Charlize Theron, Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Nicholas Hoult
Dark Places was adapted for the screen by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner from a 2009 novel written by Gillian Flynn. Flynn’s follow-up was the bestselling Gone Girl, and although the Dark Places film project was announced earlier, Gone Girl arrived in theatres first, with a big budget, David Fincher at the helm and a celebrity cast.
In some ways, Dark Places is a modest project by comparison — it was shot in 25 days, with a small budget and a French director who’s far from a household name. But it’s another fascinating mystery, and it does have star power in Charlize Theron, who stepped in to play the lead role of ’80s family massacre survivor Libby Day after Amy Adams — who was originally announced as the lead — stepped back.
Theron has already impressed audiences this year in the incredibly intense Mad Max: Fury Road, but playing Libby Day required a very different skill set. Day is a hardened woman who’s led an empty life since her mother and sisters were murdered when she was only seven-years-old — her older brother Ben, a metal fan and rumoured Satanist, was convicted for the murders, but Libby (who testified against him as a child) has shut out most of the memories of the event.
Having coasted on donations from strangers her whole life, the 37-year-old Day suddenly finds herself in need of money, and accepts an invitation from Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult, who was also in Mad Max) to meet his group of true-crime nerds, who, it turns out, are trying to free Ben Day and find the real killer. The film cuts between the present-day efforts to solve the mystery and flashbacks to the days leading up to the massacre.
“When you’re faced with a movie that is very dark, you have no choice, you need a movie star, otherwise there is just no way in the world the movie would be able to exist,” says Paquet-Brenner, explaining that given the age range and the need for an actress willing to portray a character that’s not entirely sympathetic, Theron was a no-brainer. “She’s literally the opposite of the description of the character in the book (laughs), the polar opposite. But there is something in essence that works beautifully with the character, and also Charlize is well known to be one of the very few movie stars who’s not afraid of a real challenge, and is willing to take risks about her image, and who has real attraction to these dark complex characters.
“It’s really about her and the way she moves and how she acts and what you see in her eyes, and the way she really plays a sort of dead-inside version of that character that is quite impressive and pretty ballsy. You kind of forget that this is Charlize.”
Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) is also stripped of all glamour in the role of Day’s mother in the flashback sequences, which also feature Tye Sheridan as a teenage Ben, Chloe Moretz as his girlfriend Deandra and Sean Bridgers as the kids’ piece-of-shit father Runner Day — Corey Stoll (House of Cards) plays the adult, incarcerated Ben, rounding out a very strong supporting cast.
Despite the murder, the Satanism and the fact that we’re representing Dark Places with an axeman on the cover of our newspaper this month, this is not a horror film.
“I know [Flynn] had been approached by different directors, but they were more into the sort of horror stuff [in the novel], and she was not excited at all about it. She wanted someone who would care about the characters and the world, which is exactly what I loved in the book.”
After Flynn viewed one of Paquet-Brenner’s previous films, Sarah’s Key (which has a similar narrative structure), she agreed to sell the rights to her book and met with the director to give him a guided tour of her hometown, Kansas City, where most of the film is set. And once production wrapped, Paquet-Brenner says, Flynn successfully defended his cut of the film to the producers.
As for the inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl, Paquet-Brenner sees the two films as apples and oranges. “Gone Girl is this, sort of, very sarcastic and cynical dark comedy, you know, and so it’s sunny, it’s glamorous. It’s this sort of cat-and-mouse game with the audience, it’s a very commercial movie in a sense. Dark Places is way more of a cactus, you know (laughs) — it stings.”
What the films do share is their author and her striking ability to craft a mystery that keeps audiences guessing — almost none of my inner predictions about the plot of Dark Places were correct, a refreshing change from the formulaic storytelling that makes so many films disappointing.
“That’s exactly how I felt when I read the book five years ago,” the director enthuses, discouraging moviegoers from reading the book prior to seeing the film. “You’re always surprised and you always wanna know what’s gonna happen and you try to guess, and it’s just enjoyable to do.
“That’s what’s great with Gillian,” adds Paquet-Brenner (who’s currently working on an Agatha Christie adaptation), “is that you have a strong composition when it comes to the world she describes, and even sometimes political or social issues, but you also have a great murder mystery at the core of the story. So you have everything, but that’s totally Gillian’s talent.” ■
Dark Places opened at Cineplex Forum Cinemas (2313 Ste-Catherine W.) on Friday, Aug. 7. Watch the trailer here: