Killtoberfest 2 – #3: Gone Girl / The Haunting

In All, Movies by Kyu

Killtoberfest 2 rolls onward with two movies that aren’t very scary. What they are, however, is uncomfortable, nightmarish, and brilliant. Both are adaptations of novels. Both are about narcissistic personalities. One of them is totally a stretch to be described as a horror movie, but shut up, you try watching 60 in a month.

The stretch is David Fincher’s new movie, Gone Girl (2014). Any discussion of the film relies on discussion of the entire story, so expect full spoilers.

The problem with him is that he’s faking a smile. That’s also the problem with her.

I used to say that movies like Fatal Attraction, Swimfan, and especially Basic Instinct aren’t just thrillers, they’re horror movies where the monster is a woman who knows how to use sex as a weapon. That certainly describes Amy Dunne (nee Elliot) (Pike). While Gone Girl isn’t explicitly horrific (outside of its orgasmic murder scene, something that I don’t recall ever happening on How I Met Your Mother), it’s a predicament thriller, with its protagonist, Nick (Affleck), finding himself increasingly trapped in one nightmare after the next. First his wife disappears, and everyone thinks he did it. Then it turns out that she’s alive, that she framed him, and that he married a psychopath. Finally, like a man descending the Penrose stairs, he finds himself back where he began: in a loveless, hate-filled, artificial marriage. This time there is no escape.

I suppose, counting it as a horror film, I should be reviewing it as such. But those aspects–the lurid, psychosexual thriller aspects borrowed from Basic Instinct and the like–are really the least interesting parts of the movie. Much more interesting to me is the way the film describes, with absolute cynicism, a modern media culture and a modern psychological state that feed off of one another.

One of my favorite blogs is The Last Psychiatrist, where an anonymous man discusses psychology, medicine, media, and culture in a way that seems to explain much of what we are doing and where we are going as a society. His pet theme is that the disease of our times is narcissism–a condition not characterized by self-aggrandizement but by the belief that we are the main characters in our own movies. A narcissist constructs an identity for himself and then demands that the world ignore the truth of his behavior, his actions, in favor of his presentation of that identity. Moreover, he can only relate to others in terms of himself–to him, they do not have real emotions (because he doesn’t, except for fear, sadness, shame, and rage). When his identity is threatened (loses the job that defines him, or one of the supporting characters quits his movie), he reacts with rage, with violence. TLP’s belief is that many, many people today in America fit this personality profile, and that it’s reflected in many aspects of our society, from advertisement to the news to politics to relationships. I couldn’t help but watch Gone Girl through this lens, because Gone Girl is primarily about two things: what happens when two narcissists marry each other, and what happens when the narcissistic national culture treats the inevitable result of that marriage as primetime entertainment.

Although “narcissist” is the language I’m using to talk about this, you can also ignore that and just look at the movie through the lens of people trying to form and protect their identities, altering or reinforcing public perception of themselves. That’s Nick’s problem in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s disappearance: controlling the narrative. Although the story is ostensibly about Nick’s eventual arrest and prospective trial, he spends the first half of the film in a state of increasing agitation at the way everybody is seeing him right now. Each section of the film is bracketed by Nick’s attempts to alter this public perception in bigger and bigger venues–first to the crowd at the vigil, then on the national news program, and finally with the Nancy Grace analogue (which, Nick points out, is largely where the notion of his guilt and the assassination of his character got its start). Nick is trying just as hard now, in Amy’s absence, to pretend that he’s a loving, devoted husband as he did back when she was still around. But over the course of the movie, we learn that he definitely was not–that he cheated on Amy, that he wanted a divorce, that he hated many of the aspects of her personality that he once found charming. His side of the marriage was an act, and so was his life–only a certain kind of person calls himself a writer and has a full file drawer labeled “book ideas” but does no actual writing.

