If you want to get an idea of just how lazy a movie Dark Places is, look no further than the promotional poster. It features Charlize Theron lying down sleeping on some black and white grass, which tells you nothing except that the movie stars Charlize Theron. Above the title is “From Gillian Flynn, the bestselling author of Gone Girl”, which can be translated to “Remember that book and film from last year? Here’s more of that,” which is also another way of saying they want to ride the success of a more popular and arguably better piece of fiction. Finally, the tagline reads, “In 1985, her family was murdered. Ten years later, the truth emerges.” I seriously tried, and I can’t think of a more uninteresting tagline. I even thought of the complete reiteration, “There are some places too dark to go to” and I was honestly more intrigued than the line being used to actually sell this film.
I haven’t read the novel that this film is based on, and having read The Scarlet Letter and then seen its film adaptation, I don’t presume that this film is any reflection as to the quality of Gillian Flynn’s work. It’s also unfair to compare Dark Places the movie to David Fincher’s brilliant Gone Girl. Both films do focus on emotionally abused women who violently lash out against patriarchal figures they feel have contributed to their mental instability. For the most part, the comparisons end there. Instead of the love hate relationship between celebrities and the media, Dark Places focuses on the underbelly brought on by extreme poverty – families wearing the same overalls every day, alcoholic fathers, and houses that look ready to collapse at the slightest gust of wind.
In this atmosphere we meet Libby Day (Charlize Theron). Libby’s sisters and mother were brutally murdered when she was 8 years old. Libby accused her brother Ben of committing the crimes and as a result, Ben (Corey Stoll) is now in prison. Libby has been living for the past twenty five years off of residuals from a book deal and heartfelt donations from anonymous letters. But the money has all dried up. In a desperate attempt to make rent, Libby joins a small club of amateur sleuths headed by Lyle (Nicholas Hoult) who all believe that Ben is innocent and want to hire Libby’s help to prove it. This sets up parallel story lines that have the film going back and forth between 1985 with Libby, Ben (Tye Sheridan), Ben’s girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz), as well as Libby’s mother Patty (Christina Hendricks), and the present day detective plot that has Libby reading old letters, calling up old acquaintances, and visiting her brother in prison to find out more.
French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does manage to create a bleak, hopeless tone for its equally bleak, hopeless subject matter. His script, which he also adapted for the screen, utilizes voice over narration in a similar way as Gone Girl, setting up certain situations or revealing parts of the protagonists’ inner thoughts. But much of the dialogue never feels all that interesting. Either that or the actors are just phoning their performances in, which falls back onto the director. The biggest problem with Dark Places is that it balances a lot of characters and its plot gets quite convoluted with twists and the same characters played by different actors, but it fails to ever be visually engaging. Simply put, the film has no style. Everything is shot-reverse shot, talking heads, and the occasional gun fire. There are some nice touches in the production design – bled out colours and raggedy clothes – but the camera rarely captures enough of all this bleak mise-en-scene. The film just moves from scene to scene, sometimes inexplicably. The plot doesn’t take as many surprises as you might expect from a Gillian Flynn narrative, and the twist ending is not only predictable, it occasionally borders on being unintentionally funny. But by the time the third act comes around, the film would have already sucked most of the energy out of the room.
And it’s not that Dark Places is a terribly bad movie. It’s just there isn’t much that redeems it. The only actress who seems to be putting any effort into her performance is Chloe Grace Moretz. She brings a lot of personality to her pregnant metal head teenage rebel character, but her role is also too small for it to elevate the majority of the picture. Theron and the rest of her supporting cast aren’t necessarily giving bad performances, but it feels like they’re all giving the bare minimum to get by, like a kid who just needs a C+ on a test to pass the course. Dark Places is a harmless thriller. It passes the time enough, but by the time the credits role, you will ultimately feel indifferent as to the outcome, a disappointment given the success Gillian Flynn’s work has had making it to the big screen.