Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dark places

Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s second novel of the same name, is a film that likely would not have been made without the success of Gone Girl, her third book. While Dark Places is a fine book, it’s not the game-changer like Gone Girl was, and correspondingly, the film is not quite in the same league as David Fincher’s extraordinary film adaptation from last year.

With that said, Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is still a solid mystery-thriller that turned out much better than the TV movie-style mediocrity I had been expecting. Part of it is because of the talented cast featuring the star power of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz and Tye Sheridan, though I suspect it is more because the producers knew they couldn’t turn in a half-hearted effort because they knew Gone Girl was going to raise the bar extremely high (even though the two films were shot at around the same time).

Twenty-eight years ago, Libby Day’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters are brutally slaughtered, and only other surviving sibling, her brother Ben, is convicted for their murder. In present day, having exhausted all the sympathy and goodwill handouts in the world, Libby (Charlize Theron) finds herself in desperate need of money, forcing her to agree to help out — in exchange for payment — a nerdy “Murder Club” (these things actually exist) seeking to “solve” her cold case. Together with the club’s treasurer, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby reluctantly begins investigating what really happened all those years ago.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on Libby in the present and Ben (old Corey Stoll and young Tye Sheridan) in the past. Gradually the layers of the mystery are pealed back, and Libby discovers that her brother may not have been who she thought he was.

Sounds fascinating, right? And I haven’t even discussed one of the prominent themes of the film, devil worship and satanic rituals, a topic that was sending shock-waves of fear through the community back in the 80s.

I was sceptical of the casting of Theron in the beginning because the Libby Day of the book was short and frumpy. It’s true that Charlize is too tall and glamorous to fit that description no matter how hard she tries, though her performance is convincing enough for the physical discrepancy to be a moot point.

It was also good to see Theron re-teaming with Hoult after working together for Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in completely different roles and circumstances. Hoult is solid despite not really getting to do much to show off what he can do. The same goes for Stoll, who is everywhere these days, while Sheridan gets to do more but can’t exactly capitalise on the opportunity.

The two who steal the show are Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks. Moretz, as the Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra, stands out because she’s such a strong and dominatin personality. Hendricks stands out for another reason — she looks virtually unrecognisable as a struggling single mother, looking as plain as can be with virtually no make-up.

It’s a good cast with good performances, but if we’re being honest we’d admit that they were chosen for star power as opposed to fit for their characters.

Dark Places never bores and remains interesting as long as the mystery is in play. My issues with the film are largely as same as the book — it never lets up to the potential of its premise. The progression is too straightforward, the turns and revelations not explosive enough. There’s not a whole lot to separate it from your run-of-the-mill mystery-thriller. With a no-name cast and smaller budget, this would have been a straight-to-DVD or TV movie.

However, it would have been a pretty good straight-to-DVD or TV movie, and the fact that the production is as high-profile as it is means Dark Places is still better than the majority of films in the same genre, even the theatrical releases.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn

September 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

dark places

After tearing through Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough bestseller, Gone Girl, I wasted little time ploughing into her two earlier works. First up, her second novel, Dark Places, which intrigued me more because of its Santanic cult angle.

(Not that I am into Satanic shit myself, but I do have a fascination with how and why people get into this type of stuff. Back in the day when I was studying for my university entrance exams at the local library I would often sneak to the occult section to read up on some gruesome stories, and they always just seemed so surreal to me.)

Anyway, as I would find out, Dark Places is more of a family crime mystery than a “true” Santanic cult story. There is an occult slant, but it wasn’t as prominent of a theme as I hoped it would be. The premise is certainly an attention-grabber — Libby Day survived the murder of her whole family at the hands of her Santan-worshipping older brother when she was just seven years old. Twenty-five years later, having used up all her money, she uses what’s left of her notoriety to help a bunch of crime buffs look into her past in exchange for some cash, leading her to question whether her brother is really guilty of the crime she helped put him away for.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places is a complex web that keeps unfolding as the pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place. Flynn is master of holding back information and knowing when to feed it to you to keep you wanting more, and then switching the scene and point of view so you’d have to wait to find out. In this book, she does it through several interspersing narratives — Libby in the present day, as well as flashbacks to the fateful day 25 years ago from the point of view of her mother Patty and her brother Ben. Interestingly, only Libby’s story is told in first person narrative, while the others are all in third person.

It’s an intense book that builds up the suspense through a clever barrage of hooks, red herrings, and misdirection. It’s also a thoughtful story in the sense that Flynn uses the setting — poverty and marital abuse against the backdrop of the farming and housing crisis in the 80s — to bring out the grim feeling of hopelessness, despair and apathy in the tone and atmosphere.

That said, when Dark Places finally got to the big reveal, I was a little disappointed that the “truth” was not more explosive. Flynn had built up so much anticipation that my expectations had gotten too high, and I wanted there to be more than what she was giving me. I particularly hoped the Santanic cult aspect of the story would have received more attention after the explosive way she introduced it and kept it hanging, including with references to the real-life McMartin trial (which mesmerized me as a kid).

Still, I really enjoyed Dark Places and felt comfortable in Flynn’s skillful hands as she took me on this dark detour into the heartland of America. On a side-by-side comparison, I still think Gone Girl is the better and more polished book, and it’s easy to see why it was that book that has taken the world by storm, though Dark Places is still one heck of a riveting read and page-turner I would recommend to any crime fiction lover.


PS: The success of Gone Girl means Dark Places is also getting a film adaptation set for 2014. It’s going to star, of all people, Charlize Theron as Libby Day, which is completely at odds with whom I had in mind for the role (considering Libby is supposed to be very short — though if Tom Cruise can play Jack Reacher then why not?). I much preferred the original choice, Amy Adams.

dark places cast

The cast of Dark Places: Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christina Hendricks and Nicholas Hoult

Nicholas Hoult is set to play Lyle, whom I had envisioned as more of a greaseball-type character. Christina Hendricks will play the mother, Patty Day, which I don’t see either (they better really de-glamorize her and make her frumpy-looking), and Chloe Grace Moretz will play Diondra, which feels like a complete mismatch as well. Corey Stoll from House of Cards will play the older Ben, which I can see, while Tye Sheridan (one of the kids from Tree of Life, whom I can’t remember) will play the younger Ben. Seriously, did the casting director read the same book as me? That is one heck of a glamorous cast for a bunch of characters who are supposed to be white trash. I much prefer the casting of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl.

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.

Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.

Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.

The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).

So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.

At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.

The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5!