Moreover, Nick does not feel that any of this makes him a bad person. He does not feel guilty about any of the things he does (including faking his marriage, lying to the police, feeling relieved at his wife’s disappearance, having sex with his former student in his sister’s house while his wife is missing). He may feel some agitation when these things are uncovered–for example, when his sister discovers he’s been cheating. This is because he’s trying to maintain the perception of integrity, most of all to his sister, the supporting character in the movie that is his life. Margo (Carrie Coon) is essentially Nick’s external superego, the person he goes to for validation and forgiveness. He doesn’t confess to her that he felt relieved about his wife’s disappearance because he’s guilty over his reaction, but because he knows that reaction is shameful and he knows that she will alleviate the shame by excusing his reaction (“It’s okay, Nick, Amy was a bitch, you were under a lot of stress, it’s a human reaction, I will love you no matter what you do”). Note he does not try this with Amy’s parents or in public, because he knows it wouldn’t fly with them. Only with the person who willingly embraces that role of substitute parental figure (who goes so far as to say that she’ll love and support him even if he did kill Amy) can Nick truly be himself… which is to say that he lies to her constantly because he wants her to think of him as a good person, even if that assessment is based on the perception of him he has constructed for her (loving husband, not a cheater, etc), because that perception is all that matters to him.

In the second half of the film, we focus on Amy, and her equal (if scarier) attempts at self-definition. It’s hard to tell what’s real in her backstory and what isn’t, because much of our information comes through the constructed diary and only some of it is vouched for by Nick (himself an unreliable witness). What I can say is that the story she tells is overtly a story about a person faking a series of identities in succession, only to discover that each of them has failed to hold up. When she meets Nick, she seems to have a very solid identity–New Yorker, magazine writer, trust fund kid. But those things are not intrinsic to her–if she was a novelist, somebody who expressed herself, that would be intrinsic. But she writes quizzes for a magazine, which makes her identity dependent on the job. She loses the trust fund, then the job, and shortly thereafter loses New York, too, when the two of them move to flyover country to care for Nick’s sick mother. Suddenly Amy feels adrift–all of her tethers have come undone, except for her marriage. The best way to strain a marriage is to make it the only thing holding two people together, and I mean that both ways–without the marriage, each person falls apart as well as away from one another. Amy decides that she is tired of fulfilling a role for Nick, but instead of figuring out who she actually is, Amy finds herself a new role, one she’s played before: the victim. She works harder at this than at anything she’s ever done–if she worked this hard at the marriage, she might have been able to save it. At any rate, she carefully prepares the elements needed to create the perception of a scared, battered wife who fears for her life. It’s an expert performance.

Here’s where the Ozarks segment of the film, otherwise overlong and unnecessary in plot terms, comes in. She’s created this new identity for herself, that of the victim, and it’s one she embraces overall. For example, there’s no reason why she should hit herself in the face with a hammer, other than the story she’s chosen to tell her new neighbors is one in which she is the victim of a lover’s physical abuse. Likewise, all her descriptions of Nick at this point are (overly) aggrieved–we later learn that some of them have been falsified (diary entries) and others are surely exaggerated (it’s not Nick’s dude habits, like watching sports, that really bother her–Amy even admits that she found herself enjoying some of those things when forcing herself to participate). The point of this segment is to show how her identities always unravel. She builds an identity as a battered wife on the run; her neighbors see through it. She’s built one as a criminal, but they’re better at it than she is. Finally, she’s built this victim identity, and had she carried it all the way through–had she killed herself in the manner she describes–Nick would have been utterly fucked forever. But she can’t do it, because she’s the main character in her own movie, and that’s not the ending she wants–and besides, she becomes too engrossed watching her own movie on the cable news. She becomes so entranced with seeing people buy into the perception she’s built (the angelic, loving, murdered wife) that she forgets to finish the job by committing suicide.

Something similar happens with Collings (Harris). She turns to him because he’s there for her, and he’s been there for her because she’s deliberately kept him around, not because he loves her but because his love means he’s willing to accept the image of herself she wishes to project. (In that sense he’s her Margo.) Amy discovers very quickly, however, that Collings doesn’t care about her, he cares about her image, which is why he wants to Vertigo her, change her hair and clothing and body fat distribution back to the way she used to be. If that weren’t enough, Collings’ idea of marriage is even more claustrophobic than her marriage with Nick (which forced her to try and change and stay close to Nick at the same time). Note that Collings doesn’t say, “Come back with me to my house where I work,” he proposes that she move into his lake house, a center of perfect comfort and ready entertainment and nothing at all to do, which Amy describes as a permanent vacation. That’s no basis for a lasting relationship, and anyway three (Collings, Amy, Collings’ idea of Amy) is a crowd. So when Amy (still watching her own made-for-TV movie) sees that Nick wants her back, she jumps at the chance, killing Collings and playing the victim once again, writing a new ending for her story.

