Dark Places (2015)

"Draw a picture of my soul, and it'd be a scribble with fangs."

Gillian Flynn’s impact on mainstream fiction and movie thrillers has been huge. Her three novels — Sharp Things, Dark Places, and Gone Girl — have all sold truckloads of copies across many printings. When David Fincher adapted Gone Girl via Flynn’s extremely faithful screenplay in 2014, it kicked off a whole wave of thrillers with similar spirits — usually starring troubled middle class women, often with perspective-reframing twists, typically featuring thrumming undercurrents of economic despair and prickly feminism. Flynn herself abandoned novels for the Hollywood life, doing TV and movie production work for adaptations of her own books and some other projects since 2012.

In the wake of the Gone Girl film’s release in 2014, an adaptation of Dark Places was ushered to theaters, though it started production before the Oscar-nominated Gone Girl became one of the buzziest genre films of the decade. Surely the success of Gone Girl encouraged a rapid post-production for Dark Places to cash in as quickly as possible.

The outcome is a film that is not very good and not very much like Gone Girl, sadly. It’s maybe my least favorite kind of adaptation: textually faithful but lacking the spirit of the source so that it’s still immensely disappointing even though there aren’t any specific adaptational issues to point at. Whereas Flynn’s book is full of dread so thick you can cut it and deep suspense at the culprit, the film is procedural and perfunctory. It hits the same plot points but so quickly and mechanically that they lose all of their impact.

The film actually makes me like the book less, unfortunately. While the Dark Places novel is no masterpiece, it’s a flavorful and addictive page-turner. But seeing its structure so starkly revealed as a conveyor belt of red-herrings and loopy coincidences makes me question why I was even hooked on it on the first place. I’m pretty comfortable ranking it as the least of Flynn’s three novels to date, mainly due to the unsatisfying finale.

The story in both the novel and the film follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), a survivor of the mass murder of her family when she was six years old. In the subsequent murder trial, she incriminated her brother Ben (Corey Stoll). Many years later (24 in the book, 30 in the film), Libby finds herself floundering and depressed. Short on money, she agrees to do some freelance investigation for the local “Kill Club,” a group of obsessives and amateur detectives of old crimes. The Dark Places novel came out before Serial and Making a Murderer jump-started the true crime craze, so the depiction of the “Kill Club” as nothing but black-hearted, punk-rock wackos feels out of date and alien when these kinds of stories make up a a massively popular niche aimed at wine moms and bored binge-watchers nowadays.

The story proceeds in a dual timeline: In the present day, Libby tracks down figures from her past who were connected to the murders; and in the past, Libby’s mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and her then-teenaged brother Ben (Tye Sheridan in flashbacks) witness their lives fall apart in the buildup to the murders. The mystery of a culprit other than Ben hangs over the entire affair until we finally reach the moment of the fateful crime and learn the (baffling) truth.

The investigation is structured with the following cadence: We meet a figure in the past timeline who might have motive to kill the Day family; then Libby finds the same person in the present day, often in depressing circumstances; then their possible guilt for the murders is mostly (but not entirely) dispelled with an alibi. Seeing this play out a half dozen times in just two hours really lays out just how flimsy the overall story is: It’s fairly light on actual incident but still dense with exposition and character information.

As I opined in my review of The Woman in the Window two years ago, this kind of story, even at its sloppiest and least substantial, still makes for engaging watching. The floor is high. And, like with The Woman in the Window, Dark Places comes pretty close to that floor. The narrative development is too rushed. The tone is insufficiently evocative. The editing is overly jumpy and slick, too impatient to build any stewing dread or thick suspense. It honestly reminds me of earlier David Fincher than Gone Girl; it’s like a bleached, low-calorie Seven. It’s not a catastrophe of a production, but it’s prime-time network TV flavorless. I can’t say I’m surprised that director Cilles Paquet-Brenner has not had much of a Hollywood career before or since.

Theron is more than up for the material, but she’s also clearly miscast. Her imposing figure and presence are nothing like the withdrawn, mousy character as written, and the film has no interest in the juxtaposition, mostly because it’s taking the book verbatim. I’m not a stickler for film characters closely matching physical descriptions in source material, but it’s kind of goofy how Libby’s main attributes harped upon in the book — short, busty, and redheaded — are not words you’d use to describe Theron. There’s also a funny bit of rewriting dependent on the casting: In the book, characters frequently note Libby’s resemblance to her late mother. But given that Hendricks and Theron look nothing alike, characters instead note that she has “the same eyes.”

The rest of the cast is largely serviceable. Nicholas Hoult and Chloe Grace Moretz solidly play medium-sized roles. (I haven’t made it to the 21st century in my George Miller reviews yet, but you can safely assume that Dark Places is not my favorite Theron-Hoult pairing of 2015.) Hendricks brings some Lifetime movie energy, but honestly was better than I feared when I saw the casting. On the flip side, Stoll is on the totally wrong wavelength for grown-up Ben, though I like Sheridan as his younger self.

A movie like this is more about the buildup than the resolution, which is good, because the revelation is a stinker. It’s so heavily built upon contrivance and a sneaky Chekhov’s gun that it made me mutter “aw hell no” as I read. The movie adapts it faithfully, but the trio of adapting writers seem to realize how dumb parts of it are, as they’ve streamlined out a few of the more ridiculous details. But not enough.

I’d like to end this review by pointing out that Dark Places continues (or, I suppose, precedes) Gone Girl’s odd depiction of gender. Her novels and their adaptations feint towards themes of repressed women becoming empowered, then subversively undercut or invert those ideas. Heroines become harpies; the battered become batshit. Dark Places does this not quite as startlingly as in Gone Girl, but it’s still there. In a book club, one friend called this “trollish feminism” and I think that’s a pretty good name for it. This writing approach by Flynn first suggests a discourse with the way women are objectified and victimized in crime stories, then subsequently gives a middle finger to that discourse and makes it loopy and exaggerated. Flynn has argued that it’s feminist, actually, to allow her women characters to NOT have redemption arcs or rational behavior. I don’t really buy it, but I guess I see the reasoning: why must The Joker and Travis Bickle only be men? This concept really bothered me in the past, but it’s grown on me; which is to say I now see it as pretty neutral. Dark Places also pokes at a few other themes without having much of depth to say: Satanic panic and rural financial ruin.

So, yeah, it’s a disappointing adaptation and a forgettable film. It’s always watchable but it just has no heft or friction to it. It slides off the screen, into your eyes, and out of your brain. Flynn remains a figurehead of a certain thriller style but there remain much more compelling examples of the subgenre.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

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2 replies on “Dark Places (2015)”

“The investigation is structured with the following cadence: We meet a figure in the past timeline who might have motive to kill the Day family”

Man, if you actually have more than two plausible suspects for the annihilation of your whole family, I guess it is time for some self-reflection.

Yeah, and it’s especially wild in the book when it all surfaces in a single day (the movie fudges the timeline a bit)

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