When Romance Turns Deadly: The Postmodern Domestic Thriller

Posters for Gone Girl and Girl on the Train

The Postmodern Domestic Thriller does something that the modern domestic thriller does not: it makes the audience question the perspective of the story. In all of the previous examples mentioned, there’s a clear hero and villain. Oftentimes in the postmodern version, the film reveals that every plot point up until that point in the story has been a game or scheme perpetuated by a character. The genre became more knowing, oftentimes incorporating comedy, satire, and questioning who’s telling the truth.

Previous Articles

Humble Beginnings: http://filmexodus.com/when-romance-turns-deadly-humble-beginnings/

Modern Domestic Thriller: http://filmexodus.com/when-romance-turns-deadly-the-modern-domestic-thriller/

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

John Lithgow in Raising Cain and The French poster for A Perfect Murder

Movies in the 1990’s

While the 1990’s Domestic thriller pretty much stuck to a certain formula, some undercut it. Both these films owed a debt to Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the first glimpses of postmodern domestic thriller came out in 1991 with Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain (1992), which tells the story of a stay at home mother (Lolita Davidovich) and the men who surround him. Unlike the other films, Raising Cain reveals that the loving Husband and his father (Both John Lithgow) are the main antagonists and the wife’s lover (Steven Bauer). Critics complained that the film resembled De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) too closely, which has a similar plot and lead character. Inspired heavily by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the film reveals this at the beginning, even though it was originally supposed to come in the middle. De Palma moved it to the front due to Lithgow’s performance. Another filmmaker recut Raising Cain to its former glory. De Palma saw this cut and released it as his director’s cut of the film. While an interesting film, it did not start the trend of the postmodern Hollywood thriller as much as the literary world did twenty years later.

In 1998, Andrew Davis’s A Perfect Murder told the story of a husband who blackmails his wife’s lover into murdering her. It stars Michael Douglas as the controlling husband, Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering wife and Viggo Mortensen as her lover.

This is one of the darkest versions of the domestic thriller in that it does feature an innocent character. Director Andrew Davis famously made The Fugitive (1993), about an innocent man trying to clear himself for the murder of his wife. This film reverses both that story and Michael Douglas’s role in Fatal Attraction. Like Attraction, Murder originally featured an alternate ending where Paltrow murders Douglas in a colder manner.

Inspired by the same play as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), it combines the loving boyfriend and blackmail victim of that story to create a much darker film. In the original, Robert Cummings plays a sweet guy who truly loves the wife (Grace Kelly). The remake features Mortensen as a man whose allegiances depend on who he’s conning. It also makes the film more about a game between Paltrow, Mortensen, and Douglas than the original did. The original film focuses more on the Husband’s plan to kill the wife and the Boyfriend’s attempts to stop it. The Police Detective (David Suchet, who played Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot on TV) also plays a much smaller role in this film than he did in Hitchcock’s.

Neither film offers the comforts of the conventional domestic thriller. This would become a staple of the post-modern genre. Neither film has a happy couple at the center of it, but both films have central female characters having affairs with less controlling partners. A Perfect Murder does not offer Paltrow another partner like Raising Cain offers Davidovich.

While both of these films do have some subversions, they also follow the conventions of the domestic thriller pretty closely, right down to having an obvious protagonist and antagonist. The post-modern thrillers take the genre and ask questions in terms of characters, genre, and story.

Gone Girl

This modern trend all started with David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014). After its success, it started a new trend of adapting domestic thrillers from novels. DreamWorks acquired The Girl on the Train before its publication in 2015. 20th Century Fox bought the rights to A Simple Favor before its publication in 2016.

Gone Girl asks who is truly reliable throughout the story. The film opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) describing breaking open his wife Amy’s head and “unspooling her brain” in narration before cutting to the morning of Amy’s disappearance. Nick does not know the fate of Amy (Rosamund Pike) and it’s not until an hour into the film that the film presents the truth about Amy.

The film posits that everybody lies in some way. Amy parents became rich and famous off of lying about her childhood in their children’s books. Nick lies to his wife about an affair and is eventually coached by his lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to lie to the media so he does not receive the death penalty for her murder. Amy’s lies fuel the plot from beginning to end. All of these lies mask the veneer of the suburbs.

This movie is truly icky. Fincher described the tone of the film based on the title of a National Lampoon book: That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. With this in mind, Fincher made a decision to not play the film in an earnest way, so it could become a more biting satire. Every character speaks in a stilted unnatural manner except for Nick’s Attorney Tanner Bolt, who knows how to present himself to the media and to others. Fincher specifically cast Ben Affleck due to his terrible experiences with media and the paparazzi ten years earlier.

The film plays out as the sickest version of the comedy of remarriage. A genre that became popular in the 1930’s with movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), the comedy of remarriage begins with the two romantic leads breaking up, only to have them get back together at the end. Unlike the domestic thrillers of the 1980’s, in this film, the idea of creating and maintaining the happy American family at all costs becomes questionable. The film ends with the creation of a “happy family,” even at the cost of other people’s lives and freedoms.

