A small-town girl from the American Midwest disappears suddenly … and her husband is the prime suspect. Well, actually she’s a grown woman, but you get my point. This is the main plot of this post’s subject, Gone Girl. It was a book by Gillian Flynn that turned into a popular movie. It’s directed by David Fincher (for the movie nerds out there) and was nominated for a lot of awards too. By the way, this is part of a series where we (lightly) analyze English-language movies. If you like that sort of thing, there are more posts like this here.
We’ll look at what the movie has to say about American society at large, as well as some general themes of the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, there might be some spoilers, I can’t make any promises. You can find it on platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix, though it depends on your country or region. The trailer is up top in case you want to refresh your memory or check it out for the first time.
What does the movie, Gone Girl, have to say about American culture or society? For starters, let’s look at where it’s set. The movie takes place mostly in a fictional town in northeast Missouri. It’s not far from the Mississippi River which forms the border with Illinois. Why is that important? Well, Missouri is a state smack in the middle of the USA. Southern Missouri is a lot more like the South in terms of culture and other ways, while the north is a bit more like the Midwest. Even being in the same country (in this case the same state), being in the Midwest shows a greater lean towards mainstream, heartland American values and identity. You can kind of see the difference in accents, where some people have stronger “rural” or Southern accents where others have a more typical American accent. I’ll explain a bit later.
The Mississippi River is the longest, most iconic river in the country. We see big homes with green lawns, quiet streets with cul-de-sacs, and small brick-stone towns. This is all typical of an American city suburb. There are also some scenes that describe what the weather is like in much of the Midwest during the summer. You have people searching for Amy (the gone “girl”) in green fields full of bugs and sweating under the sticky, humid air. There are some scenes by the river or poolside that show us how hot it is. I don’t remember if there is a winter scene, but I feel like there was. Either way, the Midwest also gets extremely cold in the winter months.
Gone Girl is set in modern times, which is important for this next section.
Maybe you haven’t noticed lately, but the media, especially social and mass media, have been impacting lots of people’s behaviors. From liking photos to deciding whether or not to wear a mask, these platforms have a bigger impression on most of us than we might think. The news especially has a way of leading us into believing what the studio thinks. If they don’t think anything, they are good at making the situation a lot more dramatic than it is. Even before Covid (I know, feels like forever), lots of people were suspicious of mass media and the news. They have a habit of accentuating the bad stuff and pushing people to be more scared than they need to. I’m sure this happens almost everywhere, but Americans have a long history of being suspicious of the government and any other entity that has too much power.
Still, this precaution doesn’t keep most of the town along with some of the investigators from believing that Nick (Ben Affleck’s character) really killed his wife. The news repeats this accusation and fires up conflict at a time when Nick’s involvement isn’t really suspected. This plays on our society’s recent growth in protecting women’s rights and protecting women in at-risk situations like domestic violence. Although this is a very real problem across the globe, the story shows how some women take advantage of this movement toward equality. There are those who intentionally try to harm the image of a man. There have been lots of scandals in recent years of women doing exactly this, as a matter of fact.
The fact that the community starts to turn against Nick after seeing the news sheds light on their innocence. There is a general perception that people from the city are sinners and those from the country are saints. That’s meant figuratively, but in Gone Girl, you can see how much of the community was influenced by the news. They were manipulated into the version of the story that would get more views, higher ratings. Another example of this is one of Amy’s (Rosamund Pike’s character) friends who jogs regularly and talks with her. Amy recognizes her innocence and tricks the woman into trusting her, steadily turning the woman against Nick. These people live a more relaxed, quiet, and routine suburban life. They don’t come across many bizarre situations like this very often. In the end, they don’t know what to believe or what to do about it.
Besides them turning against Nick, we also see how tight-knit this community is. This is a common feature in small towns across the country. People really look after each other and talk with one another when passing on the street, which isn’t as common in big cities. Other themes about the characters’ behaviors are the unhappy couple trying to fake a perfect marriage by putting up a false face of unity. Amy is robbed by a traveling couple with guns. This sheds light on the somewhat loose gun laws in certain states and the hardships many people in rural America face. This can go to the point of committing serious crimes on one another. This touches on gun culture being stronger in the American interior too. Missouri actually has a fairly high crime rate and lots of underprivileged areas. This reality is shown in a few scenes too.
Crime & Violence
This is essentially a crime-novel-turned-crime-movie. A cocky big-shot lawyer, constant snooping by the police, and investigators being quick to decide what happened before the case is closed; these are all common tropes in the crime genre. If you watch CSI or Law & Order, you know exactly what I mean. One thing that’s very apparent, especially near the end of the movie, is the high level of violence and bloodshed. Gone Girl isn’t really a violent movie, but it has a big bloody moment towards the end.
This touches on how common violence is in American moviemaking. I don’t want to say that we all love blood and guts (some do), but from our movies, you’d think so! There is also the theme of a couple staying together “for the baby,” which Amy sneakily tricks Nick into having. She uses her pregnancy in the end to trap Nick into their marriage. This is another note on the manipulation some women perform over men in their complicated relationships. To be fair, she manipulates pretty much everybody in this movie.
Besides small-town family values, heartland America identity, and rural/suburban naivety, there’s one last theme that’s really interesting. If you want, you can read more about this here. The woodshed is where Amy leaves her secrets, and it’s where Nick eventually finds out what’s happening. The woodshed represents a common part of many American homes where a family might store things they don’t use often. It can also be an unexpected symbol for how a figurative “mess” builds up during a relationship, then gets pushed deeper into the “shed.” There’s a related phrase in English: “come out of the woodwork.” This means that something comes out of hiding and into the light from an unexpected place. Basically, it becomes clearer. This seems like a funny way to show this idea. The truth comes out of the actual woodwork, or rather, the woodshed.
That’s all, everybody. I hope you enjoyed this look at Gone Girl and some of its themes, meanings, and cultural insights. It’s a story about relationship issues, lies, manipulation, and a whole lot of media interference. Even though Nick cheated on his wife, Amy did a lot more than expose him for it. She kind of ruined his life, not to mention forcing him to keep a marriage he was all but done with. This movie is reminiscent of a TV crime series, and it shows us why those programs can be addicting. Some of the most outrageous and deviant crimes happen out in the country where it seems like no one is watching. But boy, did we watch this one!
Please comment if you agree or disagree with parts of this post. What other ways does Gone Girl touch on true or stereotypical parts of American society? What about society in another country? Share your thoughts, my wonderful reader! And take care out there.