Published Nov 03, 2015Gillian Flynn's second novel, Dark Places, is arguably her least noteworthy effort. Sharp Objects, though sharing similar moderate commercial and critical success, had the distinction of being her debut, while Gone Girl, her third novel, was a breakthrough phenomenon. In the middle is Dark Places, less daring than Gone Girl but sharing a number of thematic and structural similarities that have resulted in the writer being criticized by some for perceived misogyny.
Flynn is known for writing unlikable characters. Though most of the people through her novels are morally objectionable in one way or another, she has a tendency to write shrewd and manipulative women that control hapless, horny men. In Dark Places, as adapted by the consistently mediocre Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is the now-adult victim of a childhood tragedy. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and her brother Ben (Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll) is in prison for it.
Libby, despite suffering a severe childhood trauma, is written as a lazy, cynical, scheming asshole; she's spent most of her life living off insurance money and handouts from do-gooders, never developing any real skill sets or employable attributes, which helps explain why, when confronted by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), a conspiracy theorist obsessed with the inaccuracies in her brother's conviction, she reluctantly agrees to be a guinea pig for pay. She's going to hustle him for as much money as she can get for as little effort as possible.
This present day investigation of the past is juxtaposed with extended flashbacks of Libby's struggling mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and her confused brother Ben. Patty is on the verge of financial collapse and Ben is a misunderstood outsider dabbling with Satanism at the request of his rebellious, unstable girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz). As expected, the present day investigation parallels the flashbacks, with information being shown as Libby and Lyle uncover it.
Though it would be easy to dismiss this negative portrayal of women as misogynist — just as people did with Gone Girl — it's shortsighted to ignore how much accepted gender roles are used against the reader (or viewer). What Flynn is playing with is a general tendency for people to underestimate women; what's particularly interesting about Dark Places is how a secondary storyline that seems rather perfunctory at first turns out to be alarmingly different from what is expected. It's just a shame that even though the many actors involved — Theron and Hendricks, in particular — turn in excellent performances, this film adaptation fails to sell these twists and surprises effectively. The culprit here is, very specifically, Paquet-Brenner's direction.
Though his last film, Sarah's Key, worked moderately well, having the benefit of a strong core story at its centre, Paquet-Brenner has a history of making mediocre and occasionally bad movies. The reason is clear in Dark Places: laziness and lack of care for nuance. Every shot is set up with very little consideration for the viewer or continuity, and the sets appear incomplete or the actors are situated unnaturally in an environment that doesn't reinforce the themes or aesthetic. The opening scene of Dark Places, for example, where a young Libby Day is seen discussing the murder of her family, is extremely unnatural: it's a single shot of a little girl sitting against a stark cement wall, and the dialogue is clunky and there's no ire behind the moment. Like many other missed opportunities here, it plays flat and amateurish.
This basic cheapness and ugliness permeates the film. Where intentional, consistent ugliness could help reinforce the dark nature of this mystery-thriller, the sort of choppy, thoughtless coverage here gives a disorganized, unenthusiastic vibe that gives the viewer a lack of confidence that any deeper meaning is intended.
It's really a shame, as some of the themes presented and the basic story are quite compelling. But, as has been the case with many of Paquet-Brenner's films, there's no sense that he prepared for any of his shots or considered what the bigger picture might look like. And, as expected, there are no supplemental materials included with the DVD to explain why this might have occurred.