Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Look at Why "Gone Girl" Might Not Be a Best Picture Contender

Director David Fincher's latest film Gone Girl has been garnering a lot of attention both for its actual quality and for the performance of Rosamund Pike as "Amazing Amy" Dunne. It is a film that manages to explore some very pressing matters involving media, morality and marriage. In fact, it is one of the year's best films and is one of the best subversive hat tricks in cinema of 2014 with the second act twists creating an unpredictable role reversal for the movie. However, despite its great execution and rather solid work overall, I have a theory that things aren't meant for Gone Girl in the Best Picture race. As blasphemous as it sounds, it is actually very keeping in both Fincher's and the Academy's reputation towards his films.

WARNING: Spoilers for Gone Girl to follow.

There is no denying the fresh air that the film threw into our cineplexes when it came out. After months of mediocre work that did little to challenge the senses, this film came out and shocked those who weren't already familiar with Gillian Flynn's best selling novel. Even then, the film became divisive because of its approach. While Fincher films have always felt cold, his most recent work, including 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, have had an isolation to their style. In Gone Girl, everything about the film feels unimpressive at first glance. The reliable opening credits whisk by and the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score plays more as hazy background music. There's not a lot to adore about the movie immediately. Even when the realization that this is a misleading surface technique that comes in the second act to reveal something more haunting, you are either caught up in it or not. For those that can't, it is just slow and conventional in unexciting ways.

This hasn't stopped the Academy from nominating films of a complex nature before. However, there is something about Fincher that is unapologetic in the studio system. What he delivers is a story that features Amy convincing everyone that her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) killed her and that she was brutally raped, thus killing an ex-lover (Neil Patrick Harris) in defense. It is all a sadistic approach that makes this film the contemporary Psycho with Amy taking the mantle of Norman Bates. Her conniving approach leaves the film's final moments as a haunting cue that she has everything in her power. Any small alteration and Nick will be accused of some awful crimes. She is powerful for playing the rape victim and manipulating the innocent into being perceived as violent psychopaths. 

True, the Academy has been known to recognize films with touchy subjects. 12 Years a Slave was a film full of racism and brutality. However, there was a context there that allowed the offenses to feel warranted. It was a triumph of the will, forcing protagonist Solomon Northup to survive as a southern slave. Where is the humanity in Gone Girl? At the end, there isn't a convenient answer and the innocent Nick is forced to live with the monstrous Amy. While the film is relevant in launching a thousand feminist pieces, it didn't necessarily have a convenient ending that the Academy would go for. 12 Years a Slave has a definitive happy ending. This is the prominent reason why Gone Girl works and also why it isn't going to do so well at the Oscars.

Scene from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
For a quick analogy, let's compare the past two Fincher films. Both were adaptations of pulpy novels featuring taboo subjects such as rape and murder. Both were very cold and used atmosphere to establish its own subtext. In Gone Girl, it was used to defy conventions. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it was used to recognize its place as a remake by having a very tourist feeling. Both are lead by dominant women who are referenced in the title and know how to manipulate text. Amy knows journals while Lisbeth Salander knows computer hacking. At the core, these are similar films except that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is closer to an epic and has the unfair notion of being compared to its Swedish counterpart. The only other difference is that Gone Girl was more of a clear financial hit.

Still, both films have shocking sex scenes involving some form of mutilation. For better or worse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made it to the Oscars, but not in the Best Picture race. Rooney Mara received a nomination for Best Actress for playing Salander. The rest was mostly technical with the film's only actual win being for Best Editing. This is common for Fincher when it comes to challenging crime stories. While he has had success with both The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button receiving Best Picture nominations, his more challenging work such as Zodiac and Fight Club remained out of the conversation. While the latter makes sense for its masochistic and controversial violence (despite a Best Visual Effects nomination), the former was a highly acclaimed film that didn't even get an Oscar nomination.

As evident by this alone, the Academy isn't into complicated crime stories with moral complexities. For all that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did right, it was too dark and unsuccessful. While Gone Girl has done better in general, it still feels similar enough that to argue any difference would be to give the Academy too much credit. Instead of violence and cynicism, the Academy chose to nominate films like War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for Best Picture in 2011. These were films that didn't react to violence with a sense of defeat. These films stood up against their problems, resulting in happy endings. In fact, the only film in the past five years to be at all controversial and violent and still get a nomination was Django Unchained. No offense to Fincher, but apparently Quentin Tarantino and his buckets of blood and swearing are more their style.

It isn't that Gone Girl is a bad movie. It is actually quite good. However, the Academy has unfortunately pegged themselves in a corner in which they want optimism in their movies, or at least a satisfying conclusion in which the villain gets their due. True, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sees Salander save the day, but she loses colleague Mikael Blomqvist. In that sense, it was more satisfying. However, with the film ending abruptly with the return of Amy, Gone Girl leaves the audience unnerved. For those that don't read into the scenes, it also feels too sudden and pointless. It challenges you to love it. In fact, this is unfortunately why I don't feel like Still Alice will get a Best Picture nomination despite also being powerful film making.

At best, Fincher is a director who is prone to rack up nominations on the technical side of things. With exception to Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was dominant in the editing, earning four nominations. While Reznor and Ross's score has been getting a lot of attention and may receive a nomination, Gone Girl's best chances are in the technical fields where Fincher strives. Maybe Flynn's twisted script will also be recognized since the Best Adapted Screenplay is more prone to ambitious narratives. And of course, Pike is a lock for Best Actress. Still, there isn't much else to really convince the Academy to put this film in their Best Picture list, even with a sliding 5-10 slots.

If Thursday comes around and I'm proven wrong, I will be very happy. However, I come from a place of skepticism despite enjoying the film heavily. With its inventive twists and solid performances, it is one of Fincher's better films. However, I feel like a mixture of the taboo subjects and the misleading atmosphere will do nothing but detract voters from noticing its ingenious structure. I don't see the film doing too well at winning in the other categories either, but at least it will come up. Also, with cramped competition and missing out on the Golden Globe Best Picture (Drama), there isn't much to argue against this potential notion.

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