by Alvin G. Burstein
[Editor’s note: The following review contains direct quotes from movie dialogue that could be offensive to some readers.]
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The movie Gone Girl is about an unhappy marriage, one that is unhappy in a way that is not only unique but morbidly fascinating.
Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne get involved in a steamily erotic relationship that leads to marriage. Amy is the daughter of a psychologist couple that has written an immensely popular series of children’s books about an incredibly wonderful child, Amazing Amy. Their daughter, despite her Ivy League education and Manhattan chic, feels diminished in comparison. Nick, a middle-western low brow (he guesses that quinoa might be a fish and is addicted to video games) works as a hack writer.
These opposites attract and their marriage begins ideally. Although Nick chafes at the literary soirées and pre-nuptial arrangements that are required, he is clearly delighted by his conquest; she is intrigued and delighted by his lack of pretension and off-beat humor.
Nick’s mother becomes fatally ill, and the couple is required to move from New York, back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. There the relationship begins to fray. Amy is bored by the small town tedium and with Nick’s involvement with old buddies and his twin sister, “Go.” Nick is increasingly restive about Amy’s efforts to buff up his appearance, and resentful when she unilaterally decides to lend her parents, who have run into financial difficulty, most of the million dollar trust fund they had endowed her with.
Although they maintain the public fiction of the perfect marriage, the private relations go sour. Nick gets involved in an affair and struggles to find the courage to tell Amy he wants a divorce; Amy, humiliated by her inability to compete with her fictional namesake and her parents’ expectations, decides to disappear, leaving behind an apparent homicide scene that she hopes will result in Nick’s conviction for murder—and Missouri has the death penalty.
Nick ultimately is arrested. While he is awaiting trial, Amy, disguised and on the run, is robbed by a pair of red neck psychopaths. Stripped of resources, she re-kindles her relationship with a previous wealthy suitor, Desi. Trapped in his luxe villa, Amy watches an interview Nick gives to a talk show host admitting to his faults and begging for his wife’s forgiveness and return. Moved by his reformed sinner persona, she decides to do so—covering her previous manipulation by stage managing another scene—being victimized and raped by Desi, stabbing him to death in quasi self defense.
Literally covered in blood, she returns to a vindicated Nick. He knows that she has murdered Desi and conspired to get her husband sentenced to death; she knows he knows but insists that they need and deserve each other, especially because she is pregnant with his child.
A telling final exchange goes like this:
Nick: “You fucking cunt!”
Amy: “I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I’m not a quitter, I’m that cunt. I killed for you; who else can say that? You think you’d be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby!
Nick: “Fuck. You’re delusional. I mean, you’re insane, why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.”
Amy: “That’s marriage.”
The movie closes with reprise of an opening clip in which Nick is stroking Amy’s hair, reflecting, What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?
Conscienceless and amoral, Amy is more than a classic psychopath. She is Lillith, the female demon that lures men caught in her arachnoid web to their destruction. The perverse attraction that draws Nick to her is more than the attraction of opposites. It is the dangerous excitement that attends risking death.
Amy’s demonic appeal and Nick’s seeming paralysis is counterbalanced by two eminently sane characters who serve to reassure us. Boner, the policewoman, and Tanner, Nick’s attorney, are like a Greek chorus, observing the Gothic excesses without getting involved. They are realistic, tolerant, forgiving, soothing tonics permitting us to leave the theater with some hope for ourselves.