The movie argues that both of these people are totally fucked (as Tyler Perry keeps reminding Nick). They got into marriage on a false pretext, each pretending to be the person they thought the other would want, and when their environment and circumstances changed, neither could maintain the identity. Nor could they maintain their shared identity (“I thought we said we didn’t want to be the kind of couple that…”). So each gets increasingly angry at the other, because Nick’s very proximity to and understanding of and perception of Amy is what Amy blames for her inability to project the idea of herself that she wants (“I don’t want to be that person, the wife who nags”) and vice versa. Eventually Nick implodes (decides to ask for a divorce) and Amy explodes (decides to frame her husband for murder). But what brings them back together is the idea, as deliberately proposed by Nick, that he’s willing to try and fake it again–to be the person Amy wants him to be. From there, circumstances are such that he has to hold to his promise, faking his marriage with her to everybody watching at home for the rest of his life–or until the kid goes to college, whichever comes first. I doubt their child would do well if Amy took him and left, but I sincerely doubt he or she is going to turn out well being raised in that household by two deranged people who are incapable of seeing him/her as anything more than a reflection on themselves.

The final layer here is that the only reason Nick and Amy’s relationship is first allowed and then forced to resume, is you. Ie., everybody watching Nancy Grace, everybody who at some point said, “Casey Anthony is definitely guilty,” everybody who demands that real people fit into a neat media narrative (this man is smiling, he’s not grieving properly!). You can’t be the main character in your own movie without an audience. Amy and Nick need a crowd if they’re going to crowdsource their identity validation, and the public is eager to provide in exchange for entertainment. Do they actually, truly feel for Nick and Amy? I doubt it. (The one independent viewer we see, the woman in the Ozarks, cackles at the twists and turns and seedy insinuations but dismisses Amy’s carefully crafted image of perfection as a rich bitch.) Nick and Amy aren’t real to them, Nick and Amy are just another projected image on a screen. As are they. And then you leave the theater.

The second film on this double bill is Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).

I’ll be briefer here, both because the Gone Girl half of this was stupidly long and because part of the ground here has been covered earlier and better by Stephen King, who discusses the novel this is based on (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) in his indispensable Danse Macabre. Wise’s adaptation is generally very faithful to the book, and only really suffers when it deviates from that novel’s perfect, ambiguous exploration of horror and the mind.

The Haunting, which I considered to be the quintessential haunted house movie, even opens with a variation on Jackson’s opening lines: “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.” The words are talismanic, like “once upon a time” or “a year later their footage was found,” telling us that a certain kind of story has begun. They’re repeated at the end, in a different context; this is where we realize that, when you’re a narcissist, you always walk alone.

The story, set up in an overtly (and hokey) expository fashion, concerns four people in a supposedly haunted house. Dr. John Markaway is the anthropologist (cum parapsychologist) who rents the house, intending to document its phenomena. Theo, a lesbian with a talent for ESP, and Eleanor, who as a young girl encountered or triggered a mysterious rain of stones, are along as assistants, Markaway hoping that their peculiar talents may jumpstart the house (as Danny Torrance’s psychic abilities do the Overlook Hotel in The Shining). Luke, a young, skeptical playboy type, is along as chaperone (literally–this is 1963, and Markaway’s wife won’t be coming). The group arrives at the house one by one and settle in (after hearing the housekeeper’s delightful spiel: “No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that. So there won’t be anyone around if you need help. In the night. In the dark.”). Then they begin waiting for something to happen.

