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Survey: Can Critics Spoil ‘Gone Girl’?

Survey: Can Critics Spoil 'Gone Girl'?

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Now that it’s been out a few days, it’s safe to talk, at least in whispers, about the big twist in “Gone Girl.” But what about beforehand? Given that so many people have read Gillian Flynn’s novel — 8.5 million copies sold — do you feel comfortable at least hinting at if not outright divulging the movie’s reveals? Or do you conceal them, perhaps at the expense of intelligibly discussion what “Gone Girl” is really about? 

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Plot. Character. Feh. If a movie’s really about its twists, it’s not much of a movie. Many great filmmakers call themselves storytellers; that’s because they’re great filmmakers, not great critics. Good movies aren’t stories, they have stories, or involve stories; they illuminate the world at large and render inner worlds visible; those are the subjects worth writing about, and the plot and the twists, the characters and their psychology are elements of construction that can be discussed in detail — usually at the expense of the experience (directors’, actors’, other viewers’, my own, and maybe that of still others, too). The critical tendency to fixate on such details comes, in part, from the influence of cinema studies (or, more generally, academic training and habits) on criticism — the quasi-scientific overemphasis on the empirical, in lieu of the quasi-literary effort to perceive and convey subjectivity (wherever it’s found and found to be important). (This, by the way, is a big part of the success of so-called quality television, but that’s another, er, story.) It’s important to be considerate, in print as well as in person; the spoiler alert is a basic form of politeness. But if the avoidance of spoilers makes it impossible to discuss a movie substantially, the movie isn’t likely to be especially substantial. 

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Like “Gone Girl” itself, which is focused on our celebrity-obsessed, media-saturated culture, spoilers are a very contemporary idea. The movie’s big “twist” is kind of obvious, but also plays with obviousness in some pretty entertaining ways. But I think critics are allowed to make this kind of judgement call on a case by case basis. If you think a movie’s appeal is based on its ability to deliver certain surprise ingredients, there’s no practical reason to ruin for others. If, on the other hand, the “spoiler” factor merits further discussion with respect to a movie’s failings, you’re certainly entitled to engage with it — under the understanding that readers may give you shit for it just because they don’t know any better. In the case of “Gone Girl”,” spoiling the twist in reviews published before the release actually denies viewers part of the movie’s core appeal. But now that the movie’s out, the spoiler is part of the cultural conversation surrounding this movie. Anyone wary of it should be careful what they read. Critics can’t be — and won’t be — held hostage every step of the way.

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

Basically I think movies should be seen the way the filmmakers want them to be seen — and that means not only in the filmmaker’s preferred cut, on a big screen, but with all the surprises they’ve tried to put in, whether it’s the sudden narrative shift in “Psycho” or the unexpected cameo in the “21 Jump Street” film. Obviously if you’re writing a piece years after the fact, I would think most bets are off, but for stories running during the film’s original theatrical run, I think it’s better (and more respectful to the artist as well as the audience) to be careful. This can be challenging, and maybe I’m too careful. For example, if you looked at the original trailers for “Midnight in Paris” (which Woody Allen had final say over) you’d notice they made no mention of the fantasy element. Clearly, he wanted that to be a surprise for audiences, and I kept that surprise in my review (although most people didn’t.) In cases where the studio’s own marketers are giving away twists, I feel less compunction.

“Gone Girl” was a special circumstance, I think, because the characters are the most interesting things in the movie, but to truly discuss the characters, you have to reveal their actions. (And remember, even with a best-seller, most moviegoers will NOT have read it.) My solution was to write an initial review that was as spoiler-free as I could make it, then — after the film opened — post a longer, clearly labeled critique which went more deeply and revealingly into the movie. Luckily I had the time and space — and readers were able to have the choice.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

The thing is that it’s not that you can’t write about “Gone Girl” without spoiling the plot, you just can’t write certain sorts of things about it. Which leads me to suspect that we critics are actually far more agitated by the strictures of the no-spoiler world than the readers are. The real problem with this film, for me, was that to make an argument about it was to reveal fundamental things not about the plot, but the characters themselves (are you good or bad, check here) — and that’s where it got sticky. I find that my readers, anyhow, don’t mind if I sort of wave in giant circles about plot, but they’re less happy when I don’t let them make up their minds about things like guilt and innocence. Personally, if I ruled the world, I’d favor the two-part review structure: here is the part if you don’t want any spoilers, and here’s the part if you don’t mind.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!

