Movie Review: Dark Places

By Ben Gruchow

August 6, 2015

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

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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.

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