The Movie Club

Best movies 2014: Gender isn’t actually what makes Gone Girl so discomfiting.

Entry 3: Cheerfully mansplaining why the gender politics of Gone Girl are more complicated than you think.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014)
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises

Hey there, Movie Clubbers, and welcome to the world of tomorrow,

I’m sitting at my desk in the flannel kimono that my girlfriend’s parents got me for Jewish Christmas (it even came with those split-toe sandals, so life is pretty good right now). You’ve Got Mail is playing on TV, and I can’t tell if this is making me feel better about missing The Shop Around the Corner at Film Forum, or if it’s making me feel worse. Either way, it’s making me feel something, and feeling things is my New Year’s resolution, so I’m already overachieving in 2015. 

As I suspect might be the case for most of us (or as I hope you’ll pretend for my sake), an unhealthy percentage of the feeling that I do is facilitated by movies, and so it’s been a bit unsettling to feel so emotionally detached from all the reflective year-end hoopla. (“Reflective year-end hoopla”? Anything to avoid writing the phrase “awards season,” I suppose.) In large part that’s due to the fact that I make a point of finishing my annual video countdown thingy in early December, and so by the time Christmas rolls around, the current crop of films seems like a distant memory. 

It also doesn’t help that I had seen all of the films on my top 10 by the end of September, which made the brouhaha/international crisis surrounding The Interview a gift from God (hey, he works in mysterious ways). Like Amy, I was lucky enough to see it before doing so was considered my patriotic duty. And like Amy, I agree that the movie’s bizarre fallout helped identify American media as the butts of its jokes. What could be a better visual metaphor for journalism’s desperate race to the bottom than Seth Rogen shoving an exclusive up his own? While trying not to be eaten by a tiger? Talk about an ace in the hole!

But if the North Korean stuff was ultimately more of a means than an end, I had to appreciate the irony of Kim Jong-un bending Hollywood to his will, thus endowing him with the cinematic influence that his famously movie-obsessed father had always wanted and validating the daddy issues that Randall Park used to humanize the young dictator in The Interview. And how great was Park? That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is “so great.” To make a totally organic comparison that isn’t at all motivated by petty spite for a movie that’s been wildly overpraised since last January, the nuance with which Park negotiates his crush on Dave Skylark and his need to destroy him reveals the hollow bluster of J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash. Sure, AmyNeighbors is a better movie than either of them, but Neighbors has Rose Byrne, so that’s totally unfair. She is magic. She even made Annie kinda sorta almost tolerable. Annie! 

And speaking of movies about relationships playing out over the media, it’s becoming clear that Gone Girl is just never going to go away, and that’s fine by me (I opened my review by calling it “A glorious shitstorm waiting to happen.”) It wasn’t until I read Amy’s description of the “Cool Girl” as “a phony man-pleaser” that I realized that I have the only Y chromosome in this year’s Movie Club. And that’s terrific! Men are the Annie of genders. However, it suggests I should tread lightly while refuting Amy’s take on her “amazing” counterpart, particularly since Dana called the sexual politics of Gone Girl “pretty retrograde” even while listing it as one of her 10 favorite films of the year. 

But you silly little women are both off base, and I’d like to flex my muscles and mansplain why. (I kid, I kid.) The truth is that I don’t think either of you are wrong so much as maybe missing the forest for the trees. For me, Gone Girl is a Walmart-noir riff on Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy that doesn’t reassert archaic gender roles so much as it affirms their insidious power over people and how we perceive them. It’s fascinating to watch Nick and Amy regress into the broad roles they cast for themselves and each other, and thrilling to see the giddy extremes to which Amy goes in order to rescue their marriage from the inertia of those performances. Gender is certainly relevant to Gone Girl, but I felt that Flynn and Fincher use it primarily as the discomfitingly relatable shorthand of a discomfitingly relatable love story. 

Of course, it’s so like a man to say “Yeah, you’re right, but that’s not really what it’s about.” In that regard, my only comfort is that the film takes pleasure in the presumptive or uninformed—a fundamental unknowability persists even between a husband and wife (or “especially,” in some cases), and that Fitzgeraldian sense of being both within and without is completed by how the film constantly submits Nick and Amy to the judgments of acquaintances and strangers—first in their town, but soon across the country. It’s not always subtle, but the way that Gone Girl reconciles private complicity with public spectacle allows it to nail the dynamics of outrage culture better than any movie in recent memory.

In other words, this was a positive year for women in film, cool, “Cool,” or otherwise. But Movie Club has already forced me to reckon with the fact that many of the depictions I found most resonant were in films directed by men. My favorite female performance of the year belonged to Essie Davis in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, but that seems like the exception to the rule laid down by the two Agatas (Kulesza and Trzebuchowska) in Ida, Emily Browning in God Help the Girl, Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive, Anne Dorval in Mommy, and the heroine in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Hell, Still Alice—the absolutely shattering film that features Julianne Moore’s career-best performance as a woman struggling to maintain her dignity as Alzheimer’s deteriorates her brain—was directed by two men! 

Am I predisposed to “leering male directors mistaking aggression for strength” (to use Amy’s words)? When it comes to the brilliant actresses who anchor challenging films like Under the Skin and NymphomaniacI want to defer to ScarJo and CharBro, whom I trust don’t feel that their performances were limited by the supposedly lustful gaze of their male director. I don’t want to get into the whole “Is Lars von Trier good for women?” thing (my thoughts on the subject are pretty clear), but I think I might have responded to Nymphomaniac and Under the Skin so strongly because both films felt like sincerely curious inquiries into their directors’ own regard for women—and we need movies like these to look in the mirror, because the bigger ones sure as hell aren’t. Yeah, Johansson is a total badass in the latest Captain America film manufactured by the sentient bucket of money that Marvel has become, but Black Widow is always going to be a masturbatory fantasy until she gets her own movie. That’s the thing about Lucy: She might be wearing spike heels to a gun fight, but it’s her gun fight. And also she’s so smart that she knows she can wear spike heels and still win, so there! 

(I probably should have saved 1,000 words and just deferred this topic to Stephanie, who loved Under the Skin as much as anyone. Obviously you weren’t irked by the movie, but I’d be super curious whether the film being directed by a man complicates your take on the material—if it even does.)

Anyway, when I think about the movies that I struggled to connect with this year, so many of them are about men. Men of a certain stripe. Whereas Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac are about women who are compelled to engage with the world around them, often in spite of themselves, the year’s big-ticket films were about men who shrank into their own bodies. I’ve already registered my distaste for Whiplash’s kink-free S&M testosterone trip, and the interminable Foxcatcherwhich didn’t rank on any of our lists!—felt to me like an exit-free adaptation of No Exit. By its eighth hour of belaboring the same points about masculinity and American exceptionalism in its knowingly uncomfortable way, I was clawing at the walls. Ditto Nightcrawler, which was similarly cartoonish in how it distorted conventional masculinity, as if the weirdness of its hero excused the obviousness of its themes. Part of why The Grand Budapest Hotel was my favorite movie of the year was because it didn’t gawk at the eccentricities of the wonderful M. Gustave, it organically used them as the engine for an elegy of the world that made him possible.

Stephanie, aside from Under the Skin your top 10 list was raining men, from J.M.W. Turner to John Wick (who surely would have been the best of friends, had they co-existed). I wonder if any of what I’m saying rings true to you, or if I’m just bored by my own kind.

To wrap up, I’m so happy to be a part of this year’s Movie Club, because reading these first dispatches from Dana and Amy seems to have completely reignited my enthusiasm for chewing on the year that was. The pictures are big—it’s my thinking that got small.