If it sold 8 million copies then using a pass-on multiplier then nearly 24 million have read “Gone Girl”. That means 76 million adults who see R-rated films are potential ticket buyers. More than 75 % of the probable audience. I don’t write reviews with spoilers. (BTW, I read the book.) There is plenty to write about without citing the film’s surprises: How the film suggests courtship is a performance and marriage is like getting out of a long-running play where the performance has become stale; how Fincher frames Affleck like a trapped animal; how joblessness differently affects the characters; how tabloid television thrives on the miseries of others; how the Reznor score keeps the narrative on the edge….etc etc.

Peter Labuza, “Approaching The End,” The Cinephiliacs

Paraphrasing here, but Roger Ebert said something along the lines of “A movie review is for an audience that has not seen the movie; movie criticism is for after you’ve seen the movie.” Unless I’m writing about a really small festival film that will struggle to find viewers, I’m rarely doing the former. It’s really just about playing to your audience.

Scott RenshawSalt Lake City Weekly

I’ve made my peace with the reality that part of writing weekly newspaper criticism — for opening weekend publication — is tap-dancing around spoilers. There are places for writing that can dig into endings and third-act plot developments, and I’m glad those places exist. But I also think it’s an intriguing challenge for a writer to figure out how to talk about an entire movie when you can’t really talk about the *entire* movie. It can be done, but it requires precise wrangling of all the vocabulary at one’s disposal. Instead of an obstacle, I prefer to think of it in terms of the restrictions placed on Code-era filmmakers. There are ways of letting your audience know what you want them to know while following “The Rules,” and sometimes those rules push you to be more inventive than you might otherwise be.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Popmatters

Personally, the last thing I want to do as a critic is ruin the fun someone else might have going to a film, and for plot-twist flicks like “Gone Girl” that’s just about the only reason they exist. I suppose it depends on the nature of the outlet and the review in question — Popmatters readers would be much less concerned with such trivialities, for example — but I tend to shy away from any kind of spoilerage if it can be avoided. That said, I most certainly did mention the idea of the plot twist in GG in my review, specifically because I think the film’s having to address that twist made the whole production pretty idiotic, but I did my best to avoid giving away anything specific. On a note of pure superficial laziness, I enjoy being able to write about a film without having to dig much into plot detail, anyway.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

Critics shouldn’t be under any obligation to avoid plot spoilers when they’re writing critiques of a film after it has already come out, even if it’s just a few days after it’s come out. However, I do think some consideration is due readers when you’re writing an opening weekend review. Opening weekend reviews are in a separate class from all other forms of criticism. We all understand this, and if we don’t, we should. It’s basic human courtesy. An opening weekend review is not the same as a thinkpiece that runs in Cineaste or even in the Sunday Arts Section of the New York Times. Common sense should be the guide. Don’t spoil things that you’d be irritated if somebody else spoiled, before you’d have the chance to see the film for yourself. It’s not a constraint, it’s a challenge. If you think you can’t substantively address the essence of a movie without spoiling things, try harder. You can do it. And if you can’t do it an opening weekend review, revisit the movie later in a different forum, with a different angle of attack. 

