Everyone is haunted by their past. The traumas we’ve survived, the actions we took and those we avoided – these memories of the past define our present. For most of us they exist only as regrets, usually small and ultimately inconsequential, but they’re there all the same.
For Libby Day (Charlize Theron), the past has become a self-imposed prison. She was just a child in 1985 when her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and it was her testimony that helped convict their killer – Libby’s brother. Three decades later Ben (Corey Stoll) remains behind bars while Libby makes a meager living on the kindness of strangers and sales of her book, but as the goodwill dries up she accepts an offer from Lyle Wirth (Nicolas Hoult), a young man representing a group of amateur sleuths called the Kill Club. Some among them believe Ben is innocent, and in exchange for cash payment Libby agrees to revisit the case in search of a new truth.
Author Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was adapted into a critically acclaimed hit film by David Fincher, but her previous novel, Dark Places, will be seeing no such success. That’s not a knock on the book as I haven’t read it, but writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is a lazy, flat and poorly written thriller that fails at grabbing viewers by the throat or by the heart.
Opening narration hints at the troubles to come as Libby tells us numerous things about her life, things we could have just as easily learned through observation, and even goes so far as to share her verbal reaction to events we are witnessing. She’s adamant about what she believes happened that night and angered by the group members who aggressively believe otherwise, but her financial situation ensures her participation. The film shifts between adult Libby’s present day efforts to speak with people who were around in ’85 and the events themselves shown in flashback.
Both halves display strengths and weaknesses, but there are far more of the latter thanks in part to writing and editing that seems at odds with the concept of thrills, mystery and suspense. The core truth about the murders is casually mentioned just fifteen minutes in for anyone paying even the slightest attention, and flashbacks frequently reveal key elements several minutes before adult Libby and the film itself seem to realize them. Even if viewers don’t catch on early – doubtful, but possible – the details of the reveal are so ridiculously convoluted and contrived as to be both unimpressive and annoying.
The film is at its best when focused on Libby in the present. She’s a fascinating character – an adult shaped by trauma, a little girl who grew into a reclusive and mean-spirited woman, someone who’s embraced her victimhood to the detriment of her humanity – and Theron delivers the duality of someone so angered and terrified by the past that she fails to fully function in the present. She shows snippets of the sharp-witted cruelty she displayed in Young Adult with moments that emanate from a place of sadness, and the film actively deflates every time it leaves her to return to the past.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag with most of the performances simply feeling flat and unattached to something bigger. Two exceptions, one in either direction, come from Christina Hendricks and Chloe Grace Moretz. Hendricks plays Libby’s mother, a woman at the end of a quickly fraying rope as financial troubles and an abusive ex-husband pull her ever downward, and she shows an incredible despondency with her eyes and efforts to stay strong. Moretz, by contrast, feels somewhat artificial as a bad girl young Ben gets mixed up with in the weeks before the murders, and she never really feels convincing.
Dark Places gets lost in a sea of brightly-lit red herrings and characters who appear solely to reveal epic truths that they’re only too happy to share. Motivations almost never ring true, suspense is non-existent and by the time the credits roll the only visible dark place is the void that apparently sucked up the immense potential of this cast, crew and source material.
The Upside: Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks
The Downside: Script is laughable in its twists and reveals; narration is intrusive and too expository; tips its hand way too early; Chloe Moretz should stop trying to play bad girls