Adapted from the best-selling novel from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, Dark Places featured a troubled production, resulting in a straight to video on-demand release that completely surprised film experts. We’d be lying if we didn’t think that with this cast, Dark Places would have a chance to be one of the small-scale thriller hits of the year.
Yet, Dark Places tends to suffer from some of the issues of Gillian Flynn’s other work, incessant narration and incomplete character arcs being among them. It’s not necessarily a bad reflection in Gone Girl, mostly because Amy’s diary and the use of perspective as the main narrative device was not a problem because the flashbacks were a useful and suspenseful tool to tell the story. Here, the muddled plot and overpowering narration make the movie seem both disjointed and very dated, and not having Flynn write the script clearly hindered the overall product.
Libby Day (Charlize Theron and Sterling Jerins in flashbacks) is a now fully-grown woman in her 30s, over 20 years removed from a nasty, highly publicized murder in which she lost her two sisters and her mom. Much of the case was left up to interpretation, but Libby gave a testimony swearing it was her brother, Ben (Corey Stoll and Tye Sheridan in flashbacks) whose behavior had taken a turn for the worse in his teens.
Now, with donation money from sympathetic locals drying up, Libby takes a bit of a risk in allowing ‘The Kill Club,’ run by Nicholas Hoult, to pay her to engage in the ongoing true crime investigation and revisit of her family’s murder. In the beginning, Libby swears by her testimony that it was Ben, but when she learned of a local lie, among other things, about Ben: a possible narration of Ben having the tendencies of a pedophile turns out to be false, Ben’s awfully misguided but regretful and physically harmless phase of Satan worshipping, a possible hit-man involved, and Ben’s pregnant girlfriend from the past (Chloe Grace Moretz), Libby realizes her first-hand account could’ve been entirely false.
Once we meet Hoult and the other ‘Kill Club’ members, we realize that this method of telling the story removes all suspense because we begin to assume that Ben is innocent. No spoilers, so I won’t tell you if that is correct, but the story becomes more of a tale about Libby’s growth and hope to get over the trauma. She emotionally stopped developing at that age, and Charlize Theron’s baseball-cap-doting-insult-everyone attitude certainly has a purpose, but it doesn’t make the film very enjoyable to watch. Theron can be a good actress, but here, she’s just embarrassing herself, the same goes for Hoult.
The story revolves around the week of the murders in the past, Ben’s relationship with his girlfriend and his decaying one with his mom, along with the family’s very bad money problems, with their farm being run by the single mom (Christina Hendricks). The step-dad (Sean Bridgers) is a drunk and nowhere to be found. Ben’s almost peer-pressured into some awkward scenes of Satan worshipping, one involving a nasty moment with a cow, but we become almost sympathetic towards him because of how misguided he is. As the film develops, Ben seemingly becomes more innocent by the scene, and the flashbacks, although shot without any flair or interest in adding additional complexity to the story, are much more entertaining than what goes on in present day.
Theron and Hoult are the focus of the present day story and it’s increasingly more and more apparent that the flashback scenes were much more important to director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key), and with a very thinly written present-day Libby, the institution of the Kill Club, and Hoult’s character can only be described as ridiculous. There isn’t a believable second in what goes on in these moments, and in a movie that is supposed to pride itself on crime drama and suspense, the ‘Kill Club’ is a typical example of an idea that may at least pass in a book for chapters of description and longer time to digest it, but in the film, it’s so shortly lived and poorly designed. It’s never interesting or remotely captivating, and through this, it’s never really possible to even buy in to the idea of a ‘Kill Club’ who investigates these murders. (It’d be different if it looked more like a neighborhood volunteer police force instead of a fetish cult that they make it seem.) Perhaps Gillian Flynn has already begun to dig a grave for herself, with a painted gravestone of clichés that her books have, and her movies fail to capture.
Although Flynn did not write this, it’s evident that sections of her book just didn’t have enough narrative heft to fit to the screen as easy. Parts of the plot feel muddled and need to be re-watched or re-examined not for complexity, but for the constant change in perspective and confusion in this oddly told tale of supposed emotional growth that becomes stagnated, and a crime drama that never pans out properly. The only redeemable quality here is Chloe Grace Moretz, who has become the most inconsistent actress in Hollywood, occasionally nailing a role and also occasionally bombing one. This ‘bad girl’ persona really fits her, and her scenes with capable young actor Tye Sheridan work really, really well. It’s the only part of the movie that actually carries any dramatic or narrative weight. This is mostly on director/writer Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, but has to also be on Flynn too, for there’s no way that this book meets the standard set by Gone Girl a year ago. It’s not clear how much say she had in the production, but once we heard this was a straight to VOD release, rumors of production problems began to surface. From one of the best films of 2014, and my personal favorite, (Gone Girl) to a Lifetime quality movie in Dark Places, the latter really leaves a bad taste in your mouth of a possible ‘what could’ve been.’