With that said, Gone Girl has no character specifically made to be the comic relief character like Fatal Attraction and Single White Female do. Most characters fit more into broad comedic types than as a real people, making the style dark and comic. The film also includes many people known specifically for comedy such as Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson and Missi Pyle. These actors add to the heightened reality of the film.

The film also eliminates a more misogynistic part of Nick that appeared in the book in which the character visits a strip club on the couple’s third wedding anniversary and has urges to act violently against women who disagree with him. In the film, Nick does cheat on his wife, but it feels like Nick is much easier to root for and almost fits into the everyman role of Fatal Attraction and similar movies. Such a change makes for a more streamlined narrative, but eliminates some of the commentary of the book.

A critical and financial success, it received a sole Oscar nomination: best actress for Rosamund Pike, who lost to Julianne Moore for Still Alice.

The Gift

In 2015, actor and writer Joel Edgerton wrote, directed, and starred in The Gift (2015), co-starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn Callem, a couple who moves to a new house after a miscarriage. The film has many staples of the genre (a couple trying to create a happy family, an invasive antagonist), but changes one key part: the film reveals Simon to be a thoroughly despicable person. Edgerton plays Gordon, the kid he bullied in high school who has come back for revenge. As the first film he directed, Edgerton made the film to examine how a high school bully and his victim would act years later. A strong first film, it has a gripping style and a strong understanding of the story and genre.

The film combines Bateman’s everyman appeal (exemplified on movies such as This is Where I Leave You (2014)) with the nastier side of his persona (Bad Words (2013), Central Intelligence (2016)). Edgerton cast Bateman specifically because he wanted the audience to be pulled in by his everyman image.

The main weakness in the film comes in the ending. At the maternity ward, Robyn gives birth to their first child. The twist reveals that Gordo had a much darker and more distasteful plan than Simon expected when Gordon sends him a video of himself standing over an unconscious Robyn nine months before the birth of their child. This sequence throws into question whether or not Simon is the father of the child and if Gordon has done something horrifying. It makes narrative sense and works effectively, but it also takes away from Robyn’s character and makes her into a prop for Justin Bateman’s punishment. Edgerton also makes this plot point ambiguous enough that the audience never knows the truth. While Simon might be a despicable human being, such an ending involving a female character feels less like justice and more like a shock effect.

The film also has an extended alternate ending, in which Edgerton sets up the whole plot and makes the plan more obvious. Edgerton cut it because it explained too much and destroyed the perspective at the end of film.

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train features an almost complete reversal of the Fatal Attraction story, in that it features a supposedly “crazy woman” as the lead and a supposedly “perfect husband” as the antagonist. Playing an alcoholic, Emily Blunt gives a great empathetic performance as Rachel, who tries to track down a missing woman Megan (Haley Bennett). What Rachel does not realize is that the key to Megan’s mystery might involve her.

While this is an interesting take, it is played fairly straight and solemnly, making it a film that wears the audience out pretty quickly. Taking the opposite approach of Fincher, director Tate Taylor decides to portray the tragedy and seriousness. With this approach, the voiceover narration from the three leads comes across as pretentious rather than scathing. The plot twists also become more rudimentary than engaging as the antagonist is a pretty basic bad guy who seems more incompetent than sinister and gets snuffed out in a basic way. He also kills Megan because of his own incompetence and carelessness rather than having a clever plan. The film seems subdued and realistic, making it harder for the audience to lose themselves in the plot twists and absurdity of the film. These decisions to treat the story seriously, but still treat it as a thriller comes across as a confused and frustrating.

On the other hand, while Gone Girl utilizes the trashy melodramatic plot and voiceover narration to create a satire of modern life from the housing crisis to the media’s portrayal of such sensationalistic stories due to the fact that she’s constantly one step ahead of everybody else. The Antagonist of Amy has a much darker plan that keeps becoming more engaging. Everything works because of the heightened nature of the style.

A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor begins with a woman being asked to take care of her friend’s son, only to have her friend disappear. Over the course, the characters must face constant revelations about themselves and others.

Of the four films, A Simple Favor fits the most into comedy to the point that it includes a final joke. Its awkward protagonist, Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), resembles the lead characters in director Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015). She wears socks from target and skirts at the beginning. Her friend, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), acts as the more aggressive of the two, leading Feig to dress her in more masculine clothing for the majority of the film.

While not perfect, the film does have an engaging style that adds to the enjoyment. The twists sometimes seem a little out of nowhere, but the film glazes over them pretty quickly. A colorful director, Feig adds a style that almost feels like it comes out of the 1960s, adding colorful intro credits and end credits. Characters often wear yellows, pinks, red, and blues. This splashy color scheme makes the film have a fun pop to it.

