About the author: Irakli Gobronidze is a graduate student at Tbilisi State University, at program "Media psychology and communications". He got his bachelor degree in American studies. Irakli is interested in political communications and influence of pop-cultural media on society.
In today's modern world it’s the media that shapes many people’s overall worldview, be it traditional news outlets or social media platforms. When it comes to big stories that go viral, the true power is held not by a person who is necessarily telling the truth, but by the one understanding and controlling the narrative.
Sadly, this is one of the banes or modern landscape and in my opinion, an excellent example of this phenomenon is a film called “Gone Girl”- an American psychological thriller movie, released in 2014, directed by David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn, who is also the author of the original novel the film is based on. At first glance the film starts out as an average mystery movie. Nick and Amy Dunne are a married middle-class couple living average life in Missouri. They started out as the seemingly picture-perfect couple but by the fifth anniversary of their wedding their marriage is heavily fractured. When Nick arrives at home, he finds his wife missing with obvious signs of struggle and blood in the house. He calls the police to report Amy as a missing person, detective Rhonda Boney arrives on the scene and the investigation begins. The story goes through multiple twists and turns and Ben Afleck, who played the role of Nick, aptly described its structure in an interview, “It starts out as a mystery, turns into a thriller and ends as a satire.”
Both the novel and the film truly follow this three-part structure. In the mystery portion of the story, we closely follow the investigation concerning Amy’s disappearance and the audience themselves are taken on a wild ride as more details are revealed about the case. The deeper we go, more evidence is unearthed and as the story takes a darker turn, we begin to view our protagonist Nick, in a different way. At first the viewer will rightfully think that Nick is a concerned husband, but soon enough it’s revealed that even though the story starts from his point of view, he might be an unreliable narrator and there’s more to his and Amy’s marriage than first thought. From this point on we follow detective Boney and her investigation. She discovers Amy’s diary in the furnace, that documents several last years of her life leading to disappearance. This gives detective a glimpse into the marriage situation of the Dunne's. With it she finds evidence of the family’s financial troubles, escalating domestic disputes that turned violent and made Amy consider buying an easily concealable gun to protect herself, because in the last entry she writes that she fears that her husband might kill her.
Parallel to the investigation, the case of Amy’s disappearance gains notoriety in the press, because her parents are influential writers, and all the discoveries in the investigation do no good to Nick’s public image, who after sudden exposure becomes a public figure. The press and the paparazzi scrutinise his every move and facial expression. A narrative is built of Nick as an apathetic domestic abuser with sociopathic tendencies at best and being directly involved in Amy’s disappearance at worst. For a time, the media framing becomes the framing device for the story and the audience themselves will most likely believe it, since at this point, we don’t fully see Nick’s point of view or his motivations.
The press, mostly personified in a cable TV host Ellen Abbott and her show, turns the whole case into a media circus that antagonizes Nick based on minimal evidence and alienates his whole community from his, including his parents' in-law, since on the TV screens he is shown as a suspicious villain. Even the police get more suspicious of him with a backdrop of media slander of this kind. They focus the investigation primarily on him and uncover more suspicious details, such as Nicks past affair with his student from college where he worked. Also, their neighbour Noelle, who claims to being Amy’s best friend, comes forward and claims that Amy was six weeks pregnant prior to her disappearance, her medical card confirms this, but Nick denies knowing this.
Very quickly Nick turns from the concerned husband to a prime suspect in the public and probably the audience’s eye. This is the smart trick the film’s structure pulls on the audience. At first Nick is a blank slate but as we go along the primary information source on his character is Amy’s diary. With that as our only context, the viewer can’t be blamed to interpret the events the same as the public in the story does, for whom the only source of information on the subject is the sensationalised press. Nick is a financially irresponsible, heartless adulterer and wife beater, who didn’t want to have children and got bored of Amy, when she got pregnant, he decided to get rid of her and probably killed her. This is approximately what the case’s casual observers believe by the end of the story’s first act. After several weeks of the disappearance the media already subtly suggests that Nick should be sent to death row. The press has constructed two distinct personas for the audience, Amy the fragile, beaten wife and Nick the apathetic monster, no matter how they match with the real personas of the individuals. In public and audience’s eye his character has been assassinated because of the context provided.
