Movie Review: Dark Places
By Ben Gruchow
August 6, 2015

Charlize is back to girls again. Dating Sean Penn will do that to you.

This was a project in dire need of a cinematic vision, or at the very least a stable and uncompromising directorial hand. Giles Paquet-Brenner’s Dark Places starts in neutral, stutters and hitches for roughly 80 minutes in search of a hook, and finally gives up with about 20 minutes to go, plunging into incomprehensible action and arbitrary character motivation. It’s a brilliantly clear example of the bottom dropping out of a movie.

Dark Places is based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, and it would be tempting to say that it only got an adaptation in the first place because of the success of Gone Girl at the box office last fall, but no: I learn that the two adaptations were more or less produced concurrently in 2013. Dark Places got shelved for a year, perhaps because the studio witnessed the finished product and saw that they had a mess on their hands. The movie is being dropped into a limited venue count in the first weekend in August, where summer movies go to die when they can’t inspire mainstream marketability.

There’s really no reason why the movie had to turn out this way; Dark Places has a B-movie potboiler of a story, all right, but the mystery aspect of the story is no less sturdy (or lurid) than any other mid-level release - or even Gone Girl itself. We’re also presented with a protagonist in Libby Day - the sole survivor of a horrific multiple homicide at her family’s home when she was a young girl, with her teenage brother, Ben, tried and convicted as the murderer - who is unpleasant and antagonistic but vividly drawn and wholly plausible.

Libby is portrayed by Charlize Theron, in what is very easily the movie’s best casting decision, and the only one that brings Dark Places to somewhere like a valid investment. This is not quite in the neighborhood of saying she’s very good - and Theron can do great work with unpleasant and antagonistic and tragic, as she proved in 2003’s Monster - but it’s a faithful and mostly convincing display of an emotionally- and developmentally-stunted 30-something.

The actual story kicks in when Libby’s recruited by an amateur detective club that has set its sights on the Day case and doubts the verdict against Ben, and the movie’s roster starts to broaden a little bit: Nicholas Hoult acquits himself well enough as Lyle, the head of the detective club; as the movie delves into flashbacks to the day of the murders, we’re introduced to Christina Hendricks as Libby’s mother, Tye Sheridan playing Ben as an obviously troubled teenager, and various supporting characters. There’s something to the character of Patty Day as a poverty-stricken single mother, but it calls for an actor who can communicate several layers of suffering and weariness, and Hendricks is the wrong actress for the role; her Patty is breathy and apprehensive, but shallow. The role demands more grit.

Only Chloe Grace Moretz makes much of an impression as Ben’s rebellious, narcissistic, drug-addicted girlfriend Diondra, and the impression is not a good one; Moretz is a talented actress, and she should be able to ace these kinds of character notes in her sleep. Instead, she’s shrill and and hyperventilating, overplaying every line with abandon, and any scene she’s in just about shrivels up and dies onscreen before us.

Those are the only two liabilities, though, and while I’m still in the vicinity of saying nice things about Dark Places: the script is pretty solid. It’s a baldly functional transcription of the book’s character and incident - and Libby’s incessant voiceover explaining motivation and incident at length is both needless and banal - but it is functional, and it transmutes the story’s principal themes and character motifs into a sufficient, if noticeably compressed, shape.

No, what really torpedoes Dark Places is some of the most destructive filmmaking I’ve seen in any theatrical release in a good long while, on the levels of basic cinematic legibility. This is an ugly film - not in the vein of something like Se7en, where it’s a faithful and meticulous visualization of an ugly world, but in the sense that nobody behind the camera seemed to have much of an idea of how to do their job. At its best moments, the movie is just insanely bland and robotic; a master shot that cuts to a medium close-up over the shoulder, reverse shot of same, reverse shot of same, master shot, and so on.

The editing does the movie no favors, either; it’s mostly functional through the first hour and change, but occasionally there’ll be an odd cut that seems to indicate an intermediary shot was left out of the edit - and there’s one introductory shot of a certain character, backed by aggressive music and jammed into the middle of a tonally different scene, that absolutely is the single worst cut I’ve seen all year, by a commanding margin. There is not a moment in the movie where the filmmakers evoke an emotion or a mood in any cinematic sense; it’s all just static and indistinct. It’s a mercilessly tension-killing approach for a mystery thriller, it’s everywhere, and the serviceable script and acting are rendered utterly helpless in the face of it.

At its worst moments, the film is nigh-incomprehensible. There’s a particular sequence - the one with the cattle - where the filmmakers seem to lose whatever tenuous grasp they had on cinematic vocabulary. The final 20 minutes of the film take place mostly in unmitigated blackness, with an occasional light source helpfully silhouetting an actor here or there. This is not the type of dimness and darkness on screen that makes you think of atmosphere; it’s the muddy type where you wonder if the technicians involved had an understanding of the way light is responsible for creating layers and dimension. Cuts are inserted everywhere, as if the editor had a quota that he’d fallen behind on. I mentioned my negative reaction to Libby’s voiceover, but I was glad it was employed in the final act, with flashbacks; without it, we’d have to figure out the critical events of the movie’s climax on the basis of empirical evidence. Even the blocking and framing takes a noticeable step down.

The production budget here was $15 million - not a gigantic pile of money, but much more than what we’d guess based on the evident cheapness and chintziness of the whole production. Dark Places is a mediocrity on a storytelling level and a massive letdown on virtually any technical level. It’s not the worst film of summer 2015, but it’s tough to think of another one that so completely nukes the combination of cast, concept, and script to such a significant degree.