Dark Places rarely rises above the level of tepid episode of “Cold Case.”
When Gillian Flynn’s popular novel Gone Girl was adapted into a film, it had the luxury of being guided to the screen by auteur David Fincher, a director capable of elevating any material to a high level of taste and execution. Utilizing a cracking script crafted by the novelist herself, he refined a pulpy, grocery store checkout counter title into a critically acclaimed prestige thriller. It’s a fun process watching an adaptation improve upon its source material. Sadly, Flynn’s earlier book, Dark Places, hasn’t been afforded the same courtesy.
French filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who also penned the screen adaptation) manages to degrade Dark Places into a disjointed, unnerving film that packs too much information into a two hour run time. It’s almost as though he purposefully did the opposite of every decision Flynn made when adapting Gone Girl to the big screen. Where Gone Girl was taut, layered and brilliantly composed, Dark Places is messy, languid and baffling in its inability to lock down a consistent tone.
Charlize Theron stars as Libby Day, the least likable protagonist the actress has ever portrayed (in a career that also includes Monster and Young Adult.) When Libby was seven years old, her mother and two sisters were murdered, and she fingered her older brother for the crime. Two decades have passed and she’s still living off of sympathy money from concerned strangers, entrenched in a prickly, self destructive persona she built up for protection. When eccentric laundromat owner Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) introduces her to “The Kill Club”, an organization of what can best be described as “murder enthusiasts,” Libby is reluctantly conscripted into proving her brother’s innocence and revisiting the worst night of her life.
If the present day happenings were the main thrust of the narrative, this could have been a winning framework to hang a thriller around. Flynn’s story seems rife with metacommentary on people whose obsession with mysteries and death transcends any real concerns for the victims of said crimes. Watching some of these quirky amateur sleuths forced to face a real live person whose existence has been ravaged by such a loss could create some stirring tension and force an audience of crime fiction lovers to question their personal affinity for the simple art of murder. Instead, the film flits back and forth, hopscotching from one barely illuminating flashback to the next, never allowing the tale to settle into any kind of groove.
The moment you become intrigued by Libby’s modern day plight, the film transports back to her mother (Christina Hendricks) struggling to keep their farm afloat months before her untimely death. Once that mediation on the financial tragedy of rural living starts to show the hint of promise, the focus shifts to young Ben Day (Tye Sheridan) and his doomed teenage romance with Chloë Grace Moretz’ frankly unsettling portrayal of goth girl ennui. In a book, this kind of nonlinear patchwork quilt probably unfolds just fine, but the translation from the page to the screen is taken far too literally, awkwardly pushed along by clunky voiceover narration and inconsistent, jarring camera work. It feels like a film school essay on how not to adapt a novel, which is a shame, considering the talent on display and the general sense of promise.
There are flashes of brilliance amid the din, but they only serve to frustrate further. Corey Stoll steals the show as modern Ben Day, locked up in jail for most of his life and curiously devoid of malice. He maintains a degree of warmth, charisma and chemistry with Theron that feels more real than anything else in the movie. The acerbic wit inherent to Flynn’s authorial voice is present, too, but provides little more than gentle reminders of how flat the rest of the landscape is. With a mystery that even the most novice gumshoe could piece together within the first ten minutes and an ending straight out of a short story for a creative writing class due in the morning, Dark Places wastes your time and insults your intelligence.
It’d be comforting to think all of this is just fourth wall-breaking satire on the unhealthy preoccupations of noir addicts. Perhaps Paquet-Brenner wanted to lens a big “fuck you” to viewers with hours of Nancy Grace on HLN queued up in their DVRs, but in that case, he could have learned a thing or two from Fincher’s work on Gone Girl. As it stands, Dark Places rarely rises above the level of tepid episode of “Cold Case.” In rare cases a film really can be better than the book. This just isn’t one of them.