The story is turned on its head in the second act, when it’s revealed that actually Amy is alive and well and, she had concocted this whole elaborate scheme to frame Nick. We start to see the story from Amy’s perspective and it becomes obvious that the previously known picture-perfect persona that was fed to the media is a sham and hides a completely different person, a cold-blooded, meticulous strategist. From this point on, the story is a thriller and we start exploring Amy as a character and it reveals that who we thought was a victim turns out to be the fascinating villain of this story. Amy Dunn is a sociopath, that is clear. From the early age she has been obsessed with people’s perceived public personas, how one must “correctly” present themselves, what the rules of social interaction are and how to use them to one’s advantage and rise in status. This mindset primarily stems from her upbringing. Her parents, the influential kids' literature writers, turned Amy into an unwilling celebrity from an early age. They had the series of books called “Amazing Amy”, the lead character was based on their daughter but was perfect in every way, no matter what Amy’s real-life achievements were, on the page the Amazing Amy achieved ten times more and was loved for it. In that way, her parents set an impossible standard for their daughter from the early age.
Ironically, because of that childhood fame the case of disappearance gained such notoriety in the first place, everyone knew her as the basis for the character from the medium of fiction. As an adult, Amy took this unhealthy lesson to heart and tried to craft the persona of the “perfect woman” all her life. It doesn’t matter who you are on the inside, what matters is what you present to the outside, the others perception of you and the controlled narrative you have of it.
In the film’s most memorable monologue, Amy discusses the “cool girl” persona, a fictitious role women are forced to play by societal expectations in order to gain attention of men. The “cool girl” is basically a perfect woman, who is always there to emotionally support her partner, be never moody, look conventionally attractive, share all the same interests as her partner and never be a nuisance. At first it seems that Amy is critiquing gender norms in society and expectations of women but then it’s revealed that she acknowledges this standard and is happily ready to play the role of “cool girl” as long as it brings her benefits. In return, her potential male partner must be her “Mr. Right”, the picture-perfect husband, her ideal second half and Amy is ready to mold anyone into that if she sees potential. She is perfectly aware of impossible, perfectionist standards the society and media forces people to adhere to and, she wants to live by them, to project that perfect image into the world. Nick was a perfect candidate for her and in her own words, for a while he played the role well, as Amy was turning him into her image of a perfect man.
However, as time went on in Amy’s words Nick got lazy and stopped playing his role. He lost his prestigious job so they needed to move from high class New-York to Missouri, he didn’t want to have kids, this meant the image of a perfect family couldn’t be completed and then he cheated. The cheating didn’t hurt Amy emotionally, she viewed Nick as a project and he was ruining it. Since she spent five years of her life perfecting him and he was about to throw it all away and possibly suggest divorce, he needed to be punished. Amy is all about the social narrative. She has created the plan to frame him for her own murder. The diary that supposedly documented years of her life was a fake, she wrote its fictional narrative in several months, painting Nick as a sinister figure with violent frequent outbursts. She secretly befriended their noisy neighbour, who was pregnant at the time, and for months fed her stories that Nick is a violent abuser, she also used her urine sample as her own to fake a pregnancy in her medical card. Over several months she crafted her desired narrative of charismatic, sympathetic, housewife and her abusive spouse. She planted the seeds of deception and on the anniversary, day mocked up the crime scene by splashing her own drained blood and then cleaning it up inattentively on purpose. She changed her appearance to a low class, uneducated looking woman and is now on the run in her disguise. Stopping at different motels she enjoys the spectacle that unveils at home. The narrative that she wanted to play out goes on perfectly, the media ate the story up and now her husband is scrutinised in every way on TV and that starts to destroy his daily life, he also becomes prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance and potential murder. Amy is revealed to be crazy enough to eventually commit suicide, so the narrative would be complete and her murder would be pinned on her husband.
Back at home Nick is turned into social pariah as the media’s hot takes become more outrageous. The viewer observes the evolution of the media’s “hot takes” through Ellen Abbott’s show, at one point the show implies that Nick was in incestuous relationship with his own sister. Eventually Nick figures out that this is part on Amy’s scheme. He interviews her two past boyfriends and uncovers that she displayed similar behavior with both of them. When she deemed them unworthy, she publicly slandered them. The first one is her high school crush, Desi Collings, she deemed him a stalker and got a restraining order against him. The second one is ex-boyfriend Tommy O'Hara, she drugged him and managed to frame him for rape, ruining his reputation. Both time the public’s opinion was on Amy’s side because of the carefully crafted narrative.
