Saturday, January 27, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #25. "Dark Places" (2015)

Scene from Dark Places
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Dark Places
Released: August 7, 2015 
Release Number: 25
Directed By: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks
Plot: Libby Day was only eight years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Almost thirty years later, she reluctantly agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night.

As much as A24 has been keen on setting the trend, there was something about director Gilles Paquet-Brenner's Dark Places that felt like it was a response to several trending variables. On one hand, it was the second adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel after the previous year's successful, Oscar-nominated Gone Girl. It was also a film that came on the heels of Mad Max: Fury Road, which had given a certain resurgence to Charlize Theron's career. It only seemed like this DirecTV entry would have an easy time leaving a great impression on audiences. Instead, it was one of the few misfires for the studio in 2015 following a string of films that would go on to win Oscars and have serious buzz for others. Still, it was a misfire that had plenty of interesting moments but inevitably proved to be one of the lesser films during the renaissance period of A24.

The story begins as Paquet-Brenner is finishing his previous film, the Holocaust drama Sarah's Key starring Kristin Scott Thomas. With some acclaim and success to his credit, he turns to his next work. It's an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's "Dark Places." At the time it wasn't an attempt to hop on a trend that would develop by the end of 2014. By the end of the year Flynn's self-penned adaptation of Gone Girl would earn $369 million worldwide. However, Paquet-Brenner loved "Dark Places" and pitched it around before that was ever in existence. This would lead him to get involved with Flynn herself, who flew him out to Kansas City to discuss the film and where it would be shot. She was pleased with the script, which managed to show the various eras of time in excellent detail. She wasn't opposed to him cutting down on superfluous details, an issue that she didn't have problems with thanks to her personal experience as a film critic and believing that a film should feel faithful instead of being 100% similar. She eventually felt that the two of them had a similar idea of what the book should be.

They shared a fondness for true crime stories, which Flynn believed allowed the news to discuss more socially-minded themes. There was also an interest in roles of complicated women, which was still considered rare in mainstream cinema at the time. The role was originally going to go to Amy Adams, who backed out at the last minute. However, she would go on to work with Flynn later in a TV adaptation of her first novel "Sharp Objects," scheduled for later in 2018. Adams was replaced by Theron, who was attracted to playing the tough female role. Over the course of the film, she was supposed to go from unsympathetic to someone with a more complicated life. This was also the second A24 film for both co-stars Chloe Moretz (Laggies) and Christina Hendricks (Ginger & Rosa). The scenes, focusing on two different eras, were shot in color and black-and-white to distinguish between the two. Principle photography began in Louisiana in August 2013. A24 and DirecTV would buy the rights to the film in November of 2014. Flynn would participate in the press circuit, during which she hinted that she was working on her next novel called "The Grownup."

The film had an on-demand release early in 2015 with a release in France that shortly followed in April. In that country, the film grossed over $3 million during its theatrical run. It was a far better turnout than in America where it earned $208,808 over the course of two weeks. Considering that it was on a $20 million budget, it was considered a box office failure. Likewise, its general reviews were also seen as disappointing in light of Gone Girl's almost universal acclaim. On critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 25% rating, which was more than three times less than the average for the last three films. Cathe Clark of Time Out perfectly summarized the general consensus, which was "That unnerving way Flynn has of taking us to dark, deliciously twisted places has been utterly massacred." Joanne Soh of The New Paper (Singapore) highlighted what worked about the film, claiming that "It is Theron and Nicholas Hoult, and supporting cast members like Chloe Grace Moretz and Christina Hendricks, who make this worth exploring." Beyond that, it was mostly overlooked even by A24 standards.

For a film that had a lot of clout going for it, Dark Places was considered to be one of the studio's biggest flops. It was a sign that Gillian Flynn adaptations weren't going to be the wave of the future. Still, it was another stop on Theron's career resurgence of playing tough women. Even then, it was one of the few 2015 films from that year that failed to leave any mark, no matter how minor. With that said, their next film would prove to have a nice bump in exposure, even if it wasn't likely to be nominated for any Oscars. Mississippi Grind was a fun little movie that would help to prove that A24 still was capable of releasing great character dramas that appealed to niche audiences. It wasn't their biggest film, but it was definitely one that left a great impression for all involved.

Up Next: Mississippi Grind (2015)

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