The opening shot of Gone Girl begins with a view of the back of Amy Dunne’s head, resting on the stomach of her husband, Nick Dunne. It take’s Nick’s point of view and we hear his thoughts as he admires her.
“When I think of my wife, I always think of the back of her head.” We see his hand stroke her hair.
It’s a romantic entry, one of those idiosyncratic things you’d only hear someone say about someone else if they truly knew them in an intimate way. Then we hear Nick’s next thought: “I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.” Well, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock seems to start romantically, too, until we get to the patient etherized upon the table.
He continues. “The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” Amy turns her head and looks up at Nick – looks right into the camera. Looks right at us. “What will we do?”
Fade to black. In one short shot, David Fincher has already laid a whole lot of groundwork for the rest of his movie, and given us a lot to start thinking about.
For one thing, it’s doing a lot of basic table-setting: We’re immediately being told Nick isn’t exactly the model of a loving husband, and we’re being told Amy is someone Nick does not, in fact, intimately know. As far as the film’s mystery about Amy’s disappearance goes, we’re already made to feel suspicious about both Nick’s and Amy’s roles leading up to it, and what either of them might be capable of.
But there’s something a little deeper going on here, too, beyond the plot-level information being revealed, and it’s all in those eyes. Stick with me here, but I’m about to make another wild, free-associative leap to a movie that essentially has nothing to do with the one being considered here: Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about 30,000-year-old cave paintings discovered in France. If you’ve seen it (it’s streaming on Netflix if you haven’t, and it’s great), you know it ends – very, very weirdly – with a coda about “mutant radioactive albino crocodiles,” which seems to have nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie.
Well at the time, Roger Ebert, always the good sport and a good friend of Herzog’s, made one persuasive link. “Ever since I first read them, these words by W. G. Sebald have remained with me: ‘Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.’ This is true. […] We see the albino crocodile. It sees us. We see a ‘mutant radioactive albino crocodile.’ It sees…us. Men of 32,000 years ago saw cave bears.”
And Nick sees Amy, and Amy sees Nick. One thing I took from Gone Girl as a whole, and the opening shot in particular, is that it posits Sebald’s quote can also be said not just about men and women, but about human beings in general.
It tells you something about how the movie regards the human race that this quote is one of the first things that came to mind after seeing Gone Girl. It does not portray the human race kindly. Nearly every character in the movie is an idiot, an asshole, a psychopath, a manipulator, or some combination of each. I kind of admired its no-holds-barred misanthropy.
But there is something of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” in Gone Girl as a whole, too. It’s a delightfully insane and absurd story, by the end bearing little resemblance to anything that would or could happen in reality, but through its insanity emerges a few genuine, real-life issues worth thinking about. It shows us two people whose bitterness wreaks havoc on their lives, a cynical society that gobbles up the drama with little interest in responsibly arriving at true justice, and how mutual incomprehension – be it due to negligence, disinterest, or simply the natural limits of how much two people who maybe were never really right for each other can ever really know each other – might have a lot to do with a whole lot of things that go wrong in society.
It’s informative, too, to consider the opening shot as an example of the process of adapting a novel to film. The book (which I have not read) begins more or less the same:
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I’d know her head anywhere.
And what’s inside it. I think of that, too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?
This could have been shot in many different ways, in different settings, at different angles – most obviously, perhaps, showing that first meeting of Nick and Amy right at the start of the movie. We do eventually see that first meeting, but not right at the start. That’s the not the first image Fincher wants us to enter this movie with.
A famous quote of his goes, “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene,’ but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”
As so often with Fincher, we can admire that here, once again, he chose the right one.