Mean-spiritedness manifests itself in many different forms.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of hatred or prejudice, but some of the most toxic and vitriolic people have repackaged their ideas over the years. One may quickly recall Donald Trump switching From Democratic and Independence Party affiliation to an even more xenophobic version of the Republican platform in his path toward hijacking the presidency. On a smaller scale, Breitbart’s former poster child Milo Yiannopoulos once wrote moral panic articles for the Catholic Herald and condemned violent video games before upgrading to a crudely bigoted caricature and hero to the same misogynistic video gamers he once mocked. Even Tomi Lahren once ideologically resembled the left-leaning youth she’s since made a career out of dismissing as “snowflakes.” All three faces of arrogance and oppression made the conscious decision to gain that reputation.

People’s willingness to rebrand themselves as monsters without remorse is an alarming, puzzling trend of modern society. It may be hard to find an explanation outside of human selfishness and narcissism, traits director David Fincher has made a career out of depicting and deconstructing. He’s conjured timelessly horrific hellscapes where serial killers blend right in with films like Se7en and Zodiac, and hit a more socially applicable nerve tearing down self-righteous white male privilege in 1999’s Fight Club. But his most haunting and refined work ties directly into the anxieties of this decade—that of social media and all the opportunities it provides to forge new identities. With The Social Network, Fincher showed a social outcast turn into a trailblazing tech celebrity while losing friends and being fueled by spite toward his ex-girlfriend. His under-appreciated follow-up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo saw a more selfless social outcast seeking personal love and acceptance for the first time, only to have her hopes crushed and resume a life of indifference.

Gone Girl, the 2014 adaptation of a bestselling paperback thriller, feels like the inevitably demented amalgamation of questions Fincher proposed in Network and Tattoo. Are there new consequences to controversial or intimate information being immediately shared to the public? Can one convincingly build a new persona strictly from their online or media perceptions? In the third installment of what could reasonably be called Fincher’s “tech trilogy,” the answer to both is a resounding yes—one stained by blood and deceit.

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Nick Dunne, as portrayed by too-frequent media punching bag Ben Affleck, is a textbook image of the aimless American male. Diary entries narrated by his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) reveal he spent their limited funds on video games and pointless gadgets after losing his job, and he was having an affair with one of his college students months before building up the courage to ask Amy for a divorce. He lies to law enforcement and is awkwardly uncharismatic at memorial events held once his wife goes missing, making him all too easy for sensationalistic media to suspect as Amy’s murderer. In many other narratives, Nick could easily take the mantle of least likable character. In this one, he’s merely the dim-witted loser to Amy’s more successful sociopath.

Amy is unquestionably a better actor, and an even more unreliable narrator, than her husband. Over the course of the film, she plays no less than four personas. When Nick first meets her, she’s the self-described “cool girl”—she can smile and laugh on cue, is sexually submissive to her husband, and voices few concerns for the first two years of their marriage. She takes up the bruised, brown-haired identity of “Nancy” when hiding out at a motel, finally able to be more honest about her marital insecurities after changing the names embellishing the specifics around her neighbor Greta (Lola Kirke). But at heart, she’s still the sheltered, big city girl known to the public as “Amazing Amy,” a caricature popularized through her parents’ children’s books, ones she claims “improved upon” her childhood and “peddled it to the masses.” Amy is thusly unprepared when Greta steals cash from her, and turns to the emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). Desi, whose own pampered pretty boy persona might seem a natural pairing for Amazing Amy, instead sees a more seductive and dangerous version of Amy he’d secretly lusted for—one who can play the femme fatale and slash his throat with hardly a second’s remorse.

