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