Claustrophobia and Camaraderie in Fury and End of Watch

fury-poster1

If I had the time or the inclination, I’d do some research on how much people who struggle with claustrophobia enjoy writer-director David Ayer’s movies. I’m guessing not so much. In 2012’s End of Watch and the recently-released Fury, Ayer seems obsessed with small spaces and the effect they have on those who fill them. Not that these films are an exploration of someone struggling with claustrophobia. Instead, they both use setting and camerawork to place the audience in grippingly intense tight spots – while we watch the characters bond because of it.

Considering End of Watch is essentially an intimate ode to the Los Angeles Police Department and Fury a similarly interior look at a Sherman Tank near the tail-end of World War II, it would be nice to have someone with experience in these general areas. Ayer spent time in South Central LA and the United States Navy, so you could say he is well-equipped in committing these harsh settings to the screen with decent authenticity. However, before he got around to making those two, he toiled away in the muck of Hollywood’s mediocre action flick landscape. After collaborating on the scripts for little-seen submarine thriller U-571 and the first (of many) Fast and the Furious movie, he wrote his own screenplay in 2001’s Training Day. Known mostly as a tour de force performance from Denzel that won him an Oscar, Training Day features some excellent writing. It also features quite a bit of dialogue set around Denzel’s loose-cannon LA narcotics officer driving Ethan Hawke’s rookie cop around the city. The nature of this setup – two law enforcers patrolling the streets and just talking – would be used to great (in my opinion, even greater) effect over a decade later.

End-of-Watch_05

That space of time would be filled with writing scripts and directing his first couple films. Unfortunately, the list contains nothing special: Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., Harsh Times, Street Kings. If you have (improbably) seen any of those, chances are you don’t remember much about them. In 2012, Ayer would put his efforts into a new kind of urban cop movie; End of Watch possessed a different sensibility. It was shot with mostly handheld cameras, lending a heavily subjective point of view amid the chaos a police officer must get involved in. With the “found footage”, shaky cam style, Ayer gets us up close and personal with his characters, which lets us feel like we are in the thick of the action. This can be attributed as a strength or a weakness depending on if your stomach can handle films like Cloverfield, Friday Night Lights, and the second and third Bourne movies. Here, the jerkiness of Ayer’s camera purposely disorients. In numerous scenes, it seems like there is nowhere for the protagonists to escape, it feels like everything around them is too overcrowded.

End of Watch also doesn’t contain much in the way of traditional cop drama plotting either. Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as partners, enforcing the law in the savagely nihilistic streets of South Central LA. They are the two young hotshots on the force and we get a peek into their day-to-day lives as officers. Sometimes they will respond to a call and it’s nothing but a domestic disturbance. Other times, it’s human trafficking. This is part of what gives the film much of its intensity, but there is no larger story at service here. Just two boys in blue pushing the black-and-white.

End-of-Watch

Through these deathly, yet inherent, hazards, Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor and Peña’s Mike Zavala start the movie as best buds and only grow closer as time passes. Not only are they partners who must have each other’s back, but they ride around all day long in the same car. Most movies would have us believe a cop in South Central LA is always mixed up in something crazy, but since a significant amount of End of Watch is minor incidents, we get to see another reason why these two bond. Sure, they do so through super intense moments of life-and-death uncertainty, but their friendship also fuses more tightly over the mundane, quotidian events.

fury-brad-pitt

Fury goes to even greater (maybe even more obvious) extremes on this. Mainly set inside an American tank rolling through enemy territory as the Germans retreat, Ayer brings in five different soldiers into his claustrophobic world. All of us know the inside of a World War II-era tank is far from roomy, but Ayer shoots it so that we really get the picture. This time it’s not shaky cam but a more classical style. Ayer is much more patient with the shots in Fury, letting his camera just sit on the shining white horse at the beginning or the terrified look on a young soldier’s face. Still, the lively action inside the tank gives us a good idea of its mechanics: Brad Pitt’s character “Wardaddy” is the leader, Shia LaBeouf fires the shots as “Bible”, “Coon-Ass” (what a name) loads the rounds, and Michael Pena’s “Gordo” and Logan Lerman as “Norman” fire the turrets on either side. Ayer uses tight shots and quick cuts to place us right in the middle as they operate this murderous hunk of metal.

I had never really seen a war movie that focused exclusively on a tank outfit, but it actually turned out to be the perfect setting for the kind of camaraderie that naturally arises among military members. The closeness between the group is clear as they razz each other. It’s also clear when Norman reluctantly becomes a part of the team. They take to him slowly and only after he’s been morphed into a young killing machine. There may be issues with the way Norman’s character is written (he goes from novice to a willing, almost expert killer way too fast), but he (as the audience surrogate) provides a solid example of becoming assimilated to both the brotherhood and the soul-numbing cruelty of warfare. Stuck in that tank called “Fury” with four battle-hardened war veterans turned Norman into a fighter whose sole concern was not with the morality of it all, but for the man next to him. That’s what the claustrophobic intensity of Ayer’s films does to you.

Advertisements

It’s a Spectacle: Remembering the Greatest Show on Turf

1-75a-2

“We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars” – Cecil B. Demille, director of the Greatest Show on Earth

The TV didn’t work so well. It was one of those great big, heavy, square box TVs that sat on the floor, very 1990s; the kind that sits dust-encased in your basement now. If you walked or stood near it, the screen would immediately begin to turn to static. This was a problem while the St. Louis Rams were playing in Super Bowl XXXIV.

When Isaac Bruce broke free toward the endzone with just two minutes remaining, I began screaming and leaping in front of that enormous box on the floor. Sit down! came the chorus of thrilled yet annoyed family members behind me. The picture had gone all black-and-white with static, so much so that you could hardly see if Bruce scored. I don’t even remember noticing, this circus-esque football team had me too ecstatic.

Ecstasy came easily if you watched anything the 1999 Rams did that season, but the feeling that more often came across was probably pure wonder. What this team did was unlike anything that had been done in the history of the NFL. Their offensive philosophy and practice transcended the game and effectively changed how offenses were run. It was the unbelievably fortunate alchemy of the perfect coach and system meshing with the perfect cast of ultra-talented players at the perfect time. It became the Greatest Show on Turf.

“It’s like basketball on grass.” – Super Bowl announcer

Since this season is the 15th anniversary, there is plenty of flowery praise getting lofted toward that intrepid 99 Rams team. There’s a reason we didn’t do this last year for the 98 Rams. That season St. Louis finished a putrid 4-12, with no signs of improvement to be found. The Rams hadn’t made the playoffs since 1989, moving from LA to St. Louis in 1995 after several consecutive seasons of mediocrity following their last playoff exit. Coach Dick Vermeil’s seat was starting to get a little hot because of back-to-back seasons without even sniffing a winning record. That was, until he brought Mike Martz in.

74

Martz spent about two decades (most of the 70s and 80s) meandering through various universities as an assistant. In 92, he became the LA Rams quarterbacks coach. After leaving for Washington to become quarterbacks coach for two seasons in 97-98, Martz would come back to the Rams after a disappointing season, bringing St. Louis native Trent Green with him, who was coming off a good, not great, season as Washington’s QB. Martz also ushered in his Air Coryell offensive system, which essentially altered the Rams future for good.

Don Coryell had created this offense – one that relied heavily on the defense-stretching, downfield pass – in his time as San Diego State and San Diego Chargers head coach. Instead of setting up the pass by running the ball, as many teams did and continue to do, Coryell decided he didn’t agree with that. He wanted to throw, a lot. And not just dinky, short, horizontal passes like Bill Walsh’s successful West Coast offense, but vertical bombs that force the defense to defend the entire field.

Martz basically took this and cranked up the dial. He knew he was armed with blinding speed at wide receiver and running back and could use this to put his dream system to work. At receiver, he had an in-his-prime Isaac Bruce, who had already asserted himself as one of the league’s better wideouts. Rookie Torry Holt had just been taken by the Rams with the 6th overall pick and was eager to prove himself in Martz’s high-powered scheme. In the fourth round of the previous draft, the Rams had selected another receiver, Az-Zahir Hakim, who had Flash-type speed and returned punts. At running back, the Rams had just dealt a couple draft picks for one of the best backs in the game. Marshall Faulk came into St. Louis, fresh off a season with just over 1,300 yards rushing and 900 yards receiving. Great numbers, but they were about to get even more ridiculous. Everything was in place.

“We will rally around Kurt Warner…”

Until it wasn’t. You see, every great story needs a conflict, something for the main characters to overcome. During the Rams’ preseason game vs. the Chargers, we get just that. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison undercut Trent Green from behind, sending the St. Louis starting QB down in a heap with a season-ending knee injury.

The Rams 1999 campaign seemed to be over before it even got started. Famously, a tear-streaked Vermeil (never afraid to get emotional) proclaimed “We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.” It seemed like rote, boilerplate coachspeak, like something you say to get past the depressing questions, to attempt to rouse up some motivation out of thin air. As it turned out, Vermeil wasn’t messing around. The offense remained the same, no changes to accommodate a backup quarterback who hadn’t ever started in NFL game. To properly illustrate how nervous the Rams organization and all of St. Louis was feeling at the time, there are a few things you need to know about Kurt Warner: 1) After getting cut by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, he worked as a stock boy at a local Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa. 2) He played in the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers for two years after that (actually becoming one of the greatest Arena League players ever in his short time there). 3) The Rams signed him in 98, but he sat third-string behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. Who? Exactly.

So the 28-year-old, who had been stocking shelves and tossing TDs in tiny arenas for the past few years, assumed the starting role for one of the most offensively gifted rosters in the NFL. Improbably, Warner was up to the challenge. The first game he threw for over 300 yards and 3 TDs in a comfortable victory. The second game he tossed 3 more, while Faulk was running roughshod over the Atlanta Falcons defense. Both of those games were in St. Louis’ friendly TWA Dome. When they traveled to Cincinnati and beat the Bengals by four touchdowns (Rams WR Hakim scored four by himself), it was clear this team not only had frightening offensive firepower, but they could attack you in a number of different ways. Warner chucked TDs to his talented crop of receivers, Faulk went HAM on helpless defenses, Hakim and kick returner Tony Horne inflicted damage on you on special teams, and even the defense was capable of making plays.

In fact, that defense was the most underrated aspect of the Greatest Show on Turf. I’m going to perpetuate that by only giving them one paragraph, but it’s true. Defensive ends Kevin Carter (17 sacks) and Grant Wistrom (6.5 sacks) terrorized opposing QBs, while Pro Bowl defensive tackle D’Marco Farr held up the middle. The linebacker core featured a young London Fletcher (who would go on to a very prosperous career) and soon-to-be Super Bowl hero Mike Jones. In the secondary, Todd Lyght (6 INTs), Dexter McCleon, and rookie Dre Bly waited to disrupt whatever passing attack you hoped to build. That defense actually ended up ranked 4th overall in DOVA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, the football analytic’s favorite way to rank teams) by the time the season ended. Sure, the offense was throwing up crazy points, but the defense wasn’t giving up much either.

91476-004-DC5C133D

While this team continued to torch opponents with their overwhelming talent, they spiced it up with some flair as well. The Bob ‘N Weave became an indelible part of what attracted people to this team. Before players got excessively flagged for even hinting at some kind of organized celebration, the 99 Rams would orchestrate a small circle post-TD, drop the ball in the middle, and bob and weave around it. You can really only know what the heck I’m talking about unless you watch it. This became the go-to celebration when it was apparently debuted (in mini-form) by Holt in Week 3. I can tell you as a young Rams fan back then that the Bob ‘N Weave was all any kid wanted to do when throwing the football around in the backyard. A silly dance around the ball became the coolest thing in the world.

The celebration halted briefly in Week 8, when a 6-0 Rams squad went into Tennessee and lost to the Titans. Quarterback Steve McNair’s team got out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, the first real test of adversity for the Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams clawed back in it with Warner TD passes to Faulk and Bruce. Yet another St. Louis touchdown made it a 3 point game, and a couple minutes later, the Rams offense positioned kicker Jeff Wilkins for a 38-yarder to tie it. He missed; the Rams had dropped their first game of the season. Both McNair and Warner ended up with 3 TDs a piece. But this game just set the stage. These teams would see each other again.

