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.

3.75/5

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!

 
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