This week the church’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family begins its deliberations on “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”
Coincidentally, the weekend also saw the opening of “Gone Girl,” one of the most provocative and disturbing films about marriage, gender and family to be mounted in the United States in recent memory.
The story, based on Gillian Flynn’s massively successful 2012 novel of the same name, is about Amy Elliott Dunne, a Missouri housewife who disappears mysteriously on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, perhaps at the hands of her bar-owning husband Nick. For those who have read the book and wonder at the quality of the film, it’s safe and spoiler-free to call it an impressive adaptation, 2 hours and 20 minutes of oh-my-Baby-Jesus-did-that-just-happen sorts of choices and twists enacted by a fantastic cast (including Ben Affleck as Nick) and demanding conversation after.
There’s a lot about “Gone Girl” that makes it relevant to the Synod, so relevant I almost wish they had their own showing. (It’s worth saying at this point, if you haven’t read the book or seen the film and intend to, you should probably stop reading now, because this article is going to spoil the story for you.)
On the one hand, the film’s hellish vision of marriage is I suspect all too familiar to most people who have ever been in a long term relationship, a touchstone for the challenges of being married, the wounds married people suffer and also inflict.
And on the other hand, when the mystery of what’s happened to Amy is revealed, “Gone Girl” reveals itself to embody a very disturbing and dangerous image of women, one that perhaps the world would be better off without.
Marriage: Not For Wimps
One of the key issues the Synod plans to address is the place of divorced Catholics within the Church. And one of the truths that underlies that conversation is that marriage is hard—very hard.
People say that all the time—marriage has its up and downs. But rarely do they offer much in the way of specifics: the sometime sense of suffocation (and/or the desire to suffocate) that partners feel; the moments if not long periods of deep temptation; the bouts of gnawing, cancerous restlessness or frustration.
“Gone Girl” is a meditation upon those dark depths, an unrelenting look into the pettiness, the cruelty and even the madness that simmers under the surface at times in any long term relationship. Its characters go to terrible, crazy extremes; yet somehow their battles always remain firmly familiar to us, an evocation of our own experiences of wound and sin.
As difficult as that makes the film to watch—and though the media is calling it a great "date movie," I suspect “Gone Girl” will bring up a lot of painful experiences for people—it can be freeing, as well. The insanity we’ve known, the terrible choices we’ve sometimes made, it’s not just us. When it comes to marriage, we all get a little bit crazy sometimes.
People wonder why anyone bothers with the sacrament of reconciliation anymore; yet a story like “Gone Girl” reminds us of just how desperately we all need a place where we can come clean and be forgiven. While we grieve the marriages that break up, “Gone Girl” firmly reminds us of the cost involved, and suggests perhaps we should also stand in amazement and gratitude to God that so many marriages survive.
The “My Psycho Wife” Problem
At the same time (and herein I am jumping headlong into spoilers) “Gone Girl” is a thriller that ends by confirming every horrible claim and revenge fantasy abusive men make—that women are manipulative, vindictive, psychotic, unpredictable, dangerous, inescapable, in need of punishment. Rather than innocent victim Amy Elliott Dunne turns out to be a sociopath who sets up not only her husband but two other men as perpetrators of sexual abuse, in one case simply because the man dumped her.
I’ve been trying to tell myself that doesn’t matter. “Gone Girl” is a work of fiction, after all, not a paper on gender roles or values. It was also written by a woman and has been read by a million book clubs made up of women (one of which was seated on either side of me at the film and seemed to adore it). The story includes some other wonderfully rich female characters, including Nick’s sister Margo (played by the fantastic Carrie Coon) and the lead detective (played by Kim Dickens, who really should be just about everything).
And let’s be honest; just as there are crazy, violent, misogynistic men out there, there are falsely accusing, manipulative women. (As I left the theater I overheard an older woman tell someone that Amy reminded her of the woman who seduced and then stalked her husband, breaking up their marriage and then ruining his life.)
But this world that we live in, the world that our Synod will hopefully consider in all its rich and painful ambiguity, is a place where misogyny and domestic abuse against women are incredibly prevalent. In the United States alone, over 20 percent of women report having been the victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, and 25 percent of domestic abuse. Also, one of our most lucrative and important sports leagues seems to have been involved in a longterm cover up of its players’ acts of domestic and sexual abuse. And in so many places internationally not only women but girls find both their lives and their bodies in regular, grave danger.
The last thing we need in a world like this is a character who seems to justify such behavior, let alone a story that invites us to embrace those fears and revenge fantasies ourselves.
Author Gillian Flynn has said that demanding that her female characters be good or pure is confining. I sympathize with her plight. But to imply that Amy Elliott Dunne constitutes some sort of a “liberation” is absurd. “Gone Girl” may have a lot to say about marriage, but when it comes to women, I can’t help feeling it is both irresponsible and appalling. As the Synod begins, may it help shine a sorely needed light on the struggles and needs of both married couples and women in our families today.
Jim McDermott is America's Los Angeles correspondent.