Women in Film: Dark Places (2015): Latest Female-lead Psychological Thriller
Dark Places is the latest movie to fall within the increasingly popular female-driven psychological thriller genre, a genre that has taken a few knocks from critics for its portrayal of lead female characters as deeply flawed. However, fans find the complexity of the female characters within this genre to be an appealing ingredient in stories that offer irresistible twists and turns as such tales slowly unfold. An argument can be made that the instant success of the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn‘s Gone Girl novel ignited a trend that was already developing.
Set in a small Kansas farming town, Dark Places, based on an early Flynn novel predating Gone Girl, is the latest film embracing this trend. Charlize Theron plays the role of Libby Day, who, as a little girl, witnessed the gruesome murder of her mother and sisters. Manipulated by lawyers and the press, Libby testified against her older brother Ben, landing him on death row. As an adult, Libby is forced to relive the nightmare when true crime buffs, referring to themselves as “The Kill Club,” focus their attention on the case with the belief that Ben is innocent.
French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner uses the alternating flashbacks with present day technique to tell the story. Critics, who have offered mixed reviews based on early viewings of the movie, generally agree that the device works with this particular story, although the inner voice narration that’s in the book is missing, forcing the viewer to take a stab at guessing Libby’s state of mind.
We soon learn that Libby hasn’t been so shy about cashing in on the notoriety surrounding the murders having written a sensational tell-all about the incident. By the time “The Kill Club” tracks down Libby, public interest in the case has subsided. She has already exhausted most of the royalties from the book and donations from a sympathetic public have just about dried up. Typically one to laugh at and avoid her so-called “fans”, it is with a desperation for cash that Libby finally folds and gets involved with the group.
Gone Girl stirred up debate with accusations of gender stereotypes (the straight men’s assertion that women are “psychos”), misogynistic undertones and a failure to address obvious mental illness issues. Dark Places doesn’t really touch on anything too controversial. It does, however, retain viewer interest by slowly revealing previously unknown facts, including the involvement of a satanic cult, a violent deadbeat Dad, and a secret relationship Ben choose not to reveal during his trial.
Pivotal to the overall evolution of the film is the moment Libby begins to doubt what she has believed to be the truth for her entire adult life. Libby starts to unravel emotionally as she deals with the possibility that she may have falsely accused her brother landing him in prison. The scene takes place about halfway through the story when the focus turns to discovering the truth behind what really happened on that fateful night 25 years ago. Mounting evidence suggesting an entirely different scenario of events literally knocks the foundation out from under unsuspecting Libby and forces her to deal with the painful memories and new realizations.
Psychological thrillers tend to offer a glimpse into the sometimes mystifying nature of human behavior, possibly explaining the appeal of a genre that draws on the public’s natural curiosity behind what drives us to make certain choices. With programs ranging from Momsters: When Moms Go Bad to the ever-popular Women in Prison, the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel has built an entire lineup centered around this innate curiosity. The interest in psychological thrillers with strong – and often flawed – female characters may be responsible, in part, for the return of The X-Files and the addition of Rachel McAdams as a Ventura County Detective to the second season of True Detective. Critics of the genre draw comparisons to the cliches that soon developed among Lifetime original movies, once considered groundbreaking in their portrayal of women, to the point where plots became predictable.
The female-driven psychological thriller genre isn’t entirely new, with Silence of the Lambs fitting within the category given the nature of the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. It’s the success of Gone Girl however, that has spawned widespread interest in a genre characterized by jaw-dropping revelations centered around female characters with relationships that aren’t what they appear to be on the surface, coupled with the realization that even “good women” can do bad things. While it’s too early to tell if the interest in this genre is destined to be dated or if plots will remain diverse enough to retain public interest, there’s already buzz surrounding the planned movie adaptation of The Girl On The Train being called the next Gone Girl in some circles. Dark Places is already available on demand via DirecTV, and arrives in theaters on August 7, 2015.
Brittni Williams is a contributing TMI writer, beginning a new monthly series focusing on female leads in cinema.