The very next week the Rams dropped a road tilt against Detroit in another tight contest. At 6-2, the Rams had to feel like they could easily be 8-0. No matter. They won the next seven games by at least 13 points every time. The consecutive losses had steeled this team for the stretch run and now they were in full destroyer mode. Still, even as they were beating teams into submission by double digits, it was a joy to watch. The way they aired it out with ease, with no inhibition, was something the league hadn’t really seen. They put up 34 points like it was a walk to the mailbox.

Circus in Venice,2

With a regular season record of 13-3, it was, by most accounts, the best Rams season in franchise history. Warner assaulted the NFL passing record books. He completed 65% of his passes (the third-best ever, at the time), he threw 41 TDs (also third-best at the time), with only 13 interceptions, and his passer rating of 109.1 (good for second all-time) outpaced every other QB by a hefty margin. Warner may have won the MVP award, but Marshall Faulk shouldn’t have been far behind. While striking existential dread into every defender who saw him with the ball, he put up over 2,400 rushing/receiving yards and 12 TDs. Forming a dynamic 1-2 punch, Bruce and Holt had two of the best years at the receiver position because of their role in the Greatest Show on Turf. The third option at receiver was only Hakim, who added 677 yards and 8 receiving TDs. Individually, these guys put up unreal numbers.

Collectively, they changed NFL offenses. They threw the ball a league-leading 59% of the time, but somehow did it with insane efficiency, scoring on over 7% of their passes, way higher than the league average. Over the next few years, things would start to change rapidly around the league. Pass-happy offenses were installed almost everywhere and teams based their philosophy around the chucking the ball. Peyton Manning was just getting started. Tom Brady’s best seasons would come along in about eight years. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees after him. Warner’s magical season started to drop in the single-season statistical ranks. The Age of the Gunslingers started to arrive after the Greatest Show on Turf entertained the world.

“Everybody scores in this offense. Everybody…agghh! It’s a spectacle! It’s a spectacle!” – Roland Williams

The 99 Rams’ regular season numbers had a profound effect on the league. But it was their Super Bowl win that cemented their legacy.

The Minnesota Vikings provided the first test. With a receiving core of all-time greats Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and a capable QB in Jeff George, everyone knew the Vikings offense would test the Rams passing D. It ultimately didn’t matter, because the Vikings had no answer for the Warner Brothers. The Rams’ first play from scrimmage went for a 77-yard TD to Isaac Bruce, with the TWA Dome louder than ever. Although at halftime, the Vikings led by 3.

The kick to begin the 3rd quarter went to Tony Horne at the Rams own five-yard line. Ten seconds later Horne, always chock full of swagger and confidence, was dancing in the opposite endzone. From there it was a rout. Four unanswered Rams touchdowns gave them a 32-point lead. The Vikings saved some face with three garbage time touchdowns, but the game was over by then. The 49-37 final was the second-highest combined NFL playoff score ever.

It was a postseason offensive firework exhibition as exciting as they come. Warner put up gaudy numbers (391 yards, 5 TDs) while spreading the ball to ten different receivers. It was clear the Vikings defense had worked to take away the Rams biggest threats (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and it still didn’t work. The Greatest Show on Turf marched on to the NFC Championship Game to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

acircus004p1

Billed on paper as a showdown between the league’s top offense and top defense (the Bucs ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA that year), the reality was… a strange, strange game. Whether it was nerves or bad luck, the Rams came out of the gate bumbling. An uncharacteristic Warner interception and a dropped Bruce would-be TD made for a weird 1st half that ended in a 5-3 baseball score. With Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch leading the way, the Bucs defense was all it was cracked up to be.

A Tampa Bay field goal made it 6-5 early in the fourth quarter. With about eight minutes left Bucs QB Shaun King threw a terrible interception to young Dre Bly who took off horizontally across the field. I can remember sitting on my grandparent’s bed watching the game, celebrating that play, freaking out as Bly almost had the ball stripped. I may not have understood the intricacies of an NFL game quite yet, but I knew we had a chance now.

