Review: Dark Places
Author Gillian Flynn is a literary sensation, no question. The Entertainment Weekly critic turned suspense author shot to fame with her bestselling tales of not so innocent women whose Maslovian yearnings were veiled under a veneer of gorgeousity. Neatly tucked into these stories, however, were pointed commentaries about the recent financial crisis in middle America, the feminine mystique, and the mass media’s manipulation of and accessory to true crime stories and their aftermath.
Flynn is perhaps best known for her novel Gone Girl, which she later expertly adapted for the David Fincher helmed feature. With its Fincher-trademarked obfuscous aesthetic and its sharp treatise on the tenuous dynamic in gender relations, it quickly gained a fanbase among cinephiles, much as it had not too long prior in the literary world.
Now following on the spiked heels of Gone Girl‘s success comes the film adaptation of Flynn’s 2009 novel Dark Places. Regrettably, this one was not adapted for the screen by the famed author but instead by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. His screenplay all but erases the somewhat timely critique of the housing market crash and the violent desperation it led lower class Americans to. So, too, does it largely eliminate the panic and gross misunderstanding and labeling of Satan-worshiping teenagers (closely mirroring the West Memphis Three case) and, oddly, alters the central bloodbath in the story to be more tame. Even the alluringly actualized and richly realistic characters created by Flynn are watered down and made softer, in favor of far more likable protagonists.
Not that we blame writer/director Paquet-Brenner, per se. Reading through his recent interviews it is clear that he valiantly fought with producers over the final cut of the film (and, reading between the lines, it is also clear that he lost that battle). That being said, one can easily see why he was drawn to Dark Places. Thematically similar to his previous film Sarah’s Key (also based on a bestselling novel), both films center on headstrong female characters, have serpentine narratives, and force their respective audiences to face a painful chapter in recent history.
Dark Places, intercutting scenes from the past and present, tells the story of Libby Day (Charlize Theron) who, at the tender age of seven, was the sole survivor in the gruesome murder of her Mother Patty (Christina Hendricks, in a role similar to the one she played exquisitely in Lost River) and little sisters Michelle (Natalie Precht) and Debby (Madison McGuire) in their rundown farmhouse in rural Kansas. In the present day Libby is stunted emotionally and mentally by the memories of her childhood but must come to terms with her past after being approached by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult, reuniting with his Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Theron), the leader of the Kill Club, a niche hobby group determined to solve headline-grabbing true life murder mysteries. Through a series of interviews with key characters that may or may not have had a part in the homicides, Libby must decide if she will recant the eyewitness testimony she gave years earlier, naming her brother Ben (played as a teenager by Tye Sheridan and as an adult by the vastly underrated Corey Stoll) as the culprit to the grisly massacre.
The film is a dark place you want to visit, but perhaps not stay for too long.