“What’s the point of being together if you’re not the happiest?”
To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.
Gone Girl is a fascinating case study of the American Dream, and most of that stems from Amy Elliott Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike). I don’t quite know how to describe her or even label her – is she an antihero or is she an outright villain? I suppose that depends on whose side you’re on – Amy’s or her husband, Nick’s (Ben Affleck). And even then, the pendulum of opinion can swing constantly.
The vector of gender is a critically important aspect of Gone Girl that sets it apart from other stories about the American Dream. At least, those that I – a non-American living halfway across the world – am familiar with. The thing I associate most with that myth is an elusively broad definition. Supposedly purporting meritocracy and perseverance, it is built on the idea that “all men are created equal” and would thus have fair chances at success. But when we look at samples of the ideal in popular American media, a male-centric pattern predictably emerges.
From films that celebrate it to films that dismantle it, the American Dream finds a comfortable home in the anguished man. Fincher himself has addressed it in some of his most enduring work, notably Fight Club and The Social Network. One may be satire and the other a biographical drama. Nonetheless, they discuss the ethical and moral consequences of fanatically chasing success.
Gone Girl portrays the aftermath of the pursuit of happiness, or so it seems. The film depicts an American Dream gone sour by money problems and marriage woes. Yet, it differentiates itself from the pack by eventually coming to an inverted conclusion. The reversal of roles and expectations destabilises and unsettles because Amy Dunne certainly doesn’t experience any sobering realizations unlike most of Fincher’s other antiheroes. If anything, she becomes more bombastic and outrageous until she is irredeemable, willing to kill in cold blood for a chance at her ideal life. Amy proves that she is anything but Nick’s dream girl but she will do her best to mould and manipulate him into her perfect husband, even if it means performing moral transgressions. She just has to look impeccable doing it, in more ways than one.
Image and presentation are vitally important to Amy’s characterization, even when she isn’t onscreen. We get the smallest impression of Amy when Nick and his twin sister Go discuss Amy like she’s the biggest thorn in his side – the distressingly nagging, impossibly demanding wife.
Amy is then officially introduced in her diary entries, where she presents herself as wide-eyed, curious and witty. The audience grows to empathize with her just as Nick does. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ lilting score plays in the background of this intro scene and both characters speak in hushed voices, focusing only on one another. It is romantic and intimate, and the scene retains a dreamlike quality as we get to know the both of them in their youthful optimism.
Amy: Who are you?
Nick: I’m the guy to save you from all this awesomeness.
Nick and Amy’s first exchange is crucial in building Amy’s identity. It proves all the more rewarding during a re-evaluation of her little glances and calculative stares after the fact. Amy hides in plain sight and is really the one testing Nick. Will he be the guy that will “save” her and give her the life she’s always wanted?
As it turns out, he can’t. Nick gives Amy his word but reneges on promises at the first sign of hardship. He doesn’t put in an effort with their anniversary scavenger hunts. He spirals downward after he loses his job with little motivation to get back up.
Nick becomes lazy and uninspired, much to Amy’s chagrin. He is someone she “did not agree to marry.” Furthermore, he cheats with an impressionable younger woman because it’s easy escapism. So, Amy makes a concerted effort to destroy that fantasy when he robs her of hers.
She rebuilds an identity as his crumbles, fashioning an idealized persona that audiences will adore and root for because “you need to package yourself so people will truly mourn your loss.” She even genuinely contemplates suicide so as to ensure a “killer” ending for Nick. It would be perfect and mythical, not unlike the adventures of her “Amazing Amy” counterpart.
It’s no surprise that Amy’s obsession with a dream life spawned from an early age. With parents rewriting her childhood into success stories in their “Amazing Amy” books, fantasy and reality have often collided in spurts of jealousy and contempt in Amy’s life. However, she is able to reclaim some semblance of control over her image as an adult, however extreme her methods may be.
That’s what makes her Cool Girl monologue so beguiling in its contradictions. She disparages the constant compromise women make in order to “earn” men’s acceptance while shaping her life around finding her exemplary match. Amy prides herself in her ability to see through the guise of societal expectations. Despite the fact that she clearly places herself in similar situations of conforming, her calculative nature would never allow it to be anything more than a test for herself:
“Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. Cool Girl. Men always use that, don’t they? As their defining compliment. […] When I met Nick Dunne, I knew he wanted Cool Girl. And for him, I’ll admit, I was willing to try. […] I was fucking game.”
This monologue is an apt critique of the American Dream. It eviscerates it. An expectation of a nuclear family is attached to the myth, one that dictates success through fulfilment in one’s family life. But that only lasts so long as two people are willing to work tirelessly for it. Amy believes she goes above and beyond, while Nick is the only one reaping any benefits.
Despite confessing that Nick has strengths of his own, Amy proclaims to have “made him smarter, sharper…[inspired] him to rise to my level.” He lacked drive without her studiousness, devolving into a torpid, scornful man who felt wronged by the world. Instead of fighting for their marriage, Nick chose to craft a new life with someone whose lack of worldly experience perhaps made her more malleable.
Now, this could be an inflated sense of grandeur on Amy’s part. It’s quite clear that these feelings of self-importance isolate her from other women. She has resented her mother for years, only refers to Noelle Hawthorne as an “idiot,” crudely objectifies Andie, and spits in Greta’s drink the moment they disagree. These women all embody certain types of laziness to Amy: unoriginality, infidelity, vagrancy, and even the act of getting pregnant would be too “easy” for her. These women settle into who they are while Amy constantly strives to better herself, or so she believes.
But the monstrous ego and flagrant disregard for others’ well-being end up pushing Amy towards achieving her American Dream.
She is not above killing, in a matter of speaking. There’s Desi Collings’ actual murder – gory and ruthless, bookended with a hair flip – but that’s collateral damage in the grand scheme of the narrative. It holds real power when Amy delivers her second ‘kill’. That is, returning, blood-soaked and weepy, into Nick’s arms.
Once again, the juxtaposition of appearance and intent is expertly handled just when it seems all of Amy’s cards are on the table. Surprisingly, slashing a man’s throat open with a box cutter is not the most effective scene in the film. Nick’s murder is much more subtle and arduous, playing on his vulnerabilities and desires. It is the long game that Amy relishes in playing.
The pregnancy test reveal is the final nail in Nick’s coffin. He is now completely beholden to Amy and was never allowed a say in the matter. On one hand, it serves as an ever-present reminder of the power of his wife’s dream and the lengths she would go to protect it. On another more sinister one, he accepts that she really does make him a “better” person, and that would be the point of matrimony, to begin with.
Nick: Yes, I loved you! But then all we did was resent each other and try to control each other! And cause each other pain!
Amy: That’s marriage.
If there’s one thing Gone Girl says about model relationships, it’s that underneath the sham of the American Dream aesthetic is the epitome of moral bankruptcy. It’s the ultimate revenge narrative that simultaneously disembowels the image of the ideal nuclear family. Happiness is just for the cameras. Much has been said about the American Dream in different forms of media. But diabolical and corrupt Amy Elliott Dunne co-opts the ideal for imperfect womanhood and wifehood, transforming it into a phenomenal cautionary tale unlike any other.