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Despite all the new identities and schemes Amy partakes in throughout Gone Girl, she’s always immortalized as the heroic, smiling version of herself seen in billboards across Missouri and beyond. Like the Milos and Tomi Lahrens of the world, she’s legitimized and tidied up by the same media she’s an expert at playing. Therein lies the central, chilling takeaway from Fincher’s film: real lives, news and facts are treated like theatre. Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn are wise to play up each stage of Nick’s and Amy’s twisted romance as part of an ongoing serial with a dedicated following. As early as the scene where Nick proposes to Amy, Fincher positions the couple directly in front of onlooking friends taking every word in like they’re watching a romantic comedy on TV. When she returns home literally covered in blood, with Nick well aware of her scheme to frame him for her murder, a crowd full of cameras cheers and snaps photos as he catches her in a dramatically romantic gesture to appease them (in his commentary track, Fincher admits he aimed for their pose to resemble the famous Gone with the Wind poster, solidifying the public’s romanticization of such a toxic couple). In the film’s second-to-last scene, America confirms its newfound love for the Dunnes when Nick announces he and Amy will be having a child soon. None are the wiser on the backstabbings and spiteful power plays that led to this moment.

Next to Nick’s undeservingly supportive sister Margo (Carrie Coon), perhaps the most well-intentioned character in Gone Girl is Detective Ronda Boney (Kim Dickens). Even when she’s pursuing connections between Nick and Amy’s disappearance, she opposes her partner Gilpin’s notion that the simplest answers to a case are the most correct. But in their well-meaning naïveté, Boney and Gilpin both underestimate the public’s ability to buy into a one-sided story of their own making. The film’s greatest irony comes when Gilpin says it’s “incredibly hard to make a murder case without a body.” As the film proves time and time again, media and its consumers are willing to bring their own body to a table without one.

Nick’s reputation as a sociopathic murderer is quickly accepted thanks to dramatic speculation by Ellen Abbot—though Missi Pyle’s snobby scene-stealer is clearly a stand-in for Nancy Grace, she’s at one point lumped in with cable news by Margo, in an equivalence that further drives home Fincher’s and Flynn’s mistrust in even the most widely watched media gatekeepers. Once Nick realizes Amy’s plan to frame him, his first meeting with lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) is telling. Rather than immediately attempting to disprove Amy’s claims against Nick as irrefutable falsehood, Tanner deems the situation a “he said, she said” and proposes that they try to outdo her “perfect story.” Tanner tells Nick, “If we decide to go with your version… then we’ll need to realign the public’s perception of Amy.”

Perception is the operative term here, with Flynn implying Amy lives off the public image she’s built up through children’s books and an abduction case, rather than accurately reflecting her inner personality. Despite the dissonance, Nick continues to play along with the “America’s sweetheart” version of her, going on Sharon Schieber’s talk show to beg forgiveness from both his wife and the crowd that feels entitled to a response. Nick is always engaged in a game with a media audience, one that’s willing to shift their opinions if the still-loathsome antihero plays accordingly. In his own words after the interview with Schieber, “They disliked me, they liked me, they hated me, now they love me.”

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But Nick and Amy are no less shameless in their shifting allegiances, as the entire third act of Gone Girl proves. Now that Nick is no longer a murder suspect and instead one half of what Tanner calls a “miracle on the Mississippi,” he abandons any pretense revealing the truth he so valued earlier. Amy is even willing to live with Nick again now that she no longer must pretend to be the “cool girl.” Both spouses step into the shower in a truly revealing scene where Amy both literally and symbolically washes blood away after verifying that Nick won’t record her. In this moment, husband and wife reach the mutual understanding that deception doesn’t phase them, and they’re willing to live a lie for their audience’s approval. In Nick’s and Amy’s final exchange, she cuts straight to the heart of his need for validation: “The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this c*** might like.” As the couple proceeds to announce Amy’s pregnancy on TV, a family is “united” to a majority who will never be the wiser.

As a film, Gone Girl is perhaps best summed up by one of the final lines in Flynn’s novel: “We are one long frightening climax.” This is true of Fincher’s film in reference to his previous two—where Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander struggled with their newly forged identities by the endings of Network and Tattoo, Nick and Amy embrace a new set of values with open arms. They are the privileged, cynical faces of an society that lives or dies on the thoughts of an audience that treats marital struggles and murder as essential television.

Released late in 2014, Gone Girl is also the “long frightening climax” of a more comforting time in modern America—right before political debates as reality TV, facts as a negotiable concept, apolitical cynics playing far-right bigots for fame, and long-developing roots of evil blooming into the year 2016. Nick said it best:

“What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

Featured Image: 20th Century Fox