Fincher. Especially the press. This movie is Fincher getting his Paddy Chayevsky on. There’s only one channel and only one show on that channel. It’s Nancy Grace, 24/7. (Except when it’s Sela Ward in a wonderful turn as the person who’s just as bad as Nancy Grace but on a counter-narrative basis. Oh Sela Ward. I am grateful to have lived on the earth at the same time as you.) But that’s one of the clues that this is not an entirely serious movie, The press is camped outside the house of the story du moment five weeks after it stopped being that.
Have I made clear that I like this movie? I do. It is comic misanthropy well played. Well played, Mr. Fincher.