After the success of last year’s Gone Girl – both critically and commercially – you might think studios would have some faith in a new Gillian Flynn adaptation, especially one starring Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks and rising talents like Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, and Tye Sheridan.
Dark Places, however, hit DirecTV video-on-demand in the US last week and now receives a theatrical release in overseas territories, including the Czech Republic, a full two months before it will play on the big screen for US audiences.
The distribution pattern suggests studio hesitation with their product, and unfortunately, the final result confirms that the film has issues.
Still, it’s an entirely watchable (if somewhat workmanlike) thriller that successfully manages to string the viewer along until an incredibly implausible finale just about sinks it.
Charlize Theron stars as Libby Day, who at the age of seven witnessed her brother Ben murder her mother and two sisters in their rural Kansas home.
Or did she?
Thirty years later, Libby is struggling to get by; for most of her life, she has lived off charitable donations from strangers who knew about the case and wanted to help this poor young girl. Now, she’s approached by young Lyle (Nicholas Hoult) to re-examine the case as part of his “Kill Club”: a group of true crime enthusiasts who investigate real-life murder cases in their free time.
Libby can use the cash, but the only problem is that looking back at the case will mean contacting her brother (Corey Stoll), who has spent the past thirty years in prison due to her testimony, and her estranged father Runner (Sean Bridgers), a homeless man who now resides at a toxic waste site.
Flashback scenes to the time of the murder – which mostly, strangely, don’t feature Libby – star Christina Hendricks as Libby’s mother, Tye Sheridan (Joe) as the young Ben Day, and Chloë Grace Moretz as Diondra Wertzner, Ben’s girlfriend.
Despite limited screen time, Moretz makes the most of her role – her Diondra is an all-too-real whirlwind of a teen girl gone wrong who makes one of the film’s climactic events almost believable. Sheridan, too, is quite good as the young Ben, who seems more like a confused youth than a cold-blooded Satanic murderer.
The film attempts to have it both ways with the Satanic stuff, painting a picture of a wholly invented 80s media craze – and then showing its characters involved in Satanic rituals, including the killing of a cow.
In any event, the flashback scenes are far more interesting than the present-day investigative stuff with Theron’s Libby; I found myself having to wade through these scenes, which comprise the bulk of the film, to get to the really interesting stuff.
And then there’s the big revelation at the end. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t work; I have no idea if it read better on the page, but the film’s climax – which stacks two huge coincidences, each of them equally illogical, on top of each other – is entirely unsatisfying.
That’s a shame, as the rest of Dark Places is a decent little thriller, and writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has a keen sense for the Southern Gothic atmosphere; cinematography by Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips, The Hurt Locker) starkly captures the seedy Kansas locales.
Still, Gone Girl took Flynn’s dime store thriller and turned it into something else entirely, a devastating commentary on marriage and missing persons cases in the US. Dark Places is a more straightforward adaptation of Flynn’s novel, and it mostly succeeds on that level.