Sleeping with the Enemy: Gone Girl and the challenge of movies about marriage and murder

October 2, 2014

by Jason Anderson

Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, husband of missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).

When Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl crossed the line from hit book to full-on lit blockbuster in 2012, there was the inevitable wave of speculation about which director would have the privilege of ensuring its transition to the big screen without angering the usual legion of protective readers. Having already applied his precision-tooled aesthetic to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with great finesse (if not boffo box office), David Fincher was both the most obvious choice and the ultimate victor in the competition to wrest a movie from the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a downwardly mobile couple who provide contradictory accounts of the events leading up to Amy’s apparent abduction (and other bits of nasty business). But it’s a shame that another name never came up—though if it had, whoever said it would’ve been forcibly removed from the studio lot and tossed into the path of oncoming traffic.

Since Danny DeVito’s directorial career never recovered from the debacle of Death to Smoochy (2002), it’s easy to forget that he was also responsible for The War of the Roses (1989), perhaps the darkest and most caustic movie about a soured marriage ever made in Hollywood, at least until Gone Girl arrives in theatres this Friday. Like the ill-fated couple in Flynn’s novel, the characters played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are trapped in a relationship that deteriorates from the merely acrimonious to the fatally toxic. The film ostensibly ends with both partners dead amid the ruins of their once-opulent home, though DeVito softened the blow of this bleak finale by concluding with his own character—a divorce lawyer who is one of the few decent figures on screen—making a loving call home to his wife, thereby demonstrating that he has learned from his former clients’ horrific example.

Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in 1989 film War of the Roses.
Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in 1989 film War of the Roses.

Even when appended with that coda, The War of the Roses displayed an uncommon degree of frankness and courage when it came to exploring a topic that has long fascinated viewers, readers, and anyone else with a voyeuristic interest in other people’s misery. That is the wreckage that results when two people who’ve pledged to love and care for one another instead come to feel very differently about the person on the other side of the bed. Of course, the most sensationalistic versions of this sad tale tend to get the most traction. Consequently, movie history is full of women who realize they’re living with a monstrous threat. What is Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne if not the latest incarnation of sinister husband figures like Jack Manningham, the man who drives his suspicious missus to the edge of madness in Patrick Hamilton’s community-theatre perennial Gas Light (most famously adapted for the screen in 1944), or Johnnie Avsgarth, the deadly charmer played by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941)?

Released in 1948—the 1940s apparently being the golden age for movies about spouse murder—Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours offered a screwball variation on Ben Affleck’s Nick with Rex Harrison as the conductor who plans (and then totally cocks up) the perfect crime to rid himself of the wife he believes has cuckolded him. More modern and further down-market are the villains who populate made-for-Lifetime TV movies with titles like Ultimate Deception and The Husband She Met Online. Even if Nick doesn’t much to talk about with some of these guys, they could all be pals in the same fantasy football league. Hell, Bluebeard could host the meetings at his place.

Mike Myers would publicize the fact that sometimes it’s the husbands who need to fret when he starred in 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer. But whether the movie is a rom-com aspiring to edginess or a thriller that boasts the exquisite packaging expected of David Fincher, these examples demonstrate one of Hollywood’s great skills. That’s spinning high-gloss entertainment out of a subject that typically assumes more upsetting and tragic dimensions in real life. With that in mind, it seems an especially grim piece of timing for Gone Girl to arrive in multiplexes as the NFL continues its woeful mismanagement of its domestic-violence crisis.

When Flynn’s novel is stripped of its tricky storytelling devices, Nick and Amy’s dilemma can be more starkly seen for what it is: a heightened version of the more mundane problems that make a mockery of marriage vows and sometimes end in 911 calls. Gone Girl’s phenom status both as a book and a movie also suggests how much more marketable it is to encapsulate these sorrows and horrors in the container of a murder mystery than it is to confront them head on. In other words, we will never run short on thrillers about husband murderers that star Richard Grieco. Rarer are movies like Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, or Philip Gröning’s The Policeman’s Wife, studies of partners struggling to align their ambitions and expectations without being entirely consumed by their resentments. If they’re lucky, these characters can cross the chasm that exists between the projections they’ve created of each other—like the spurious versions of Nick and Amy that Flynn and Fincher use to misdirect audiences—and the real people with whom they share their lives.