As Tommy notes, “she got promoted from rape survivor to the murder victim on the screen.” Nick hires Tanner Bolt, a lawyer who specializes in this type of cases. Bolt advices Nick to play Amy’s game and turn the press’s narrative in his favor as police don’t have any hard evidence to convict him and they want a confession from him under all the social pressure. Nick agrees to the plan and goes to a talk show hosted by a different journalist named Sharon Schieber. Meanwhile, Amy has to readjust her plan because of practical reasons, she gets mugged along the way so now she needs financial support, she calls her high school ex, Desi who is rich now, and secretly stays with him. Desi is so enamoured with her and happy that she finally paid him attention, so he agrees. Amy witnesses Nick on Sharon’s TV show, where he plays the role of the remorseful husband, who didn’t treat his wife right and that he loves her with all his heart. In other words, Nick says exactly what Amy wanted to hear, he starts to play the role again. It works, Bolt notices that most of the reactions on social media to Nick’s “apology” on Sharon’s show are positive.
In the last act of the film Amy's actions become almost satirical. She readjusts her plan in an insane manner. When she realizes that Nick is still able to play the role, she wants him to play she reconsiders framing him for her murder. Instead, she decides to create a new tale, the one that the press and the public will love even more. How Desi, her high school ex, who was obsessed with her, kidnapped her, locked her up in his penthouse and systematically raped her. She does all the physical preparation like tying her wrists hard enough with the ropes so she would have bruises, violating herself with the bottle of wine, and appearing to be hysterical and distressed in security camera footage. The last step is to get rid of Desi, by killing him and framing it as self-defense. Which she does by slicing his throat with a box cutter. She then dramatically appears in front of Nicks house, head to toe covered in Desi’s blood, and theatrically collapses into Nick’s hands, imitating the famous “Gone with the wind poster.”
Various media outlets that for the whole month were camping outside Nick’s house capture this “cinematic” yet absurd moment. The new narrative is born of a brave rape survivor that defeated her captor, a high school stalker, and returned to her husband battered but victorious. When left alone Nick immediately calls her out but she clarifies that he has no choice but to stay with her and continue to play remorseful husband. He realizes that he can’t abandon his abuse survivor wife after her dramatic return, he would actually be destroyed in the public eye. In everyone's opinion Amy is a hero, in order to maintain a semblance of life Nick must stay trapped with her and continue to play his role. A special report is made about Amy’s “escape” ironically by Ellen Abbott, a TV hostess who for month was painting Nick as a sinister figure in her show, now she approaches him with friendly and smiley demeanor, since it suits the new story.
Amy Dunne is a fascinating villain. She clearly understands the importance of the social image we try to perform to the world and how destructive can it be if this image is tarnished. She knows how coverage of certain events by media can shape the people's perception of certain individuals and how the media always tries to create heroes and villains out of real people. All her life with subtle manipulations, she was able to convey the image she wanted and, if it was threatened, she directly attacked the perpetrator of the problem. Amy also clearly sees some sexist double standards that plague society but she’s not against them, she perpetuates them and uses them as her own weapons. She planned her whole scheme months in advance and used the merciless media as the main weapon against her husband. At first Nick became a potential wife murderer but when it was convenient to Amy, he became a sympathetic remorseful husband that got the second chance in “happiness.” In Amy’s own words; I need that Nick that begged me on a TV show to come back. In the end, underneath all the personas, it’s most likely that the “real” Amy never existed, from the early age she was tried to become the fictional “Amazing Amy,” and she views every relationship in this light, people only portraying roles in front of each other, always presenting the best, the most perfect version of themselves. And exposing that created self to the wider media can either make or break a person.
For Amy, this is what marriage is, roleplaying a perfect couple in front of the cameras. In the end, Nick is trapped with the woman he knows is a sociopath and a murderer but she holds the media and public opinion like a gun to his head. The viewer now has the full picture and is left to wonder how many real stories they got wrong, because the media twisted them into something they were not for the sake of sensationalism.