Review: Dark Places
PLOT: Libby Day survived most of her family being killed one dark night. Now, decades later, she has to relive the pain as a member of a strange murder-obsessed club asks her to re-examine what actually happened to her family.
REVIEW: The lack of buzz or anticipation for DARK PLACES has been somewhat startling. Here's a movie starring red-hot Charlize Theron, her MAD MAX: FURY ROAD co-star Nicholas Hoult, ANT-MAN villain Corey Stoll, Mad Men beauty Christina Hendricks and teen actress du jour Chloe Grace Moretz. Perhaps even more potentially appealing, it's based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, the acclaimed author - and screenwriter - of that twisted blockbuster GONE GIRL. To see this movie dumped on VOD (after a short stint on Direct TV and scattered international release) is not only confusing, it triggers major red flags. Having just watched it, I now see why.
Full disclosure: I read the book by Flynn a few years back, after being properly smitten with Gone Girl. Written two years prior, the book itself is not as perversely satisfying as Flynn's later triumph, but it's unpredictable and filled with interesting characters. Unfortunately, the witty, incisive voice of the book is lacking in the translation to the screen, as the film is a dour, overstuffed Lifetime movie masquerading as a serious thriller. Screenwriter-Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has a convoluted story to get through, and though it's not an easy job touching on all of Flynn's twists and turns, the movie is left ultimately feeling packed with endless details and exposition. This may have been one book best left on the shelf.
Theron dresses down for the role of Libby Day, a depressed and broke loser living off the proceeds from a book published about the day three members of her family - her mother (played by Christina Hendricks in flashbacks) and two sisters - were murdered. Libby accused her brother Ben (Tye Sheridan plays young Ben while Stoll plays him as an adult) of the crime, and it made sense: the boy was into some sick stuff, not the least of which were flirtations with satan worshipping and, allegedly, child molestation. Ben is now behind bars based on Libby's testimony, although her memories of the night in question are admittedly hazy. Still, she hasn't looked back on that fateful occurrence, satisfied all these years later to slum it by taking money from "fans" sympathetic to her plight.
With the gifts and book residuals drying up, Libby is in a bind, but she's lucky (for lack of a better word) to make the acquaintance of Lyle Wirth (Hoult) a slightly creepy fellow who hangs with a group called The Kill Club, a strange assemblage of amateur detectives who make it their business to look into infamous, unsolved murder cases. The night of the Day massacre is of particular interest to the Kill Club, since many of them don't think Ben is guilty; Lyle's offer to Libby is that he'll pay her to help them investigate the possibility Ben didn't commit the heinous multiple murders. Grudgingly, Libby agrees, and the deeper into her own past she digs, the more she finds her own memories may be incorrect.
The Kill Club and its assorted freaky members promises to add a tantalizing dash of eccentric weirdness to the proceedings, but Flynn's story isn't much interested in them. Instead, she sends Libby on a journey back to her past, where she reconnects with troubled figures who might have something to add to the case. (Flashbacks show us the days leading up to the massacre from both young Ben and his mother's perspective.) Paquet-Brenner doesn't add much energy to Libby's sleuthing, and what she finds out comes across as rote and unimportant as opposed to gripping and revelatory. Visits with a girl who accused Ben of being a perv back in the day, now a stripper (Drea de Matteo), and her alcoholic bum of a father (Sean Bridgers) prove to be time-killers, just visits to literal dark places that have all the suspense of a Sunday afternoon nap. This is a movie severely lacking in urgency; considering the sordid subject matter, it's hard to believe it's so bland.
Adding to the lack of enthrallment is a general air of artificiality. One of DARK PLACES' biggest problems is that no one seems to be convinced of their character; the cast feels like it's play-acting as opposed to acting. We know Theron is a terrific actress, and she can play beaten-down as good as anyone (hello, MONSTER), but here she's dispassionate, frankly appearing bored. Even her voiceover is impassive; perhaps Paquet-Brenner and Theron meant to imbue Libby with a simmering self-loathing, but the effect is completely flat. Hoult is decent enough as the excitable Lyle, but the script doesn't give him much to do other than be an occasional sidekick. Moretz, not unlike Theron and some others (de Matteo comes to mind), is clearly performing, her trashy character never convincing. (She plays young Ben's no-good girlfriend.) Only Hendricks, her big eyes always looking on the verge of tears, brings some true humanity to her role. Sadly, the story doesn't allow her to be much more than a flashback device.
The finale of the film proves to be a major problem, and part of that is on Flynn; the answers to the past's mysteries, when revealed, are pretty far-fetched, while some slapped-on action in the present seems to be reaching for excitement instead of genuinely providing it. Paquet-Brenner can't solve Flynn's issues and only exacerbates the flaws in her ridiculous denouement; DARK PLACES ends on a note of incredulity that only serves to highlight the flaws that came before it.