Dark Places (2015) / Drama-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for some disturbing violence, language, drug use and sexual content
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Andrea Roth, Streling Jerins, Sean Bridgers, Shannon Kook
Small role: Drea de Matteo
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenplay: Gilles Paquet-Brenner (based on the novel by Gillian Flynn)
Review published August 5, 2015
Charlize Theron (A Million Ways to Die in the West, Prometheus) stars as Libby Day, a grown woman who ended up with a small nest egg to live on due to donations stemming from public sentiment following the slaughter of her mother (Hendricks, Drive) and two sisters at a young age, as well as from royalties for a memoir account of her experiences chronicles in a book she didn't write, much less read. Her brother, Ben (Sheridan, Joe), was pegged with the crime and charged to the fullest extent of the law, as he still sits nearly three decades later in a prison cell. Two months behind in rent and with hardly two nickels to scratch together, Libby reluctantly accepts an offer from a strange young entrepreneur named Lyle (Hoult, X-Men: Days of Future Past) to help him and the members of his clubhouse of true crime enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists to get to the bottom of who really murdered her family.
A talented cast goes to waste in this exceedingly farfetched and generally dreary attempt to adapt "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn's mystery to the big screen. Long before the end of the film, the only mystery you'll be trying to decipher in your mind is what in this screenplay could possibly lure such a wealth of talent to make a movie that has this poor a story, and dopey characterizations and absurd dialogue to match. Was it just the thought that Gone Girl had been such a smash at the box office that people would flock to see another adaptation of an earlier book by the same author?
Adapted and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah's Key, Walled In), if there's any testament necessary to the prowess of David Fincher as a director, it's the light-years difference in execution between Gone Girl and Dark Places, despite both being equally twisty to the point of being preposterous. Gone Girl managed to be a nifty thriller, and a social satire, but managed to tread the line between getting us to take such tosh seriously, while also finding great fun in the spectacle of how ill plays out. but Dark Places doubles down on taking its characters, plot, and story at face value, expecting us to believe not only that these characters would do the ridiculous things that they do, but also that they could presumably exist in some version of our known world.
I won't say anything bad about the performances here because the actors do the best they can with what little they're given. Charlize Theron is respectable in the lead role that doesn't ask a great deal out of her but to walk around in a somber mood, while her Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Nicholas Hoult manages to only succeed in that he makes one of the story's most absurd of characters into something that, if we don't really buy, at least we don't hate. Tye Sheridan is also impressive playing yet another sullen, conflicted teenager. Christina Hendricks and Chloe Grace-Moretz (The Equalizer) are there, just barely, while Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) is miscast yet again playing someone who looks nothing like what an older version of Tye Sheridan should presumably resemble.
The real problem with casting credible thespians in these roles is that it only makes the dumb aspects of the story and its characters stand out all the more. Though it's difficult to discern where to lay blame without reading Gillian Flynn's novel if the fault is with the adaptation or the source material, given that the difference in quality between what Fincher made and what Paquet-Brenner turned in, I'd put my money down that the fault in how dismal and repellent the tale seems when in the latter's hands that it's a case of a screenwriter/director not finding a way to make a trashy-but-provocative mystery novel a trashy-but-provocative movie. How could you possibly make a film with a "Kill Club" full of people who assemble regularly to swap tawdry famous murder case stories, and even engage in cosplay while doing it, with a straight face? How about a Kevorkian-like mercy serial killer who is willing to stage murders to help families out of debt via insurance policy payoffs? Or one which has, as motivations, presumably Satanic 1980s heavy metal lyrics as a main influence on the public at large? How about molestation? Cattle slaughter? Teen pregnancy? Jaded strippers?
Dark Places is a grim mystery treatment of a story that doesn't seem like it is meant to be scrutinized with any degree of gravity, built more on trying to give its readers a few twists, red herrings, and sensationalized events to make for a guilty-pleasure summer read. Alas, Paquet-Brenner has made it a glum, dreary account of murder, both obvious in the way it plays out, and not nearly convincing enough to not feel like it must think that we, the audience, are gullible enough to swallow such outlandish circumstances wholesale. By the time we get the reveal of just what happened, the idiocy quotient piles high into the stratosphere, becoming painful to watch on two levels: its inherent grisliness and its rampant BS factor of how law enforcement in such a high-profile case could be almost as inept as this already shoddy screenplay requires, not to mention the silliness of the motivations of the characters left in the incident's wake. This plot is like a snake eating its own tail -- a really dumb snake who is drawn to feast only on animals as moronic as it is itself.
©2015 Vince Leo