This issue becomes moot when a publication offers critics the option of affixing spoiler warnings to the top of reviews. We do this at RogerEbert.com. Anybody who wants to write with total freedom about every plot twist in a film, any film, can choose to check the “Spoiler warning” box and then go to town. That little checkbox is there for the protection of the critic as well as the viewer. If the viewer chooses to read anyway, after ignoring the spoiler warning, we can say, “We warned you. You have no valid reason to complain.” And if the critic doesn’t want to do a spoiler-warned review, the editors pay slightly closer attention to the question of whether the writer really needs to include a particular plot detail in order to make his or her point. We argue about this sometimes at RogerEbert.com. Sometimes the writers get their way, and other times, the answer is, “Save it for a followup blog post.”

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

How much spoil does a spoiler spoil if a spoiler does spoil spoil? As is often the case, it’s down to the discretion and skill of the writer/critic, I suppose. And context: what are we discussing here, the full narrative (why?), its first third (why?), the smaller details of its mise-en-scène? Is it evaluative, analytical, both? At any rate, I went into “Gone Girl” completely blind this morning but for the knowledge that its reviews all came with spoiler warnings — which is itself a kind of spoiler. I wouldn’t have read any of them anyway till I had at least seen the film; so my view was already tinted — and, perhaps, tainted. Anyway, the film’s rubbish, so there we are.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

If you can’t discuss what a film is about without spoiling it, you’re not trying hard enough. Even this one. Spoiling a film that a large majority of the audience hasn’t even had a chance to see yet (and let’s not forget that the 6 million copies worldwide will be a small fraction of the filmgoing audience….if all 6 million people saw it, that would only be about $49 million worldwide gross at today’s average ticket price) is inherently selfish. It is childish to break the understanding that a pre-releae film review will not spoil the experience of seeing a film for the first time. And it is defeating part of the purpose of writing about film in that you’re altering the experience that the reader will have from your own (presuming you weren’t spoiled yourself). Conveying how well the twists and turns of a film work for you (or don’t) and then taking away the very ability to experience those twists and turns from the reader is just cruel. Wait a few weeks, and then discuss in-depth. If it’s worth writing about third act reveals before a film opens, it will be worth it a few weeks later too.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I can’t speak to the act of reviewing “Gone Girl”, a film I’ve yet to see. I think the real issue at hand with the larger question is how we define what a review can be. Though not all films need to be spoiled (for lack of a better word) to be discussed in detail, some of the best criticism can’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) be restricted by the possibility that a reader may not have seen the film in question yet. Failing more plot-specific criticism in the form of a weekly review, the best way to solve this is what I’ve noticed is happening with “Gone Girl” (and happens with a few handfuls of films around the fall and winter each year): don’t just write a single review and be done with it. If there’s more to discuss with “Gone Girl” or any other film, write a review and an essay, or two essays, or whatever. But add a spoiler warning if you feel the inclination. I suppose.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

Critics should absolutely preserve plot twists, at all times, and especially in reviews. Reviews are not meant to summarize the entirety of a story. They’re not even supposed to spend a majority of their time listing examples or discussing general plot points. There is always plenty to discuss — look, feel, acting, direction, themes, social implications, comparisons, inspirations, goals, etc. — without exposing elements of a story crucial to the viewing experience. Whether or not someone has read the book is never an excuse to spoil the film because they are entirely different mediums with different attractions and different audiences. Crossover can happen, but the reality is more people will see the movie than read the book. Respect that, but furthermore respect the film as an independent entity not reliant on its source material — it can alter the story or develop new focuses. It’s not your business to point out to readers what they’ll find out for themselves should they choose to see the film. It’s the critic’s job to tell them if the film holds value in its own right — not if it’s better or worse than the book. That’s a preposterous argument, anyway, and a question for another time. For now, don’t be a selfish, lazy jerk. Keep spoilers to yourself.

