10/06/2014 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Amy Dunne and the Two Lauras: A Consideration of Gone Girl

This is ostensibly a review of David Fincher's new movie Gone Girl, and it will contain all the requisite movie-review language, like "riveting" and "logically-flawed," "Oscar-worthy" and "misstep." But it is also a little story about two Lauras. One of them is only imagined. The other is very real. They are both crucial to understanding Gone Girl and its central character, Amy Dunne.

But wait, I hear you say: Isn't the central character in the movie Ben Affleck? He's in all the trailers. (And by God were there a lot of trailers.) He's a big star. The blonde -- that's Amy, right? -- she's an actress largely unknown to the wide spectrum of American audiences. She must be important. After all, she's the girl who's "gone," right? But Ben Affleck, he's the man.

And herein lies the problem of the second Laura, film critic Laura Mulvey, who caused a stir back in the early '70s by writing Freudian essays about the manner in which traditional cinema objectified the female as an object of male fantasy. Mulvey was by no means the first critic to observe this, but her analysis of the voyeuristic tendency of film in Freudian terms did bolster the burgeoning feminist theory movement in the late '60s and early '70s. But you don't want to hear about that, right? OK, back to Gone Girl.

Affleck plays Nick Dunne, and he is clearly the central character in the movie. He is the one with whom we are set up to identify. His wife, Amy, is played by Rosamund Pike. You may have seen her as support in An Education or more recently as support on Hector and the Search for Happiness. I'm guessing you won't be seeing her in support very much longer.

Gone Girl is, narratively-speaking, a thriller. Amy goes missing. Nick becomes a suspect in the disappearance. We wonder about his culpability. We worry about his safety. We await the promised unraveling of Amy's absence. As a thriller, Gone Girl is mostly riveting. (I promised I'd use that word.) At 140 minutes, it does drag a bit, but it remains taut and suspenseful for the vast majority of that time. Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (working from her original best-selling novel), cleverly manipulate time and point-of-view to develop questions and reveal partial answers throughout. There are several excellent twists.

What emerges is an even deeper mystery. Though we never lose sight of the "what happened to Amy" question, we develop a new question: "Who is/was Amy?" We get multiple perspectives on this from friends, family, investigators and media. And that brings us to the first Laura.

In 1944, Otto Preminger made a movie called Laura, another mystery about another "gone girl." Laura Hunt was played by Gene Tierney, and for the first half of the movie, she is merely a portrait hanging on the wall of her swanky Manhattan apartment. The cop investigating her disappearance, played by Dana Andrews, spends entire evenings gazing at that portrait, and eventually falls in love with the fantasy he has created in his own mind. When the real Laura eventually shows up, she will be markedly different from that fantasy, but the stricken man won't notice. Or won't care. This is Hollywood's greatest depiction of what critic Laura Mulvey (the second Laura -- remember?) would refer to as the "to-be-looked-at-ness" quality of female characters on screen. (I realize the Sight & Sound magazine critic's pole would say Vertigo is superior in that regard, but I beg to differ.)

Like Laura Hunt, Amy Dunne is a woman whose personality appears dependent on who is doing the looking. Both are victims of male objectification. We learn a bit about Amy's past relationships with obsessive men. She is the type of woman -- and you should already know this from those omnipresent trailers -- who "attracts admirers." In many ways, her husband Nick is just another one in the line. But whereas Laura Hunt has been objectified by the macho cop, and by the rich intellectual, and by the effete playboy, Amy Dunne's objectification goes far deeper. She has been objectified by men and by women. When her disappearance becomes a story, she is objectified by the merciless gaze of the media. Most importantly, she has been objectified by her parents, who turned her idealized form into a best-selling children series centered on "Amazing Amy." This in turn has led to Amy Dunne being essentially objectified by the world at large. One of Laura Mulvey's central theses is that scopophilia (the pleasure of looking at an object) has largely defined women in film. In Gone Girl, countless people take pleasure in looking at -- and in a certain manner, looking for -- Amy Dunne. But precious few actually see her.

Even though Fincher and Welch would appear to be setting up a classic Laura Mulvey-defined scenario in which the audience is made to identify with the gaze of the male hero (Nick's gaze), the filmmakers blow up that trope. Gillian Flynn has given Amy Dunne a voice. Others may be looking for and defining Amy throughout the movie, but Amy also gets to tell her own story through the device of her diaries, which will fall into the hands of the cops investigating her disappearance at a key moment. Amy's voice is a constant and as such, she is afforded an opportunity that characters like Laura Hunt never received. She has the ability to write her past, present and future. Our opinions about Amy and Nick may well fluctuate during the course of the narrative, but one thing is certain: Amy is not a passive character who accepts being objectified without putting up a fight, and that ultimately is what elevates the movie.

As for the remainder of the "review," Gone Girl has interesting things to say about marriage, and the way in which both partners manipulate and objectify each other. But I didn't find that part as interesting as the character of Amy. That may be in part because though he doesn't detract from the movie in any way, I didn't find Ben Affleck added very much either. This is likely intentional. Nick is a very dull character. The only thing interesting about him is the situation in which he finds himself. This struck me as the movie's most serious "misstep."

Most of the supporting roles were quite good. I especially liked the casting of Tyler Perry as the celebrity defense attorney. The movie suggests that everything in our modern world -- from the news to the law to the identity of your spouse -- is one big show. Who better to put in the role of defender than a man with such a keen a sense of giving the public what it wants to see? The plot is unlikely, and in the final act is seriously "logically flawed." But, if you have bought into the conception by that point, those flaws may not bother you much. I suspect Fincher actually reveled in the inconsistency to a degree. There is a major scene toward the end that is staged with so much over-the-top excess that it seems the director was winking at the audience.

Finally, there is Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. If you're paying attention, you'll note I haven't used "Oscar-worthy" yet. Here it comes. Pike gives the best lead performance by anyone -- male or female -- in a movie thus far this year. The role is very difficult, since she must appear to be so many things to so many different people. She reveals a great deal of herself. And she does it all with just enough mystery to make us constantly question whether there are still deeper layers to Amy Dunne. It is a star-making performance, one that all Lauras -- Hunt and Mulvey, Petrie and Palmer, Ingraham and Linney -- can applaud.