The female-driven psychological thriller is the latest trend du jour in Hollywood. Motivated by the massive success of Gone Girl, the genre has exploded with several books, TV shows, and movies embracing the strong-yet-flawed female lead who can figure things out on her own without some guy/potential love interest lending a helping hand. In fact, an argument can be made that the mass appeal of the genre has lead to the addition of Rachel McAdams as one of the detectives in the second season of HBO’s True Detective and the return of The X-Files with Scully still retaining her independence outside of her relationship with Mulder. The latest high-profile entry in the genre is Dark Places, the second movie adaptation of a book by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn.
Fresh off her performance as the bad-ass Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron takes on the role of another strong-willed character in Dark Places, albeit one that’s a lot more complex. “I like complicated characters,” Theron said when discussing what drew her to the character. “Complicated” is definitely a word that best describes Libby Day, who, as a young witness, pointed the finger at her brother for the brutal murder of her mother and sisters in a small Kansas town nearly 30 years prior. Theron plays an adult Libby, as jaded and cynical as ever when we first meet her in Dark Places, only agreeing to help a bunch of true crime buffs fascinated by the killings – and convinced that her brother is innocent – after they offer her some much-needed cash in exchange for her participation.
French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner tells the tale through a series of flashbacks as the story unfolds. Similar to what he did with Sarah’s Key and Walled In, Paquet-Brenner effectively uses music to set scenes and guide the audience along as plot details slowly unfold. We learn that a young Libby was essentially manipulated by lawyers to implicate her troubled teenage brother Ben (Tye Sheridan). A now grown-up Ben (Corey Stoll) has lost his youthful innocence, which, incidentally, may have been a result of his association with one-time girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz) and their mutual “friend” Trey (J. LaRose) who took advantage of his teenage vulnerabilities, with Trey having been an outright bully and master manipulator. After tracking down present-day Diondra (Andrea Roth), Libby discovers that her daughter Crystal is Ben’s child. It’s Crystal (Denise Williamson) who lets the truth slip and sends Libby running for her life.
Despite a somewhat predictable plot, Theron’s Libby stands out by breaking character stereotypes. While Libby’s search for the truth takes her to bad parts of town and remote locations where nefarious characters tend to dwell in movies, there’s no man waiting in the wings to rescue her. Libby Day may be a deeply flawed individual, but she’s hardly helpless. Even critics not impressed by the movie have praised the Academy Award-winning actress for retaining the character’s fierce independence throughout the film.
On a deeper level, Dark Places is about lingering class differences in America’s Heartland. There’s also a juxtaposition of values that’s explored as the hidden truth revealed in the movie involves child molestation allegations (a teenage Ben’s encounter with a younger girl) and devil worship (suggesting a very dark reason for the killings). Given Flynn’s background as a freelance writer, most notably for Entertainment Weekly, it’s no surprise that the movie also touches on the pop culture fascination with headline-grabbing murders that spawn fanatics like those depicted in the movie. Even the dark tales of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden still morbidly fascinate the public, with the latter being the inspiration for a recent Lifetime series. There’s also a subtle commentary on the power of the press to influence public opinion, which may have played a role in the determination to convict Ben.
Theron is an excellent choice for the role of Libby, playing her as fiercely independent and driven in her quest for the truth. There’s also a certain vulnerability in her character that comes across as her world unravels when she realizes that her interpretation of “the truth” was very wrong as she uncovers clues suggesting even darker secrets surrounding the murder of her family. While the film isn’t as captivating as Gone Girl, Theron brings a gritty realism to her role as Libby that almost excuses a reliance on rural stereotypes and a setup that leads to only one obvious conclusion once the clues start coming together. Dark Places is currently available exclusively via DirecTV Video on Demand before arriving in theaters on August 7, 2015.