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

I think it depends on the critic, and their critical voice (as well as the audience they’re writing for). “Gone Girl” is the kind of film that has enough going on that one could easily write about several aspects of it without getting into spoiler territory. But given how widespread the book is, as well as the fact that knowing one or two of the shocking twists doesn’t diminish its pleasures as a film, one could easily get into plot specifics as part of analysis/evaluation. Again, it just depends on where you’re coming from and who you’re writing for.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

I didn’t see “Gone Girl” yet — the nature of my niche is that right now I’m having to prioritize Halloween-type movies — but if you are a writer worth a damn, there is always a way. Take “Million Dollar Baby,” promoted as a straight-up boxing movie: what do you do with that? This isn’t verbatim, but I remember saying something like, “By the end of the movie it isn’t even about boxing at all, but about being a man and doing the wrong thing even if it happens to be right, following your heart even when it damns you, and the ways casual mock-hostility can turn nasty and endanger friendships.” None of that tells you “the big twist” but it touches on the themes that emerge from it.

I’m not trying to claim I did it best — but you can talk about a movie thematically without having to recap specific plot points. I haven’t read any “Gone Girl” reviews at length because I’s like the experience preserved, but I gather it has a satirical edge that I would not have necessarily expected, and that makes me want to see it more.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

I didn’t read “Gone Girl” and no one who did spoiled the twist for me prior to seeing the film, so I was able to go in fresh and have the pleasure of said twist playing out in full force. In my review, I tried to preserve that sense of discovery and surprise, ambiguously alluding to certain plot points instead of outright naming them.

For “Gone Girl”, that approach felt appropriate because there was still plenty of substance to write about. The somewhat late placement of the big revelation also helps, as opposed to something like “The One I Love,” where dancing around the big first act secret forces one to write a review essentially in riddles. By omitting such basic information, readers are robbed of a basic understanding of a film. While the major twist of “Gone Girl” is eventually crucial to its story, based on when it occurs and all that happens before it, I didn’t consider it to be crucial to a review of the film.

Edward Douglas, Coming Soon

Spoilers in reviews is a tough one to get around but it’s certainly not impossible. I’m pretty good at being vague in general and my memory is so bad at times that I never would be able to talk about a plot in too much detail anyway. But I know when I see the movie what affects me or shocks me and I don’t want to write about that in my review as to detract from someone else having the same experience. The bigger problem is when you’re writing about a movie based on a true story, one that someone may or may not know hot it turned out, and it’s harder for me to avoid spoilers in interviews because you’re talking about something like a character and their motivations and even that immediately might give something away. I was talking to a director about a song used in his movie and he mentioned that it was the song that was playing when the real-life person committed suicide. The thing is that suicide isn’t actually shown in the movie, it’s only mentioned as an afterword about the person on which the movie was based, so is that a spoiler? Same for another recent movie about real life criminals who end up being killed in the end. Those who know the story realize they’re dead and it’s not like you can ask the filmmaker or actors “Did you get a chance to meet them?” because no, they’re dead. It’s definitely something you have to be careful with especially when dealing with a movie based on a book, one that may or may not have been read by those interested in the movie, so being vague is always the best recourse.

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

As a rule of thumb I generally don’t make any real effort to conceal major plot points in my reviews. By the same token I don’t go out of my way to ruin anything either. If plot is especially important towards what I would like to say about a film then it will likely be mentioned, but in all honesty my attitude towards reviewing is more often than not revolves around form vs. content. With “Gone Girl” I made no specific mention of the plot twists, but wrote about the film in such a way that certain things do read like double entendres, that will play differently depending on whether or not the reader has seen the film before reading.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Although Gillian Flynn’s novel was a best-seller, I chose not to reveal the twist in my review. While a lot of people have read the book, many more haven’t, and I suspect the film has broad enough appeal that a large number of those who go to see it will not be previously acquainted with the source material. Generally speaking, though, it’s perfectly okay for critics to reveal the twist in their reviews if they think it’s necessary to fully assess the film’s success, or lack of. Professionalism dictates that they warn readers of this intention in advance, but if it’s on the screen, it’s fair game to also be in a review. Personally, I take movies like “Gone Girl” as a wonderful challenge. Trying to write a comprehensive review without being too specific on a crucial plot development exercises my creativity as a writer. We all need to have our skills tested in that way every once in a while. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

Whenever possible, I do my best to avoid spoiling anything that a reader couldn’t easily ascertain from a TV spot for the film I’m reviewing, short of situations where you have to go a little bit deeper. In the case of “Gone Girl”, there’s so much you can talk about aside from the twist, it doesn’t seem like a huge impediment. Is it easier to discuss the movie more fully when the other person has seen it? Sure. But it’s not a prerequisite for writing about it. 

