This is a horror movie about the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, about what happens on their fifth wedding anniversary, when Amy disappears and Nick is soon believed by the police to have killed Amy for various apparent motives that crop up in murder mysteries and real life all too often. It’s a horror movie about what happened leading up to that terrible day … which also makes Gone Girl a horror movie about marriage itself. The nightmare behind the fairy tale. The illusion and the delusion. The ways that a man and a woman manipulate each other and trick each other so that they can “fall in love” and pretend to live that fairy tale until one of them snaps …

Wait. What?

I’m not married, I’ve never been married — but I don’t see how Gone Girl works in the way that it intends unless there’s some universality in it, however exaggerated. The other option is that Gone Girl is delusional about “human nature” and the supposed societal pressures that force people to do something they’d otherwise never do on their own (i.e., get married). I suspect the movie follows the second premise to snare everyone’s attention.

If Gone Girl had stuck to being just about the Dunnes, on a small, personal scale, I might have been able to give it a pass as high-toned cinematic junk food. But it didn’t. It went places where the story itself becomes manipulative and disingenuous in unforgivable and even dangerous ways.

It’s like this: Amy (Rosamund Pike, awesome, as always) is famous, having been the inspiration for a series of popular children’s books written by her mother, so her disappearance is major national news. Nonstop media attention is but a metaphor for the limited perspective we can only ever have on someone else’s relationship: A couple might look happy in public, but only they know what goes on behind closed doors. Flashbacks to Amy and Nick’s life from the moment they meet give us an intimate peek into what’s been going on between the two of them, and it’s not pretty. It’s here where we get her side of the “But I changed for him!” story. It’s stuff that many women will recognize, and yet, I can’t have a lot of sympathy. You pretended to be something you’re not, and now you hate what you’ve become and resent your husband for it? Whose fault is that?

I’d say the same thing to Nick (Ben Affleck, also excellent). We get his side of the marriage from his conversations with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). He’s been putting on a false front, too: When you pretend to be something you’re not and you can’t keep it up — who could? — you start to appear inconsistent.
Gone Girl is still all good up to this point, with lots of delicious ambiguity and some really meaty stuff about the differences between the faces we present to the world — romantically or otherwise — and the roles we perform because we think we have to perform them, versus how we might rather just be sitting around eating junk food and playing video games all day.

So what happens? Gone Girl takes sides: Sure, men and women may trick one another, but one gender ends up sympathetic, and the other one villainous. The movie throws out all the ambiguity. What started as general — and reasonable — cynicism about an institution (marriage) that many people have doubts about ends up in a perilous realm that appears to willfully misunderstand the realities of domestic violence. Yes, it’s all fantasy, of a sort … and it’s frightening. If the specific details of what happens here are what people are fantasizing about, then this underscores a terrible tragedy in our society that we should be horrified to acknowledge: We’re encouraging the unhealthiest sorts of behavior in everyone.

Gone Girl seems completely — even blissfully — unaware of this, however.

It’s bad enough, and says enough bad stuff about us, when a story like Gone Girl is tossed around as B-movie trash. When it’s Oscar bait from the likes of director David Fincher, who has had a lot of tough things to say about how messed up the world is but seems to miss that angle here, I despair.