Dark Places (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Written by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Christina Hendricks & Chloë Grace Moretz
Music: BT & Gregory Tripi
Release Date: February 22nd (Straight-to-DVD)
In 2014 one of the most talked-about movies was the romance-thriller ‘Gone Girl‘, based off the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn. Its subversive analysis of a faux-suburban relationship resonated with audiences to the extent that when the David Fincher movie was released it became one of the most successful adult-targeted films of the year. It also helped that Flynn wrote that movie’s screenplay which showed that she might not be a one-trick pony and many studios quickly snapped up the movie rights to her other adult-oriented novels.
The first one out following the aftermath of ‘Gone Girl‘ is an adaptation of her 2009 book, ‘Dark Places‘ with some big-name stars clearly eager to be involved in the next ‘Gone Girl‘-style success. The “Dark Places” book has been critically well received and was a bestseller but for some reason the movie hasn’t been met with nearly that level of acclaim. In fact, distributors have buried this movie with it only being released in one theatre in the UK before being released on-demand and on DVD a month later. Is that because ‘Dark Places‘ isn’t very good, or was it too dark for mainstream audiences and should be enjoyed by a Netflix-crowd?
In the 1980s Libby Day (Theron) was the sole-survivor of a massacre that resulted in the death of her entire family, save her brother who she testified against and has been imprisoned ever since. She lives life as an anti-social wreck who relies on donations and book-sales capitalising on the event until she’s found by Lyle Wirth (Hoult) who is part of a “Kill Club” which specialises in solving murder cases in the group’s spare time. They believe that Libby’s brother, Ben (Stoll) was not responsible for the killings and they pay Libby to help with their investigation. Was Libby wrong all those years ago and if so, just who was responsible for the death of her family?
‘Dark Places‘ has a solid set-up for a mystery-thriller, but the most interesting part of the story is actually Libby’s circumstances when we first meet her. It’s 25 years after the event that’s been dubbed “The Kansas Prairie Massacre” and Libby Day, as its sole-survivor, has been coasting on her infamy by living off of donations, earning money from a book about her life that she didn’t even write (or even read) and is hoping more money will come from the 30th anniversary as her funds are drying up. It’s an incredibly unique and interesting angle and I would have loved to have seen a story based solely around that premise.
But there’s a mystery to be solved and Libby needs money so she offers to help the “Kill Club” with their investigation and this is one part of a two-pronged narrative. ‘Dark Places‘ takes place in two time periods; 25 years ago to show the events leading up to the massacre and Libby investigating with the Kill Club in the present day. This isn’t so bad as we could have Libby discovering something and then having it clarified by the flashbacks, but this structural choice is where ‘Dark Places‘ has its biggest stumble.
See, it’s very rare that the flashbacks bare any sort of resemblance to what is happening in the present-day meaning that ‘Dark Places‘ has a continually disruptive pace and because we’re dealing with so many separate parts it makes the story far more convoluted and complex then it ideally should be. And while I’ve been using the term “flashback” that’s not an entirely accurate word because the events that the audience see 25 years ago don’t take place from Libby’s perspective. In fact, many of them are events that Libby can’t possibly have known about. This is a problem because it results in a huge disconnect between Libby and the audience as we’ve privy to information that she doesn’t know yet. As a result, we’re not discovering Libby’s story WITH Libby making what should be an engaging story of discovery into something rather passive and hard to follow. Maybe if we had flashbacks that were ONLY from the perspective of young Libby (or from the perspective of someone telling her the events), then we could understand why she made the testimony she did when she was 7 or 8, but we get no such vantage point.
Although one vantage point we are given is through a strange “found-footage” segment where Libby seems to be recording certain events one night on an old camera and then adult-Libby wakes up from a dream. So…does Libby dream in video recordings? What’s that all about?
Another aspect of the story that makes it tough to understand is just how dumb many of the characters are. Throughout the movie I was wondering whether or not certain loose-ends would be tied up or if certain actions and behaviours would be explained, but once the credits rolled I realised that the truth was far more frustrating; almost everyone involved is an idiot.