I was right. With just under five minutes to go, the Bucs brought the house on a blitz. Warner let loose a back heel throw toward the far left side of the endzone. Ricky Proehl (who hadn’t caught a TD pass all season) leapt and the ball landed on his left arm, balancing on that tightwire between drop and Biggest Catch of Your Life. Proehl collected it safely just as he hit the ground, giving the Rams a clutch five-point lead. I still remember my jubilant disbelief. Ricky Proehl?!? Of all people.

After Tampa Bay turned it over on downs, the Rams celebration began. It was an ugly game, the kind St. Louis didn’t want to play. Warner threw three picks, and Faulk and Bruce were stymied. Still, the defense showed up and then some, collecting five sacks and two interceptions. Super Bowl XXXIV awaited.

“Let’s go have some fun, kick their ass.” – Vermeil, at halftime of the Super Bowl

The Tennessee Titans were also coming off a 13-3 season with heady, mobile QB Steve McNair and magnificent running back Eddie George leading the way. Although they needed the Music City Miracle to get here, they were a worthy Super Bowl foe.

Despite moving the ball into the Titans’ red zone with ease, the Rams just couldn’t get in the endzone to start the game. While they could’ve had about 28 points, four Jeff Wilkins field goal attempts in the first half converted to just 9. Meanwhile, the Rams defense, overlooked all season long, had come to play. The first half ended 9-0. A tame half of football compared to the craziness that would ensue.

An early Rams touchdown drive began the third quarter. They finally broke through when Torry Holt caught a 9-yard needle-threaded pass from Warner. Holt barely held onto the ball between his hands and his facemask. The rookie sensation had arrived with the most important catch of his career. With a 16-0 lead, we were feeling, as politicians like to say, “cautiously optimistic”.

Next came the comeback. The Titans started consistently moving the ball on offense via runs from McNair and George. Back-to-back George touchdowns made it 16-13. A Tennessee FG a few minutes later tied the game at 16 apiece. I’ll never forget the feeling as the Titans were crawling back in it. As far as prolonged sports dread and anxiety go, there’s not much worse than losing a lead in a big game. And this was the Super Bowl. Eddie George became Public Enemy No. 1. We were regretfully recalling how Holt dropped a TD pass back in the first quarter. We were mostly just confused how our spectacular high-wire act of an offense had been held to just 16 points.

“And they won’t catch him today” – Super Bowl announcer

With two minutes to go, our Mediocre Show on Turf walked back onto the field looking to create some late-game magic. So much for mediocre. On 1st and 10, Warner launched a deep pass down the right side. On TV, it was surreal. Bruce appeared from behind his defender (who had his head fatally turned the wrong way) to snatch the pass, make a cut around the safety, and shoot toward the endzone. Then the screen went to pure static.

As I found my seat, the picture returned and Bruce and co. were celebrating. Disbelief and euphoria reigned as the 99 Rams were just two minutes from winning it all.

Starting from their own 12-yard line, the Titans were not going down easy. McNair engineered a remarkable drive, including a Houdini-act sack escape to sling a pass to receiver Kevin Dyson at the Rams 10-yard line. Six seconds remained on the clock. It was unbearable drama as the teams lined up for the final play. As the final seconds ticked off, McNair flung a pass to Dyson at about the four-yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones threw himself at the waist of Dyson, two athletes colliding on possibly the biggest play in Super Bowl history, fighting over a few yards of real estate. You know what happens next. Dyson comes up a single yard short. The 99 Rams win the Super Bowl.

If the Bruce TD caused disbelief and euphoria, Mike Jones’ play spurred relief and euphoria. Now referred to as The Tackle, it remains the most indelible play in possibly the greatest game in Super Bowl history. Competitive action and high drama, all the way to end of the line.

——————

The 99 St. Louis Rams were never actually referred to as the Greatest Show on Turf during that season. It wasn’t until next year, when ESPN’s Chris Berman, while running through Week 5 highlights, exclaimed, “Forget Ringling Brothers; the Rams are the Greatest Show on Earth”. The last word was altered to “Turf” and the name stuck.

