Two years after the opening of the pervertedly female-empowering “Gone Girl” (based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel), I’m one of the people who still get chills when remembering Rosamund Pike’s monologue. “Gone Girl” officially put Flynn’s name on the map in more ways than one. Her online reputation in the U.S. is that of a female novelist who promotes rabid feminism with the help of prestigious male directors. In “Gone Girl” that male director was David Fincher. Now another Flynn novel — “Dark Places” — has been adapted to the screen, this time by French-born Gilles Pacquet-Brenner (“Sarah’s Key”). The chill factor is toned down here, but Flynn’s fascination with the evil and cruelty lurking in a woman’s heart is expertly conveyed.
Set once again in the Midwest (Kansas), the story swoops and circles around the mysterious massacre of a family in the late 1980s. Libby Day was 8 years old when her mother and two sisters became victims of a shooting rampage. She escaped by hiding in the barn and then is later pressured into testifying that her cult-worshipping teenage brother, Ben, was the killer. On the strength of Libby’s testimony, Ben spends the next 28 years in prison.
Libby (Charlize Theron), now an adult, has been living off the proceeds of a ghost-written autobiography and donations from strangers. The money, however, is about to dry up and she is uncertain about her next move. Having matured into a guarded recluse who can’t bear to be touched by anyone, she openly displays her trauma, mostly at night when she bothers to venture outdoors.
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Though her story is near forgotten, some people still find Libby’s past and her imprisoned brother Ben (Corey Stoll) irresistibly fascinating, including the Kill Club, a group of crime fanatics that include private investigators, former cops and lawyers. Members of the Kill Club convince Libby to re-investigate her own case, with promises of monetary compensation.
In a recent phone interview, Gilles Pacquet-Brenner talked about the challenge of adapting another Flynn novel after “Gone Girl” and working with Theron.
“I had already bought the rights to this novel, which came out three years before ‘Gone Girl,’ in 2009,” says Pacquet-Brenner. “We had been sitting on that project for three years when (Fincher’s) ‘Gone Girl’ came out and we were like, ‘Oh no, now what?’ But I think, ultimately, we succeeded in creating an entirely different-toned movie with a whole other agenda. It’s still very much the world of Gillian Flynn.”
To ensure the film was faithful to Flynn’s story, Pacquet-Brenner worked on the screenplay with the novelist, and even gave her a brief cameo appearance. The greatest challenge, however, was overcoming the expectation of another “Gone Girl,” says Pacquet-Brenner.
“We knew right from the start we’d be facing problems, because the predecessor was more fun and more accessible, with a very sexy story,” he explains. ” ‘Dark Places,’ on the other hand, is darker, tragic and difficult to warm to. We decided to be straightforward and true to the material, otherwise we would lose ourselves in all the comparisons and that would have been awful for everyone working on the film.”
It could be said, though, that “Dark Places” is the ying to “Gone Girl’s” yang. It is murky, shot mostly in dingy, claustrophobic indoor settings or at night and has excessively gothic undertones. By comparison, “Gone Girl” presents bright sunlight and big midwestern skies, and has much of the mystery unfolding in stylish, expansive interiors.
Consider, also, the two heroines: Rosamund Pike’s Amy in “Gone Girl” is the privileged, calculating (although also psychotic) and perfectly cool housewife, while Theron’s Libby (though harboring her own unsavory secrets) is the eye of the hurricane of working-class defiance, though she had never done anything in her life that could be called “work.” While Pike sports an array of designer outfits and silk lingerie, Theron’s uniform is a dark baseball cap and ratty leather jacket.
“We had Charlize, that was the main thing,” says Pacquet-Brenner. “She relishes playing difficult women, those that other women have a hard time relating to or liking. She’s very tough and strong, and unlike many actresses she’s not really worried about image. She’s more concerned with the strength of the role.”
In the U.S., critics were quick to point out similarities between Libby’s childhood and Theron’s own experiences. When she was in her mid-teens, Theron witnessed her mother shoot dead her abusive father in self-defense.
“Charlize and I discussed this a few times and she said she wanted to show the world that she could go to certain dark places in her (own) past, come right back and be fine with it,” says Pacquet-Brenner when asked about the affect this may have had on her role. “She has always had this attitude of being free no matter what she did and I wanted to bring that out in the story.”
For the director, Theron achieved this with a character that may even be difficult to sympathize with.
“Her Libby is complex and has a cold, hard meanness, and I was quite pleased about drawing her that way,” he says. “Women like her are the very essence of a Gillian Flynn story.”
“Dark Places” is now showing in theaters nationwide.
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