I guess it was inevitable that Hollywood would not stop at Gone Girl and proceed to try and make films out of all of Gillian Flynn’s thrillers. Working their way backward, the next natural step was, we guess, the jaggedy-but-polished Dark Places (with her exceptionally creepy debut Sharp Objects being poised for TV serialization). Whether this natural money-making instinct (bestsellers! strong actress roles for miles! natural fan base built in!) was the right choice is another question altogether.
Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, the sole survivor of a “Kansas Prairie Massacre” that left her, at age seven, without her mother and two older sisters. And as the sole witness of the crimes, her testimony put her brother Ben in jail (where he remains 28 years later, as the story picks up) for those killings. She has been living ever since on the kindness of others, strangers that send “Baby Day” money, developing a kind of a super slacker recluse persona (exemplified in the movie by sticking a trucker hat on Charlize Theron and hoping it conveys the idea that this pretty girl doesn’t want to be looked at, a predictable, lazyish visual tool that is a perfect example of the tip of the issue iceberg here). But, the money is running out and unwilling to grow up, Libby takes up with a group of murder solving enthusiasts (The Kill Club, led by Nicolas Hoult’s Lyle, doing his best normcore Anthony Perkins tribute) who promise to finance her quest to “find out the truth” about what happened that night.
Reading the book, I always felt the Kill Club was kind of a hokey angle, and the money that exchanges hands never quite enough to move the inertia-as-a-defense-mechanism which Libby has maintained within her so proudly for decades, and on the screen it comes of even more casual. The exchanges with these people are brief, the motivations for urgency sort of there, and in the end the fact that in the short time span given Libby is (despite her clear lack of enthusiasm) able to track down every ragtag character the police/Kill Club knew or didn’t even know existed 28 years a go, rings a little untrue. You can’t help but scream inside your head: “This thing could have been figured out forever a go, you guys! In a matter of days!”
But, the plot twists and turns between the past and the present capably (director Gilles Paquet-Brenner coming to this from another strong-female-with-a-secret-split-time project, Sarah’s Key), and the acting roster is more than impressive, if sort of underused. Christina Hendricks stands tall above the rest as the watercolored Mother Day, a woman with a failing farm, four children, a ne’er do even-remotely-well husband (that’s just her everyday problems), while we can only hope that this film results in Hollywood FINALLY stopping to feel the need to find the dark side of Chloe Grace-Moretz because the girl clearly doesn’t have one. And yes, the final twist (even if you know it is coming) is a seat jolter. So, you may ask, in this era of virtually-no-thrillers in theatres, what are we complaining about here?
The problem, in the end, is the source material, or, more precisely the nature of the use of it. Flynn, a literary and pop culture fan if there ever was one, had a few clear influences when writing Dark Places: Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioners Song (why, oh why, do we become SO fascinated with murder?), and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (the “what happened in that house?” question is the one hanging over our heroine’s head with all the made-up options and theories maybe not being AS GRUESOME as the truth) among them. These influences results in a very literary heroine (much more so than Gone Girl‘s Amy and Sharp Objects’ Camille, who are defined by their actions versus the subsequent consequences of them, which is what Libby Day is all about).
She keeps a heady internal dialogue throughout the book, which on the screen Paguet-Brenner tries to keep alive with a decent amount of voice-over narration (Libby is, after all, alone most of the time), but it only works to a minor extent. And the big, lingering plot points in the book (most notably: child abuse, satanism, teenage pregnancy, the society’s sick obsession with crime) are addressed almost in passing, as if they were just something we had to squeeze by en route to our solution.
The final product, as a result, is servicable, sort of in line with the cottage industry of those Ashley Judd thrillers from the early 2000s which are rerunning on TBS and USA all the time, which is to say, in 2015 it feels just not-quite-good-enough for the big screen.
Wait for it to be streaming and/or read the book instead.