The film contains more sexual subject matter than the other three films including threesomes, lesbianism, and incest. Both leads have sexual experiences that separate them from most characters like this. In particular, Stephanie has a backstory that makes her more complex than the everyman protagonists of previous films like this. Such material adds to the trashy fun of the film.

Observations

All of these films came out after the 2008 housing crisis, leaving many people’s dreams and livelihoods in doubt. Gone Girl has Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike losing their jobs to the recession and moving to Missouri due to the fact that Affleck’s mom is sick. The Girl on the Train’s lead Rachel has been evicted from her home and has crashed on her friend’s couch for the past year. The Gift opens with a couple buying a new house. A Simple Favor involves Emily not being able to sell her house. All of these character’s plots involve finding a house or home.

Speaking of houses, the houses in these films tend to fit into two models: the nice suburban home or the Frank Lloyd Wright type of modern house. The two films that include the Wright house (The Gift and A Simple Favor) focus more on those couples as yuppies, while the suburban houses tend to act as an exterior to the true nature of the crimes. In A Simple Favor, Emily lives in the more modern house, while Stephanie lives in the more conservative suburban house. Gone Girl’s house has a stainless look to it, making the traces of blood all the more disturbing. All of these houses play into the individual narratives of the film.

In all of these films, technology plays a larger part than it has before. Gone Girl’s narrative revolves around how audiences believes the narratives the media creates around more complicated truth. A Simple Favor has a mommy vlogger as the lead character. Phones play an important part in moving the plot forward in The Girl in the Train. The Gift has Edgerton communicating with the couple through DVDs and recording a conversation of theirs. All of these plot points would be based around manual devices rather than electronic ones. The new technology also adds to the complexity of the plot as it distorts the simple narratives based on a person’s ability to manipulate others.

With the post-modern stories, the protagonists tend to change based on gender. Of all four films, three come from best-selling novels. All three of the stories begin with the same plot point: a woman disappearing. In an article for the New Yorker, author Joyce Carol Oates stated that the protagonists of domestic thriller novels have changed considerably: “In the chorus of best-selling contemporary domestic thrillers, a triumphant #MeToo parable has emerged: that of the flawed, scorned, disbelieved, misjudged, and underestimated female witness whose testimony is rejected—but turns out to be correct.” With each of the stories focuses on female leads, an underestimated character often becomes the hero, whether they be a black out drunk or a stay at home mom. The films featuring male protagonists tend to view them in a much less admirable way. Gone Girl’s Nick comes off as a terrible husband, while Jason Bateman’s Simon is a bully. The narratives often build around society’s denial of their story and their quest to prove the truth.

With this change in perspective, the meaning changes from a story about mentally ill and ruthless people attacking the American family to a story about how victims are oftentimes not believed. In both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, everybody in the film underestimates the “girl” in question (based on two different contexts). Gone Girl examines how audiences often believe the best presented news story rather than a complex reality. Girl on the Train’s Rachel often gets taken advantage of and cannot remember what happened to her due to her alcoholism. Both Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall become victims of Edgerton’s in The Gift, but it is harder for Bateman as he has a history of lying. A Simple Favor has the detective suspecting both Stephanie and Emily’s husband (Henry Golding). With this shift in perspective comes a shift in storytelling.

The Protagonist of the story tends to be less wealthy than the antagonist. Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne comes from humble beginnings, while Amy comes from a wealthy background fueled by her failures as a child. Girl on the Train’s Rachel is broke, while the film reveals that the primary antagonist as the wealthiest of all the characters in the story. The Gift probably has the most conventional domestic thriller plot in that the primary antagonist is poor, but it also has the despicable lead character’s actions put his career and financial future in jeopardy. A Simple Favor makes a point that Stephanie struggles with her finances and how Emily is the most financially successful. These characters no longer represent the status quo, but people struggling for the future.

Conclusion

The Domestic Thriller has gone through many changes over the years. With the post-modern era, it has reached a point where the genre is questioned by its own film. This includes making the films funnier, wilder, and more knowing. The Everyman of previous Domestic Thrillers has been replaced with more complex characters. By adapting, the Domestic Thriller becomes more about how society does not believe victims and how people construct their lives to fit certain narratives about themselves and others.

 

Bibliography

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Dockterman, Eliana. Is Gone Girl Feminist or Misogynist? Time, October 6, 2014. Retrieved from http://time.com/3472314/gone-girl-movie-book-feminist-misogynist/

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McNary, Dave. Fox Developing Murder Mystery ‘A Simple Favor’ as Movie (EXCLUSIVE). Variety, January 29, 2016. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2016/film/news/fox-murder-mystery-a-simple-favor-as-movie-exclusive-1201692352/

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Wilkinson, Alissa. Stop Comparing Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Vox, October 11, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2016/10/11/13227626/girl-on-the-train-gone-girl-mortgage-crisis-spoilers