In the last few weeks, I saw two films, Gone Girl and White Bird in a Blizzard, that share similar themes, mainly unhappy marriages, both are literary adaptations, both have noir elements, most notably the missing women are femme fatales, but these films are radically different in subtext and tone.
Spoiler warning: I plan to spoil the hell out of both films, so warning to those who worry about such things.
There has been a bit of an editorial battle waging over director David Fincher's Gone Girl, taking sides on whether the film is feminist. After seeing the film, I can now say that it isn't. The film begins with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) coming home to find his home in disarray, his cat wandering, and his wife gone. As police investigate Amy Dunne's (Rosamund Pike) disappearance, we hear Anne in voiceover detailing their relationship. They met in NYC where they were both writers before the recession. The next relationship stressor was a move to North Carthage, Missouri to be near Nick's sick mother and it is Amy's wealth from her parents royalties from popular children's book series that fund this relocation and even buys Nick his bar, that he runs with his twin sister.
The first half of Gone Girl is totally a police procedural as seen entirely from Nick's perspective. We learn that he has been having an affair with one of his students and had a bad habit of spending money they don't have on electronics, but nothing revealed about Amy and Nick's marriage in part one really makes the view see Nick as anything but sympathetic as the evidence mounts that points to his likely involvement in her brutal murder. But in the second half, suddenly we are pulled away from the police investigation to the narration of alive and well Amy, gleefully detailing her plan to frame her husband for her own murder. And this is where the story, at least as portrayed in the film adaptation, is problematic.
Early in this switch in perspective from Nick searching for his missing wife, to Amy as she is carefully orchestrating her plan, we get the monologue that some point to as the feminist center of the film.
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men — friends, coworkers, strangers — giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much — no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version — maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.
The problem is the delivery. When we hear this rather awesome monologue, it is from a women who we know to be an unreliable narrater of a past where we saw nothing of this cool girl. So instead of being a critique of the way masks are applied early on in relationships, it comes across as a critique of the ways that women trick men into marriage. Actually, it is difficult not to see this film as a horror movie about an emasculated man who is ultimately trapped in a marriage to a psychopath. Gone Girl could have been a deconstruction of the institution of marriage, but instead is a movie about the heteronormative fear of women and marriage.
Gone Girl should have demonstrated more gender nuance since author, Gillian Flynn supplied the screenplay for Fincher's film and yet, the resulting film has a decidedly male point of view. So it is interesting to contrast Gone Girl to another current theatrical release, White Bird in a Blizzard from Gregg Araki. Gregg Araki adapted White Bird in a Blizzard from the eponymous novel by Laura Kasischke, but the resulting film is decidedly feminine, told from the perspective of Kat (Shailene Woodly). And like Gone Girl, the film is centered on the mysterious disappearance of a wife, Eve (Eva Green).
Kat (Shailene Woodley) is 17 when her mother vanishes, but her mother's sudden disappearance doesn't launch the sort of intense police investigation or media circus that we see in Gone Girl. Instead, it is presented as a fact in Kat's narration. She was 17 when her mother disappeared and their relationship is slowly filled in during meetings with Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), in therapy sessions with Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett) and finally in the glimpses of Kat's snow covered nightmares. At the time of Eve's exodus, Kat is focused on pursuing the new next door neighbor, Phil (Shilo Fernandez). Their relationship is a perfect depiction of young love, fueled by hormones and sexual curiosity. But amidst all of the making out, there is the unsettling shadow of Eve's disappearance coupled with Phil's rather sudden sexual withdrawal. From Kat's perspective, Phil's growing disinterest is an excuse to pursue with the police officer investigating the missing person's case.
So like Gone Girl, White Bird is also a document of the erosion of a marriage, but here is is not entirely due to the failings or malevolence of one spouse, but due to a slow spiral of escalating slights and betrayals that are hidden by the outward appearance of a traditional family. Until one day, Eve is gone. While White Bird in a Blizzard is more tentative and uneven in tone, it is also the film with the honest depiction of the actual horrors that hide within a marriage. Not the faked rapes and self-inflicted bruises or the malevolence of Amy Dunne's attempt to exact punishment for an infidelity, but just a murder committed in an act of rage. Sadly, that is the actual reason so many wives disappear.