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Blu-ray Review: Dark Places

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It looks like author Gillian Flynn’s literary oeuvre is getting the Hollywood treatment in reverse chronological order. After Gone Girl, her most recent novel that topped the New York Times’ bestsellers list, was turned into last year’s hit film directed by David Fincher, now it’s her previous novel, Dark Places, to get adapted for the screen. However, whilst Girl was both an award-nominated critical darling and a box office hit, this second cinematic translation of her work arrives on Blu-Ray and DVD after an under the radar theatrical release despite the level of talent involved.

I’m guilty as charged of not having read any of Flynn’s three novels yet but considering she adapted Gone Girl for the screen herself and her tight involvement in the making of Dark Places, which was adapted and directed by Frenchman Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key), the issues that have resulted in Dark Places’lack of presence in this year’s film zeitgeist may come directly from the source material. Although I foundGone Girl a tad bit overrated, there’s no denying its matryoshka-like plot, witty writing and self humour made for a thoroughly entertaining ride that was crafted in highly cinematic fashion by one of the top filmmakers working today.

With Dark Places, the writing feels less sharp and granted how the title literally hints at a story with darker tones, yet the absence of that social commentary kind of humour that made Gone Girl a pop culture phenomenon weighs on the film. At the same time, Paquet-Brenner does a diligent job from a directorial standpoint but lacks the personal distinctive touch of someone like Fincher who especially with really dark material like Seven and Zodiac created an extra character out of tone and atmosphere.

The story follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), who was only 8 years old when she became the sole survivor of a massacre that killed her mother and two sisters in their Kansas farmhouse. Her 16-year-old brother Ben (Tye Sheridan) had been found guilty and arrested for the crime on the basis of being allegedly involved in satanic rituals, a practice that was quickly spreading across America at the time. Scarred by the trauma for life, Libby has grown up into a recluse hoarder who’s been living off a charity fund that people created after the murders to help her out but her lawyer warns her that money is almost out and her book (written by a ghost writer of course) is no longer remunerative. So Libby recurs to any other way of exploiting her past in order to collect money and when Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), the leader of the Kill Club, a group of nerds fascinated with true crime, offers her money to appear at one of their meetings, she complies, only to find out the club is actually convinced her brother Ben (Corey Stoll plays the adult version) is innocent and are trying to figure out what truly happened that night.

Suffice to say that our reluctant hero is obviously turned off by such discovery as she believes Ben to be guilty and hasn’t seen him since childhood but the need for money leads her to continue her collaboration with Lyle until new developments jog her memory and prompt her to start doubting herself and what she thinks she remembers from that horrific night. Just like Gone Girl, Dark Places travels back and forth in time although much more than its more illustrious companion as this is clearly a narrative technique peculiar to Flynn’s writing. The filmmaker establishes the rules from the very opening, starting us off in the past with a brief but affectingly eerie flash of that fatal night when the sleepwalking-affected Libby walks to her mother’s bedroom.

Paquet-Brenner maintains the two narrative plains distinct yet seamlessly juxtaposed with the past being more than anything Libby’s mother story as a single parent of 4 children in financial troubles, harassed by her alcoholic loser ex husband. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) is wonderful as ever in the part, making us feel for her difficult situation and reminding us of a similar motherly role she played last year in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River. Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Tree Of Life) is also a highlight of the flashbacks, playing young Ben with the perfect dose of easy-to-manipulate innocence as he falls for wild nymphette Diondra (the always efficient Chloë Grace Moretz).

Charlize Theron is her usual badass self and rather convincing at conveying adult Libby sleepwalking through life and so is Nicholas Hoult (Max Max: Fury Road) in the role of nerdy good guy Lyle, managing to keep his handsome looks understated rather than distractingly sexy. However, despite not being a fan of cheesy romantic subplots just for the sake of it, exploring a potential bond between Libby and Lyle might’ve made things more interesting. The main issue with the film and presumably the novel is that they try to cram too many elements in the story at the expense of going deeper into Libby’s internal journey. In the past the spotlight is on her mother and Ben whilst in the present we mostly see her playing sleuth. The result is an uneven film that lacks the emotional bite it’s trying so desperately to go for.

Dark Places isn’t the disaster Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot (2013) was and even more so as that film dealt with satanic ritual murders based on a true story, but there’s no denying we were expecting something more compelling from another adaptation of a Gillian Flynn’s novel. Here’s to hope that Sharp Objects, her first book, which is actually being adapted into a TV series starring Amy Adams and directed by Wild’s and Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean-Marc Vallée, will be able to recapture the zeitgeisty quality of Flynn’s work. Given the golden age of television, consider us teased.

3-out-of-5

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