Dark Places and Our Love for the Shady Girl
by Brittni Williams
If you are keeping up with modern thrillers, you have likely noticed something. No longer are the lead roles in dark, gritty psychological thrillers handed to men. As evidenced by films like Gone Girl, women are beyond capable of handling these roles. I was initially drawn to Dark Places as a fan of Gillian Flynn, writer of the aforementioned film’s source material. Flynn’s emphasis on dark topics — murder, terrible relationships, deceit, and crime — makes each reading visceral. Translating such gritty topics to screen worked well for Gone Girl, and Dark Places could follow suit. Is the female-driven psychological thriller a trend on its way out or here to stay? Films like Black Swan and the new X-Files reboot suggest that audiences remain interested.
Dark Places (which is now available via VOD before it hits theaters on August 7) centers on Libby Day, sole survivor of a massacre that took the lives of her mother and two sisters. When Day, played by Charlize Theron, learns that her funds are running low, she resorts to visiting a “Kill Club” in the hopes of making some money. She finds much more than she bargains for when she gets to know the club’s treasurer.
Initially, there is not much to like about Libby. She admits it from the beginning when she says, “I have a meanness inside of me.” Audiences will find it easy to discount her early on. In the first few scenes she steals a salt shaker and reveals that she does not want to work. Still, keen watchers will realize that she is desperate, a woman living with PTSD who hates to be called a liar, even though she is one.
One of the most interesting things about these female-led thrillers is that the characters are not often likable. Films like Gone Girl and Dark Places have cast aside the notion that a woman needs to be likable to be watchable or even relatable. While nowhere near as drastic a transformation, Theron’s Oscar winning role in Monster came to mind as I watched Dark Places. Neither woman is necessarily somebody you would want to call a friend, but their lives are compelling and it’s easy to get wrapped up in their stories.
Libby’s portrayal is fair, considering all that she has gone through. Unlike the stereotypical victim of a crime, Libby is not a whimpering dog hiding in the corner. She retreats from life, but she does it in a way that the viewer is confident she can handle herself. Unfortunately, the film took away aspects of her character that might have made her more relatable. In Flynn’s book, Libby suffered frostbite on the night her family was killed. As a result, she is missing several toes and part of a finger. Elements like this on film may have reminded the audience that she is a woman still suffering with reminders of death.
Why are female-driven thrillers such a big deal right now? I think the answer is simple. Representation of women in films is growing. Half the population consists of women, and women like to watch characters they can relate to. People also like to see characters who are real, and women are no longer two-dimensional foils for male characters on screen. Women are stepping up and representing these badass characters who don’t need a male counterpart to protect them, with Theron’s past roles being a great showcase of this point.
Dark Places appears to call on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s to make a case for the arrest of Libby Day’s brother. The case that first comes to mind is the Robin Hood Hills murder, for which the West Memphis 3 became famous. This case inspired another film, Devil’s Knot, which starred Reese Witherspoon. Much like Dark Places, this film was gritty and dark and didn’t receive much in the way of advertisement or media.
Yet another book, this one by Paula Hawkins, will hit the silver screen soon. The Girl on the Train has reached acclaim as a novel and became this summer’s best seller, and its story follows an alcoholic woman who finds herself in a strange situation when she is unable to recall the events of the night a woman goes missing. Like Libby Day and Amy from Gone Girl, Rachel is probably not a woman you would want to befriend. She has real issues. Could it be that all these women are so three-dimensional because they started on a written page first, with each emotion and action detailed in print? Could it be that screenwriters have a more difficult time creating interesting female characters without a blueprint first?
Ultimately, films like Dark Places feature women who feel real. These psychological thrillers do not feature the stereotypical victim. The characters have goals outside of romance, shoving stereotypes to the wayside. The women in these films are on a quest, and just like us, they want to complete them.
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