After getting bounced in the first round of next year’s playoffs, St. Louis’ high-flying show returned to the Super Bowl the season after, only to lose on a game-ending field goal to Bill Belichick’s (cheating) Patriots. After that, the team started to dissipate. Warner was replaced in 2003 by Marc Bulger. Faulk, Bruce, and Holt all departed at some point in the next few years. Martz left in 2005.

As for Dick Vermeil, he “retired” (he would come back a couple years later to coach the Chiefs) after the 99 Super Bowl victory. It was a fairytale ending for the man at the helm of one of the most exciting teams in NFL history. Every good show needs a compelling cast of characters, people you can root for. Vermeil, who wore his emotions heavily on his sleeves at all times, was one of the most likable coaches around. It was a team full of both gifted stars (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and unexpected heroes (Warner, Proehl). It was part of what drew us to them.

Ringling Bros Circus Train, ca. 1963

Thinking about that team made me seek out old circus photographs lately. Like early 20th-century images, right after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was founded in 1907. What stands out most is that the audience had clearly never seen even anything remotely like this before. They were filled with profound awe and wonder. They came from miles around to see the circus. Today, we have the Internet. We’ve seen it all. It takes quite a bit to really impress us, to move us. Circuses aren’t nearly as popular now, because no amount of flipping acrobats and giant elephants and fiery rings can shock us.

This is another part of what drew us to the 99 Rams. They did things many NFL fans didn’t even know was possible. They put up mind-blowing numbers and they did it in style, with mad spectacle. As a St. Louisan, you feel a twinge of melancholy, because it’s unlikely that something that special will be replicated in your hometown again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. But then you remember the joy, the child-like euphoria you got from watching the Greatest Show on Turf. And you remember how awesome it was when the circus came to town.

Gone Girl, Film Noir, and a New Femme Fatale

Gone-Girl-poster

About 30 minutes into director David Fincher’s latest, Gone Girl, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, what felt so strange. I had read Gillian Flynn’s novel shortly before the movie opened and this wasn’t the film adaptation I was expecting – similar, but not exactly. Amid an incredibly unusual and mysterious situation, everybody was talking so quickly, so eloquently; there was no time for hand-wringing and uncertainty. What was going on here?

It’s true that Fincher’s films have become more “talky” and dialogue-heavy as his career has gone on, but this was different. At first, I thought maybe it was a first-time screenwriter issue. Flynn had adapted her own novel for her first film credit, so perhaps she was leaning too hard on her prose, filling the script with too many words and not enough time for everyone to take a breath. But this was a Fincher film. The infamously controlling, countless-take auteur wouldn’t allow that. Fincher has never written a screenplay, but you can bet he has a considerable hand in what is inserted into his movies.

Then it started to dawn on me, although I didn’t fully realize it until after the credits had rolled. Gone Girl was subtly a film noir. It had all of the classic components, just updated for the modern screen. I’m not sure if Fincher explicitly set out to do this, but his end result finished close to a modern film noir. He’s even made a neo-noir before. 1995’s Se7en was a twisty, ingenious crime flick that featured more of the classic hallmarks of the genre than Gone Girl.

Setting and Color

Film noirs are typically set in gritty, urban landscapes with most of the scenes set at night, which gives off the dark, shady vibe these films are going for. Black-and-white is usually a staple to enhance this vibe, while contrasting the stark light and dark colors against the moral grey muck of the story. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are two Humphrey Bogart movies that fit this criteria well. While Se7en isn’t in black-and-white, it might as well be. The generic, seedy inner city where most of the movie takes place almost seems like it was devoid of color when thinking back on it.

Gone Girl is set in suburban Missouri and possesses that sleek and attractive cinematography we expect from Fincher these days – those deep greens, yellows, and blues. This doesn’t disqualify its inclusion in the film noir genre, it just makes it more difficult to make the connection. The big-house-on-the-river domestic setting allows Fincher and Flynn to explore their noir-y themes of isolation, detachment, and instability in a different way than the classic 40s-50s noirs. Also, if you stripped the colors from most movies, the core would change dramatically. Not Gone Girl, which I think easily could’ve been in black-and-white if Fincher’s movies weren’t so pretty to look at.

“As soon as ten dimes make a dollar”

Fred-McMurray-Barbara-Stanwyck-Double-Indemnity-1024x744

Noirs traffic in lurid and “trashy” subject matter; early 20th-century crime books by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others that revel in lies, deception, murder, and doomed love. There is usually a twist of some sort that shifts our view of the characters. Flynn has written a similar story that has become a national sensation. Although her book/screenplay does not include a cop or detective as her lead, it can still be comfortably classified under noir. Alfred Hitchcock (Slate did a wonderful job comparing Fincher’s Gone Girl to Hitchcock) made a living off making films that rarely employed a cop as the lead character, yet featured “average” people doing awful things for money, love, sex, etc. Flynn’s book is routinely denigrated as a “trashy airport novel”, but the construction of her story and themes ensure Gone Girl is actually more.

Even if it wasn’t, many of the classic noirs were criticized by highbrow culture for being based on shallow, sensationalist material. That’s the thing about Gone Girl. It’s certainly not supposed to be realistic. Like I said earlier, the dialogue is unnaturally free-flowing, bereft of stammers or hesitations. The characters don’t say things like “They’ll hang ya just as soon as ten dimes make a dollar” (Double Indemnity, 1944), but the effect is the same. While reading the book, I wasn’t aware of its noir tendencies, but I see it now. This is not supposed to be a plausible story with plausible dialogue. Pulling off what Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine Amy Dunne does would be nearly impossible.

The New Femme Fatale

girl

Spoilers for Gone Girl ahead

In fact, let’s talk about Amy’s character, for she has been the subject of a great deal of discussion since the film opened. Much of it has centered around the potential misogyny inherent in her character. After the big reveal in the middle of the story – that she is in fact not missing, but has framed her husband Nick for murder – Amy descends into a female character that is as sick as many past male villains. Some have criticized this as fodder for the “overemotional psycho chick” stereotype, while others have praised the fact that Flynn has the courage to make such an amoral monster (a role typically reserved for men) a woman in her story.

I’m not super interested in parsing out which side has more merit (but Movie Mezzanine had a great piece on it). For my purposes here, I’m fascinated by where Amy fits into the femme fatale canon.

Past versions have always been intelligent, beautiful, independent women who were also manipulative, hazardous, and vindictive, all to varying degrees. The great Lauren Bacall played this role opposite her husband Humphrey Bogart in several films. One of the standard-bearer femme fatales was Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Her Phyllis was severely unhappy in her marriage and teams up with an insurance salesmen (Fred MacMurray) to deceive her husband into signing an accident insurance policy, then offing him and collecting the money. Stanwyck is marvelous in the role; she’s cool, seductive, smart, and completely convincing when her character must pretend like she isn’t considering killing her husband for money. Deep into the story, it’s revealed that Phyllis likely murdered her husband’s previous sick wife while working as her nurse. This effectively drains whatever sympathy we had left for her having to cope with an awful marriage. She’s still a complex character though, all the way through her end.

Amy is similar, of course. She is profoundly cunning, insanely disciplined, and mercilessly ruthless. Due to unreal expectations put on her (and all women) by her parents, men, and society, we see how she ended up this way. Not that her actions are a rational reaction to this, but that is what makes Amy such a modern femme fatale. Where Phyllis would’ve never acted without the help of the insurance salesmen, Amy pulls off everything on her own. Where Phyllis put on a certain persona to get what she wants, Amy opts out of that completely, as the “Cool Girl” section/montage in the book/movie make clear (although the film didn’t spend as much time on this). And then there is that scene – you know the one I’m talking about. In one of the more shocking murder scenes I’ve come across (mostly because of the quality of filmmaking present), we see Amy evolve into a new type of femme fatale – the kind that will do quite literally anything necessary.

Fincher makes Gone Girl slick and well-made enough for us to not realize its noir roots, but they’re there. In this “prestige pulp” picture, he and Flynn place familiar tropes in a different setting, add a twisted sense of humor and satire (my theater had plenty of nervous laughter), and form a flawed, yet fantastic film noir. The themes present are dark yet handled with a light touch: the uncertainty of marriage and relationships, the facades we use in those relationships, and the way the sensationalist media reinforces those facades. It’s all very noir, indeed.