Movies

Ty Burr | Critic’s Notebook

In ‘Gone Girl,’ a twisted view of modern marriage

Warning: This article contains “Gone Girl” spoilers. Lots of them.

“Till death us do part” used to be a promise. In movies these days, it’s a life sentence.

With the release of the David Fincher thriller “Gone Girl,” the debates flaring around Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel go wider than ever. Is this story misogynistic? A number of readers and commentators have thought so. Does it play fair by its characters? (It definitely doesn’t play fair by readers or movie audiences — which is kind of the point.)

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More critically, is the view of modern marriage promulgated by “Gone Girl” hopelessly bleak or more honest than a lot of us care to admit? Does love really mean war? If so, who gets to call the shots? What this story brings out, to its credit, is an uncomfortable but often true cultural subtext: Behind every relationship is a battle to control the narrative.

Here’s where I tell you as much of the plot of “Gone Girl” as I dare, and if you want to keep the surprises intact, flip (or click) over to Sports or the comics right now. The novel and the movie that has been made from it tell the story of Nick (Ben Affleck), a more or less average schmo whose wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), disappears from their small-town Missouri home one morning. Suspicion falls on him, naturally, and since Nick is a glib charmer who doesn’t know how to play sincere on TV, he’s soon a favored villain of the 24-hour cable news cycle.

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In flashbacks taken from her diary, we see Amy — slim, blonde, perfect — paint a portrait of a marriage that started with big-city yuppie bliss before foundering on the rocks of economic recession and growing resentments. Did Nick kill his wife? Everyone who doesn’t know him thinks so. Even his level-headed twin sister (Carrie Coon) begins to have doubts.

And this is just the setup. Things get weirder from here. At a certain point — here’s the big spoiler — Amy is revealed to be not a nice person at all. In fact, you could say she becomes the embodiment of every husband’s worst-case-scenario about waking up one morning to a demon wife.

Before I go any farther, this full disclosure: Gillian Flynn is a former colleague of mine from another publication; we remain friends. That’s relevant only because I know where some of the influences for her work come from. Rather than recycling figures of male panic like Glenn Close’s psycho in “Fatal Attraction,” Flynn draws from a tradition of classic film noir bad girls — the home-wreckers, the sirens, the sweet little things who know their way around a knife or a gun. Such antiheroines are wrinkles in the smoothly ironed contours of post-World War II normality, boogey(wo)men for the patriarchy, and they can be juicily, transgressively enjoyable. They write their own plot lines; above all, they have style.

Dale Robinette

Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play a couple who create secret selves in “Men, Women, & Children.”

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And writing one’s own plot is what “Gone Girl” is really about. It begins with two versions of “the story of Nick and Amy” that quickly diverge, the audience kept in suspense as to which one is “real.” Nick’s, expressed only to his sister, is that of a couple forced to move out of glamorous Manhattan and back to the heartland, where the wife becomes bitter and angry. Amy’s, written apparently to herself in the pages of her diary, is of the good spouse who follows her husband back home only to see him turn brutal, possibly homicidal.

Both of them then have to take even more countervailing narratives public, Nick through working with hotshot lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to game the talk show circuit and Amy — well, never mind. Suffice to say that she’s an ace screenwriter for the hordes following her story on TV and in the weepy women’s magazines. Who has the better melodrama? That’s who wins “Gone Girl.”

This is a view of coupledom that’s less misogynistic than misanthropic; it also has its acrid truths. Think of those couples who correct each other’s version of events during dinner parties. Think of the husband and wife who look rock solid for years before splitting into take-no-prisoners warfare, each lining up their respective audiences. Think of the little tiffs you have with your own spouse about who said what when, the lower-case grievances, the wondering why he or she just can’t see it your way.

We all write our own scripts and try to convince others that they’re sound. And cowriting — collaborating on a life together — is hard. “Gone Girl” rather gleefully says it’s not only impossible but dangerous to one’s health. Perhaps we need the outlier stories, if only to have something to work back from.

This is not a message that crops up in our sentimental culture very often. Playwright Edward Albee gave it a thorough workout in 1962’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” where the only thing that keeps George and Martha together is the fictitious son on which they both agree (until one of them decides to change the story). Sarah Polley made a brilliant sort-of-documentary in 2012, “Stories We Tell,” that puts the ways family histories can hinge on who’s talking right there in the title.

More often, our movies and TV shows chicken out in the interests of reassurance and closure. “Men, Women & Children,” the Jason Reitman drama also opening in Boston area theaters this week, features among its many plots the tale of Don and Helen (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), a suburban couple so bored with the story of their own marriage that they each go online in search of other partners, creating secret selves and separate dramas that make them feel alive again. The movie resolves that dilemma with a shrug, a homemade omelette, and a shared pledge to never talk about it again. That’s healthy.

“Gone Girl,” by contrast, is a horror story in which one narrative wins out in the public eye, forever and ever, until death do them part. Thankfully, the reality for most of us is much more boring: two tales traveling side by side, sometimes overlapping, at other times widening far apart, and — if we’re lucky — strengthening and supporting and listening to each other.

Related:

This is a view of coupledom that’s less misogynistic than misanthropic; it also has its acrid truths.

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Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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