There was one line Ben Affleck didn't want to deliver in the new movie "Gone Girl," according to director David Fincher:
"I'm so sick and tired of being picked apart by women."
In the scene a woman is, in fact, filleting Affleck's character, weary husband Nick Dunne: A devilish Nancy Grace knockoff (Missi Pyle) is implying on her TV show that Nick has murdered his perfect, blond, missing wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike).
"I think that was the only take we shot," Fincher said. "Ben thought it was a little on the nose. He felt, 'Am I just being teed up to be a misogynist?'"
Affleck's apprehension about the line is understandable; as public figures like "Girls" creator Lena Dunham and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can attest, the rules about how men and women relate to and talk about each other are changing, and upending generations of accepted behavior has a way of making people flinchy.
"Gone Girl" is apt to inspire a slew of spirited date-night debates, as the surprisingly subversive popcorn movie, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her bestselling novel of the same name, slides down a razor's edge of sexual politics.
Many critics have already reviewed the highly anticipated movie, which opens Friday, finding in it the seemingly contradictory qualities of chauvinism and feminism.
"To me, so much of the movie is about marriage, but it's also about gender," Flynn said. "The different discriminations we take to each other. I think it plays a nice game with the audience, because obviously [Amy's potential killer] has to be the guy; it's always the guy. But that would be too easy, so it can't be the guy. ... We're playing with the tropes that we're all supposed to know."
"Gone Girl" is stocked with complicated, demanding, intelligent women. Keen-eyed Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is investigating Amy's disappearance; Nick's wise-alecky twin sister, Go (Carrie Coon), is both his staunchest supporter and toughest interrogator; Amy herself is a Gordian knot of a character whom Nick and the audience struggle together to disentangle.
The feeling that these formidable women inspire may be best communicated by a T-shirt Go wears with a picture of a squirrel on it that says, "Protect Your Nuts."
In an interview hours before the premiere at the New York Film Festival last week, Fincher, Flynn, Pike, Coon and Dickens gathered to discuss their movie's spiky portrait of the sexes. The conversation was sharp and funny and ventured beyond the movie into the sexist professional terrain actresses must navigate.
"All these women could not have been men," Pike said of the film's many female characters. "And I think that is quite rare. These women have very strong female brain chemistry, which adds value to the story."
The movie is the child of two creative parents, Fincher and Flynn, who share a knack for embedding potentially inflammatory ideas about gender in entertaining stories.
Fincher's "Fight Club" tackled the emasculating power of modern consumerism; his "The Social Network" depicted Facebook's sexist creation story as a website founded to rank women by their attractiveness; and his "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" centers on a feminist fantasy heroine who can hack, both digitally and with knives.
The most radical idea in "Gone Girl" belongs to Flynn, a former Entertainment Weekly writer who has penned two other novels with dark female characters, "Sharp Objects" and "Dark Places." "Gone Girl" became a zeitgeist-capturing must-read in 2012, and sold more than 2 million copies.
Flynn's $60-million idea — to borrow a figure from the film's budget — is the concept of the "cool girl." She's a beer-commercial ideal of a woman who likes football, poker and threesomes, whose figure and handbag are equally and impossibly compact. She has no baggage or saggage.
"The cool girl piece is this idea of how we're supposed to conduct ourselves in the world, which nobody talks about," Coon said. "Kim [Dickens] and I talk all the time about scripts where, once again you're playing the long-suffering wife, who's being mildly patient with her man-boy husband, and she's really bitchy.
"The whole movie is set out to prove how he's not that bad a guy, basically undermining her entire purpose in the film. We read that script seven times a week, and I'm over it. The women in my life are not like that. The women in my life are deeply complicated beings with a lot of wants and desires and thwarted dreams. ... God bless Gillian for giving us some real … women to play."
When Nick and Amy meet in a flashback sequence in "Gone Girl," Amy has internalized the cool-girl archetype and is scanning the room at a party to find her cool guy.
To inhabit the character of Amy, Fincher suggested Pike look to Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s wife, who died along with her husband in a plane crash in 1999.
"I saw Carolyn Bessette in my head, the sort of ultimate trophy wife, but also looked at photos of her as a teenager and what she became," Fincher said. "I needed somebody who could morph and legitimately lay claim to that idea of, 'This is how I want to be seen. This is my projection of myself.'"
Fincher said he cast Pike, an English actress who has played a Bond Girl ("Die Another Day"), an Austen heroine ("Pride & Prejudice") and a 1960s swell ("An Education") in part for her opacity.
"There was something about her that was so Amy-like, and I didn't know what it was," Fincher said. "I asked her about her upbringing, and she told me she was an only child, and it was like, 'That's it. That's that thing.' You can't hide it. My daughter's the same way. She's an only child and she's socialized around adults. Those people are just different.They don't know what a noogie is."
Go is Coon's first film role; nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Honey in the 2013 revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and currently appearing in the HBO series "The Leftovers," the Ohio native recorded her audition on an iPad.
The Alabama-born Dickens is perhaps best known for playing a struggling chef in HBO's New Orleans-set "Treme."
"I come from the South, that small town, matter-of-fact kind of mentality, and I think that's who Boney is," Dickens said. "There's no ego. She's there to do her job, and she's good at it."
It is both Fincher's and Flynn's opinion that Coon's and Dickens' characters had to be female, or the story really would have been misogynist.
"Nick gets vetted by the two sides, the woman who knows him better than himself, his twin sister, and the woman who's finding out about him and still has a hunch that something's hinky," Fincher said. "They have to be women. You need someone to say, 'Look, he's not the brightest bulb in the tree ...'"
"... But he's my bulb,'" Flynn said, finishing Fincher's sentence. "Nick has all these whiffs of chauvinism about him, certainly with his wife. I knew he had to have a close woman in his life because she would vouch for him in a way with the audience. ... The fact that someone as cool and sensible and likable as Go loves her brother so much and can also make fun of him ... makes it OK for you to like Nick. Nick doesn't give you a lot of reasons to like him."
While mostly praising the movie's execution, film critics have been grappling with its gender dynamics. Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson called "Gone Girl" a "resonant success" but compared Amy to "a parody of the most persistent of MRAs' [Mens Rights Activists'] fears." New York magazine's David Edelstein called the film "gripping" but worried about the "male gaze," saying, "and this particular male — the director of 'Se7en' and 'The Social Network' — doesn't have much faith in appearances, particularly women's."
Speaking of the male gaze, one of the more amusing discussions about sex in the film surrounds a fleeting frontal nude shot of Affleck, a glimpse so brief that many early viewers haven't noticed it. Kyle Buchanan of New York magazine's Vulture penned a step-by-step guide to spotting the shot. "There will come a time near the very end of the movie when one character suggests that Ben Affleck take a shower," Buchanan writes. "This is your cue!"
Amid the hubbub, 20th Century Fox is marketing "Gone Girl" as a date-night film — in one TV spot the studio excerpted a line from Rolling Stone's Peter Travers calling it "The date-night movie of the decade" but left out the rest of Travers' sentence: "for couples who dream of destroying one another."
Fincher is aware of how his movie might provoke strong reactions.
Told that a reporter was taking her husband to see "Gone Girl," the director said, archly, "Let us know how that goes."