“I have a meanness inside me. Real as an organ. It’s the Day blood. Something is fucking wrong with it.”
What happens when you adapt a novel from the author of Gone Girl, put Charlize Theron in the starring role and stay as true to the book as possible? Well, apparently, nothing good. Dark Places is Gillian Flynn’s second novel and in the spirit of full disclosure, it is my absolute favorite of hers. In fact, I have read Dark Places four times. Three of these times were well before anyone ever heard of Gone Girl. Once a television critic at Entertainment Weekly, Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, was highly praised by none other than Stephen King and that was enough for me to check it out. The rest is pretty self explanatory.
Dark Places is the story of the Day family. In 1985 a massacre occurred on their farm and Libby Day is the only survivor unless you count her brother Ben Day, but he’s accused of committing the crimes. Unfolding in alternating chapters of current day events and the events leading up to the murders in 1985, it is a compulsively readable book that doesn’t really have any truly likable characters. Libby isn’t exaggerating with that opening line, yet, you still want to take this journey with her and find out what really happened on that fateful night. Is Ben guilty? Was this all part of the Satanic Panic that swept the nation in the 80’s? Was it Runner Day, the no-good alcoholic patriarch of the family or was it someone else entirely? Flynn lets this story unfold in an easy narrative that keeps you engaged until the very end. How is it that this well written story ended up being the kind of movie that was quietly released with little to no fanfare despite the fact that it stars an Oscar winner and the story is from a critically acclaimed screenwriter?
First and foremost, for me anyway, is the look of Libby Day. In the novel, Libby details her hair saying, “I dyed my hair now, a white-blonde, but the red roots had grown in. It looked like my scalp was bleeding, especially in the late-day sunlight. It looked gory.” She’s also only 4 foot ten inches and still has a baby face with fading freckles, a pug nose and kitten-round eyes. Theron more than earned that Academy Award for transforming into Aileen Wuornos, but there isn’t enough talent or smoke and mirrors in the world to turn a tall, leggy, finely sculpted blonde into the short statured, mean spirited baby faced Libby Day and this is a huge part of the problem. The effort that went into de-glamorizing Theron consists of her wearing a baseball hat and perfectly baggy tee shirts and jeans. She doesn’t look like a wounded animal trying to hide from sight, she just looks like an unapproachable woman who is growing out a bad haircut and has unfortunate taste in clothing. Clearly, Theron was growing out her Mad Max hair, so why not just put that Libby Day wig on her because her bleeding roots are as much a character trait as her meanness.
The Satanic Panic really was a craze that swept the nation in the 80’s and in the book, this is simply a periphery fact of the times that some of the characters use to their advantage while exploring their teenage rage. In the film, it feels more like a really lame and tired comment on the West Memphis Three. This can come off as extremely tasteless if you have not read the source material.
As is the norm with novels, there are a lot of internal dialogues in the book that help to fully form the characters and the inability to include these in the film is a huge detriment. On screen, no one seems worthy of any kind of redemption and that makes it really hard to want to invest in anyone, much less keep watching.
Adding insult to injury, the big reveal in Dark Places lands just as quietly as the reveal in Gone Girl. To keep the spirit of transparency going, I must admit to writing a piece where I declare the villain in Dark Places to be my favorite villain, so to see it treated so nonchalantly was especially disappointing. In addition, the massacre that takes place on the Day family farm is an extremely visceral and heartbreaking one, but in the movie, it’s treated as a throw away flashback sequence which barely elicits any, if at all, sadness or anger.
There are quite a few plot lines in this story and to put all of them on screen is simply too much information at one time and, again, the choices made with characters are all detrimental to the emotional connections and overall coherence. A meek hipster doofus is not going to turn into the undeniably masculine Corey Stoll. I can only assume someone has a crush on Chloe Grace-Moretz and that’s why her character is only 1/8 the awful bitch that she is in the book. This proves to be a huge problem when her character turns up in adulthood and you have no idea why she’s so nasty. A side plot involving the young Ben Day turns an otherwise important character into the token stripper who has lost all purpose and direction in life. Runner Day is another character who, compared to the novel, is an utter saint in the film and this causes more confusion. From characters, their overall presence and importance, story lines, side story lines and completely unnecessary story lines, the editorial decisions made on this film were made in places where they shouldn’t have been and all of the superfluous stuff that was never going to work on screen was left in.
Dark Places fails as a cinematic experience because there was no love or passion put into it. The entire experience feels like a really expensive Lifetime film and quick cash grab on the notoriety of Flynn’s name. Capable and engaging actors are reciting the lines of a story that feels like any other crime of the week story simply because there was no feeling put into it. Gillian Flynn and Charlize Theron both deserved better.