Note: this post is just about the movie version of Gone Girl. I've yet to read the book, so any differences between the two versions or adaptation-related criticisms are totally lost on me.
Before finally seeing Gone Girl this past weekend, I had heard it described as every incarnation of "feminist" and "anti-feminist" under the sun. It was "feminist" because Strong Female Character. It was "feminist" because it showed how psychotic feminists want to treat men. It was "anti-feminist" because all the women in the movie are awful or because it made Nick sympathetic and Amy unsympathetic. It was "misogynistic" because it portrayed the kind of villainous female character that anti-feminists imagine most women to be. And on and on and on.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that Gone Girl didn't fit any of those descriptions. Gone Girl is not a "feminist story," in the sense that Amy is a feminist character, although I think it does have some intriguing feminist angles hidden inside it. And it's not an "anti-feminist" story, in a "women are lying psychopaths and we should all feel sorry for Nick" sort of way. It's far too surprising and morally complicated for both of those readings.
It is, in essence, a story about a whole bunch of really horrible people, doing horrible things to one another. It eschews every narrative and character trope we know, and it uses those tropish expectations to outwit both the viewer and the characters themselves. No one fits into the simple boxes that we might like to place them in. If you read Amy as a representation of "women" as a whole, you're missing the point, just as you're missing the point if you see Nick as a victim, or, god forbid, Amy as a Strong Female Character.
Unless, of course, you're reading Amy as a criticism of a Strong Female Character (TM). Because if Gone Girl has any message to convey about female characters or about people in general, it's that none of them are as straightforward or as good as you would like to believe.
While the main focus was on Nick and Amy, I actually found Neil Patrick Harris's character Desi to be the most memorable, in part because of the moral complexity he added to the story. It would have been incredibly easy to simply make Amy a sociopath who preys on poor, sympathetic men. Nick may not be the nicest person, but he certainly didn't kill her. And after we learn that she (at least allegedly) framed her ex-boyfriend for rape, we naturally jump to the conclusion that her "stalker ex" Desi was also a victim of her scheming. But although she does frame him for kidnap and rape in the course of the movie, and goes to incredibly graphic extremes to do so, he's not an innocent victim either. He's probably the most unsettling character in the story, because of how normal and understated his awfulness is. He puts Amy in a house surrounded by cameras, and makes a point of her ensuring that Amy is aware of them, "so she feels safe." He controls her actions -- what she eats, what she watches -- for her own good. He buys her hair dye and sexy clothes and criticizes the traumatized way she acts, after thinking she has been abused, because "she'll feel better if she goes back to being the old Amy." And he "reassures" her by telling her "he won't force himself on her," because he's a good guy and he'll wait until she comes around herself.
And then she slits his throat. She makes up lies about how he held her prisoner and she had to kill him in order to escape. But they're not all lies. No, Desi did not kidnap her like she claimed, and he didn't physically abuse her. But he did take her to a remote location, lock her in, and make clear, without any actual threats, that she needs to act to please him and that he could be a danger to her if he chose to be. She takes things to the dramatic blood-gushing next level, but there's an incredibly realistic element of danger in all of his scenes that makes me wonder what would have happened if Amy wasn't a scheming murderer, and if she had been telling the truth about her situation whens he met him. He's certainly not completely innocent here.
But of course, it's impossible to tell how Amy feels about Desi's threat, just as it's impossible to tell how Amy feels about almost everything. She is a masterful unreliable narrator, even beyond the lies of her diary. We almost always see her performing a role based on what others expect of her -- Nick's "cool girl," "Amazing Amy," Nancy, Desi's image of "the real Amy," the brave kidnapping survivor. Even when Amy tells the truth to Nick in the shower at the end, it's difficult to know if this is the "real her," since she's still potentially performing a new persona for Nick. We get very few reliably honest moments with her, moments when absolutely no one else is around -- her watching Nick kiss his student, her driving away, her scream after being robbed. So it's unclear whether the weaker, more vulnerable Amy around Desi was a performance, or whether she was genuinely unsettled by his threat.
If you wanted to make Gone Girl into a "feminist story," the unreliable narrator angle would be the one to use. Amy is an unreliable narrator in part because she's constantly trying to act like the person others want her to be. She's trying to be the perfect cool girlfriend and wife, the one she thinks every guy dreams of because she never has too many opinions or needs of her own. She's trying to be sexy and vulnerable for Desi. She's trying to be the poor, loving, dutiful, abused and probably murdered wife. She tries on role after role, and she does it easily, because no one seems to expect her to have depth or intricacies or unpredictable elements to her personality. She's certainly not expected to have flaws.
And there could be a narrative lurking here about how the need to perform for everybody else created the "real Amy" who is willing to kill herself to frame her husband for murder. The idea that she was constantly compared to Amazing Amy and found wanting, the knowledge that her husband liked Cool Amy and not Real Amy, the college boyfriend who genuinely is a terrifying stalker and didn't want Amy to have any depth or independent feelings of her own... the societal commentary is lurking there. But Gone Girl refuses to even fit that semi-expected narrative. Amy is a fascinating character, but she is not a sympathetic one. She's a character who will scheme for years to frame her husband for murder. She's willing to kill herself to take him down with her. She slit Desi's throat, and in the end, it's not freedom that she wants. She's so in love with all the lies and manipulation that she returns to Nick, because she wants them both to be trapped in their performances for each other. She's absolutely horrific.
A compelling kind of horrific, yes. "Feminist" in the sense that she's a pretty evil female character with a lot of depth who rejects both the "innocent victim" and "femme fatale" narratives. But horrific none-the-less.