Eleanor has always been waiting for something to happen to her. She was a caretaker for her sick mother for many years, an experience that has left her almost entirely unable to stand up for herself–or to herself. Eleanor is a narcissist, perhaps because spent so many years isolated, with only her sick, demanding mother for company. The identity she’s trying to protect is not a positive one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t strong. It’s an identity built around loneliness, subservience, and prudence. Markaway’s invitation to Hill House is the chance she seizes upon, an opportunity to change. The tragedy of the movie is that Eleanor’s ego will sabotage these efforts. The horror of the movie is that Hill House is helping.

The movie’s clarity is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. The novel remains ambiguous–what is causing the disturbances? Is Eleanor doing this unconsciously, psychically? Or is it Hill House? The movie makes things at least a little more clear (particularly in the last scene of the film), which I think turns it from a great story into merely a very good one. On the other hand, it’s the film’s concrete depiction of Hill House’s strangeness that makes it one of the most effective, atmospheric films ever made. King on Jackson on Hill House:

One thing we do know about Hill House is that it is all wrong. It is no one thing we can put our finger on; it’s everything. Stepping into Hill House is like stepping into the mind of a madman; it isn’t long before you weird out yourself.

“Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest tolerable length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners—what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth . . . and shook herself again. Really, she told herself, really, Eleanor.”

As Anne Rivers Siddons points out, everything in Hill House is skewed. There is nothing which is perfectly straight or perfectly level—which may be why doors keep swinging open or shut. And this idea of skew is important to Jackson’s concept of the Bad Place because it heightens those feelings of altered perception. Being in Hill House is like tripping on a low-watt dosage of LSD, where everything seems strange and you feel you will begin to hallucinate at any time. But you never quite do. You just look incredulously at a stained-glass window . . . or a decorative urn . . . or the pattern on the carpet. Being in Hill House is like looking into one of those trick rooms where folks look big at one end and small at the other. Being in Hill House is like lying in bed in the dark on the night you went three drinks beyond your capacity . . . and feeling the bed begin to spin slowly around and around . . . .

All I really want to do here is point out how well and brilliantly the film recreates this sensibility. Everything that isn’t dialogue, in fact, is devoted to this sense of wrongness and unreality.

Here, for instance, you can see how characters are staged within the frame to confuse the eye and prevent any natural connections. With the exception of Theo and Luke (minimized in the back left corner of the frame), none of them are facing one another (none of the eyelines match up, in other words). The room is cluttered with chairs, tables, paintings, bric-a-brac, baroque fireplaces and dark rugs. The darkest and brightest parts of the frame are not far off from one another (low contrast). The result is that not only does the eye not know where to go, but it’s difficult to even make sense of the space.

These techniques and others are carried on throughout the film. The sets themselves are built with angles to disrupt any flat surfaces or straight lines. The lighting adds its own effects, with lines of light and shadow further disrupting the image. The camera cants itself, or travels in odd directions (particularly up and down the rickety spiral staircase). Mirrors are placed along the back walls of the sets, themselves placed at odd angles, so that their reflections don’t make sense within the frame. Even the black and white photography contributes to the sense of unreality (as when Theo declares one of many grayscale rooms to be “the Purple Room”). The result of all this is to unnerve and destabilize the viewer’s point of view, lending the story an eerie, dreamlike (or nightmarish) feel.

Narratively, the film does the same thing, structuring itself in repetitive cycles of interpersonal discussion, supernatural event, discussion, sleeping, waking, eating. Days blur together, and there’s little sense of progression or orientation outside of Eleanor’s deteriorating mental state. It’s several scenes into the movie before we’re introduced to her voice over–a startling departure from the objective viewpoint of the opening–and eventually we are entirely in her head, as in the screenshot at the top of this review (Eleanor’s anxious interior monologue overwhelming the audio from the conversations happening around her). Eleanor’s point of view comes to dominate the film even as her perspective begins to become strange and confused. Mirroring her confusion is our own–sharing her point of view so closely is entrancing, but the nature of her thoughts demand that we try and distance ourselves, to interpret things analytically and objectively. Like the other characters in the film, we are too late in realizing just what is happening to Eleanor and why; we can only watch, helplessly, as any chance she has at freedom and growth is destroyed. “Whatever walks there, walks alone,” and will continue to do so forever.

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.