Dark Places, a Sophomore Success or a Swing and a Miss?
Freelance entertainment, film, and pop culture blogger Spencer Wade shares his take on the latest Gillian Flynn book adaptation, Dark Places.
After the success of the book-to-film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, it was only a matter of time before another of her psychological thrillers got a similar treatment. But where critics and audiences can universally agree that Gone Girl fared well in making the jump from page to screen, the same cannot be said for this latest foray onto the big screen. Dark Places (which is in theaters and available on demand through DirecTV) tries to set up a tense situation with a broken but tough heroine who comes from a family of horrifying secrets, but in the end it falls short of its grand plans.
Twenty-five years ago, Libby Day witnessed the murder of her entire family. Too young to understand what she saw, she testified against her brother as the killer. Since then she’s coasted through life on the charity of others, hiding from human interaction as much as possible and selling her story for a few more dollars to get her by. When the money runs out she takes a meeting with a member of the Kill Club, a group of murder historians and enthusiasts who think there is more to the story than meets the eye. Though she’s initially only involved so that she can get paid, soon Libby finds herself pulled into a much more complex story than she ever realized. Depression, poverty, abuse, drugs, Satan worship, serial killers, child molestation, and pregnant teenage girlfriends all make up the puzzle pieces that fit together to answer the question of who really killed Libby Day’s family.
Charlize Theron does a great job as angry, lonely, hopeless Libby Day. She’s a woman on the edge of giving up and that is beautifully portrayed by the actress (much like her Oscar winning performance in Monster). But it isn’t quite enough to make viewers really feel for Libby. She’s so gruff and standoffish that she’s unlikable. Even her thoughts, given too often in unnecessary voiceover, fail to make her more likeable. Her mother, appearing in flashbacks and played by Christina Hendricks, is only slightly more sympathetic. She’s a mother of four struggling to keep her farm going, keep her children fed and clothed, and keep her ex-husband with unreasonable demands appeased, and she’s most likely clinically depressed (though that’s probably undiagnosed). If she was given more screen time with a bit more backstory than just a few minutes here and there from the last day of her life, perhaps viewers could feel for her more.
But there isn’t enough time in the 113 minutes of this movie to relate everything an audience really needs to know to become emotionally invested in the characters. While the book had 349 pages of densely packed text to introduce characters, build up the story for both the past and the present, and create suspense around the mystery at the center of the story, the film doesn’t have time to do all of that. It skips over important character development (Nicholas Hoult does the best he can as a Kill Club member and sort-of sidekick to Libby but he isn’t given much to work with), relies on exposition and voiceover to get points across that it would do better showing instead of forcefully telling, and rushes through red herrings and revelations so quickly that they almost seem like an afterthought. Put excellently by Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri; “There’s nothing particularly wrong with Dark Places: It’s cleanly directed, occasionally atmospheric, and mostly well-acted… But the film is also curiously lifeless, crammed tightly as it is with plot and structure — which becomes increasingly tedious as it hurtles toward its convoluted and somewhat ridiculous conclusion.”
The conclusion of Dark Places is far-fetched and a little silly. But in the book it is given so much development and weight that it seems plausible. By reading the thoughts and actions of the characters you can almost understand why they made certain choices . In the film, where much of the important detail is stripped from the story, you find yourself thinking that it all seems too coincidental and contrived.
Psychological thrillers are popular among readers and filmgoers because of their ability to draw the audience in and make them part of the mystery. You feel terror when the main characters are in danger. You feel sadness when characters die or lose loved ones. You want to know just as desperately as they do what the truth is and where the answers to the questions lie. In the novel version of Dark Places you get all of that, but with the film, much of the emotional draw that a thriller should have gets lost before it ever hits the screen.
Spencer Wade is a freelance entertainment, film, and pop culture blogger. He can almost always be found with his face in a book or glued to the T.V. He lives and works in Chicago where the winters only serve to encourage this type of behavior.
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