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

Plot twists should not be divulged by any of us. Just the idea sounds tacky and arrogant to me. Why? It serves no purpose in a review.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

I’m still leery about giving away the secret to “The Crying Game.” Or the end of “The Wizard of Oz.” I think the spoiler business has become a kind of fetish.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I try very hard to not “give it away” in my reviews, but over the years, I’m sure I have slipped in a few hints that might have spoiled some fun for the uninitiated. My reasons? I do believe it’s more fun for the audience to let the surprises actually surprise them at the film and entertainment, after all, is why most people actually do buy a ticket, stream or whatever they’re doing these days. Also, to me, most spoilers, especially in early reviews, have a kind of nah-nah-nah quality to them, a see-how-cool-I-am-and-what-I-know-cuz-I-invited-and-you-weren’t thing. There are, I’m sure, people who are attracted to that kind of criticism. I’m not one of them. 

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I know almost nothing about “Gone Girl” and hope to keep it that way until I see it. I didn’t read the book. I am not reading any reviews. I don’t even know the story. I don’t think I’ve even seen the trailer. The only “spoiler” I am aware of is that Ben Affleck gets naked in the film. I’ve read a headline that it’s a full frontal, but someone said it’s just an ass shot in a shower. My question is: Is that revelation supposed to entice me or keep me away?

As for revealing plot twists or even twist endings in reviews, it can be tricky even to write around them as I had to with “White Bird in a Blizzard” and “The Overnighters” as recently as this week. If you indicate that a twist is coming, it can often set up the audience to expect something they really shouldn’t see coming. But if a twist is integral to the core of the story, and forces you to reevaluate the film, it can be discussed without being explained. I think that’s responsible to address this in any serious critique of the film, but it’s irresponsible to reveal so much that it ruins an audience’s experience. 

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

I was scrupulous about keeping spoilers out of my review of “Gone Girl”.” If they’ve read the book, they already know and if they haven’t they deserve to be surprised. I note that this film did not qualify for my my “Gothika Rule,” by which I will spoil any truly idiotic twist for any of my readers or radio listeners who send me an email, most recently “No Good Deed,” and previously films like “The Forgotten,” “Flight Plan,” and, of course, “Gothika.”

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I maintain that if your appreciation of a movie relies on whether or not a plot twist was “spoiled” (most so-called “reveals” are obvious), then you’re seriously limiting your engagement with it. That said, it’s bad manners to willfully give away plot twists. Many people heading to “Gone Girl” won’t be as familiar with cinematic clichés as critics are, or have read the book the film was drawn from, and they deserve the courtesy of a carefully written review that allows them to discover the story. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging critics to be more thoughtful and less presumptuous.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

First rule about David Fincher’s deliciously slippery and entertaining domestic crime thriller “Gone Girl”? Do not spoil the fun of unspooling “Gone Girl” for future audiences. So, as Nick Cave announces in “Wings of Desire,” “Let me tell you about a girl.” The girl is called Amy Dunne and this is her film, primarily because Rosamund Pike is a revelation as the woman who can be everything you want her to be — and, especially, what you definitely don’t want her to be.This is how my review begins. As a general rule, I do not give away any surprises I enjoyed myself, no matter how much is written about it elsewhere. There is plenty to write about that does not concern plot twists if the film is well-made and the storytelling holds up as it does in “Gone Girl”. On the other hand, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” there is nothing to give away that could spoil the fun. 

What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Gone Girl”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Boyhood,” “The Blue Room,” “The Drop,” “The Guardians of the Galaxy.

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