The strikingly simple image: the back of a woman’s head, her golden tresses splayed against a pillow. Apple of his eye, we presume, until a man’s voice echoes in, “I imagine cracking open her head, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers,” duly setting the tone and framework for the chilling mystery “Gone Girl.”
Based on Gillian Flynn’s (also the screenwriter) New York Times Bestseller, the film follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who copes with the sudden disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) on the day of their fifth anniversary — and, soon enough, the witch hunt when fingers begin to point to him as the main suspect. The suspicion seems warranted as Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) picks apart discrepancies in Nick’s alibi and the media circus begins to skew reality to its liking. Skepticism is further encouraged as Amy’s perspective weaves through the main narrative through the cringingly saccharine scenes of marital bliss which shift into ones rooted in paranoia that her husband may in fact one day be the cause of her untimely death. And though “Gone Girl’s” mass appeal will undoubtedly stem from its whodunit angle, it successfully elevates itself from a flashy genre piece by sharply manipulating perception both in content and form.
The cultivation of perception is a fickle business, especially within a narrative where perception and perspective go hand in hand. So easily constructed, reinvented, and misconstrued is perception, exemplified by Nick as he struggles to find ground in the media and others’ rising contempt for him. A shy bumbling grin is transformed into a “killer smile”, a profitable headline for the next day’s tabloids. A tryst with a younger woman turns from a husband’s lapse into a motive for murder. On top of the building and damning evidence is the public who in turn, perceives Amy as the brilliant American sweetheart, the victim. It becomes so greatly invested in her tale, sucking up the drama like marrow from bone, that its perspective becomes shrouded in the thirst for more. Nick’s floundering inability to indulge the mob and correct his image is just fuel with which to light their pitchforks. Perception is largely in the hands of those on the receiving end, yet it can indeed be wielded by the beholder, exemplified by Amy who has taken meticulous steps to framework her own calculated disappearance from the diary entries that record the unraveling of her marriage to an invented pregnancy in order to gain sympathy. What is more sympathetic than a sweet pregnant woman in an unhappy marriage killed off by her cheating heartless monster of a husband? Exactly.
The strain between perception and perspective is further tested in the film’s own construction. Even through the first image, the audience watches the story unfold through Nick’s eyes — he as the subject of interest and Amy as the object (rightly so as it is after all, her disappearance). Certain expectations arise with this framework, which are shaken when he does not fit the familiar mold of the protagonist. And much like the public within the film, the audience is quick to cast aside its golden boy once Amy’s perspective (and the darkening perception of her husband) is introduced, propelling the narrative forward. Not only does this shift create and maintain the story’s drama but it is also the element that sets this story apart from others. Once the truth is revealed, the audience is jolted out of its comfort zone and has to grapple with a wave of feelings, which most likely include shock, doubt, and intrigue. Duping the audience is not an easy feat and challenging the very ground that its own perspective depends upon is an even tougher one. Essentially by allowing Amy’s perspective to partake in such an important role in the delivery of the film, it deconstructs both our gaze and the male gaze. Amy is no longer an object of passivity but rather an active subject. She is not simply the story but the storyteller and therein lies her power both within and outside the actual narrative.
The juggling act of perception and perspective makes “Gone Girl” so deviously satisfying. With Fincher’s keen eye and faithfulness to Flynn’s careful construction, the film stands as unafraid to dismantle all its efforts and architecture. Instead, it goes straight for the jugular, knowing full well that in its act of destruction, it will create a better and bolder payoff.