To explain why would be going deep into spoiler-territory so I’ll have to be vague but many characters take such extreme measures in the face of perfectly reasonable scenarios, people act out of character just so things can turn out badly, the intelligence of characters fluctuate based on the needs of the plot and one of the key components to the final mystery is off-handedly introduced about half an hour in and no one wonders whether or not that factor should be considered until near the very end. Also, without spoiling the ending entirely, if you actually know anything about life insurance or inheritances, you’ll realise that the ending should never have played out the way it did.
All of these elements add up to a movie that never fully engages. Was I curious as to how the story turned out? Admittedly yes, but that’s mainly because I rented the movie and wanted to sit through it all to get my money’s worth. We do have lots of potential themes at play, such as the living conditions of farmers, childhood abuse, exploring the “Satanic Panic” from the 1980s (though, as this movie makes very clear, it was actually taking place) and false criminal allegations. But it’s in service of a movie that has very little to say about these themes and a main character who stubbornly refuses to change.
Which brings me to Libby Day who isn’t exactly a bad protagonist and Charlize Theron plays the role of a hardened, pessimistic, broken woman very very well, but she does very little growing through ‘Dark Places‘. In fact, her growth is relegated to numerous characters TELLING HER that she’s growing and changing. Friends and strangers frequently tell her that she’s trying to find peace, or escape her demons or discover the truth but none of Libby’s actions support this. Libby’s only here for the money initially and many of the twists and turns she finds throughout the film just fall on her lap. So at the end, it’s hard to believe that anything has actually changed internally with this character other than the knowledge that she has gathered over the past 112 minutes, no matter how much Libby’s far-too-frequent voice-over narration tries to imply.
Thankfully, the cast are mostly strong with them committing whole-heartedly to some incredibly ridiculous moments, particularly Chloë Grace Moretz and Tye Sheridan who do get some phenomenally cheesy interactions that border on the unintentionally funny. It’s not because of their performances, but because of the dialogue and ridiculous scenarios. Christina Hendricks does well as Libby’s mother, though there’s not much to her character and the same goes for Nicholas Hoult who is all-too frequently reduced to exposition and while Corey Stoll is good, he’s given a very flat character. Oddly enough, despite the weak characterisation in ‘Dark Places‘, the cast do elevate the material to a certain extent and the child actors are particularly good across the board.
Really, all the components for an effective mystery are here and it’s clear that there must be SOMETHING to the source material (which I have not read, just to clarify) but maybe something got lost in translation here. Maybe the flashback formatting worked better on the page then it does on the screen, maybe the inner-monologue of Libby was profound in the book, maybe it was a LITERAL translation issue as the director and writer is a French film-maker, Gilles Paquet-Brenner whose last movie also revolved around a past and present narrative adapted from a book that wasn’t very good either (‘Sarah’s Key‘). Either way, it’s hard to view ‘Dark Places‘ as anything other than a missed opportunity, especially with this cast assembled.
Production-wise, it’s not too badly put together though it does feel like a on-demand release as opposed to a big-screen experience like ‘Gone Girl’. It’s unreasonable to compare Gilles Paquet-Brenner to David Fincher but ‘Dark Places‘ does have a lot of atmosphere and is balancing a lot of locations, settings and characters so the ambition is admirable. We’ve got a lot of extras with decent make-up effects, but if you’re going into ‘Dark Places‘ expecting the next ‘Gone Girl‘ you’re going to leave very disappointed.
And looking back at the limited marketing campaign for ‘Dark Places‘, it kept on using that connection to ‘Gone Girl‘ as its sole hook, probably because the final movie doesn’t have much more worth selling (which probably explains its buried, on-demand release). Its core premise, while interesting, is diluted with a dual-narrative, its characters are either stupid or flatly written despite good talent brought on board to portray them and it’s really hard to get invested in a movie that feels so emotionally distant despite a few themes that would have been well-worth exploring. The ideas are here and part of me is glad I rented it, but anyone other than the most devoted thriller/mystery fans should avoid.
I give ‘Dark Places‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 23rd Feb 16