The film would have been better off steering into its put-extra-butter-on-that-popcorn-and-have-a-good-time narrative framing device.
A basic principle that any dedicated film viewer knows: a dead body is a perfectly good foundation for a film. Even the suggestion of a murder is enough to keep an audience entertained for 90 minutes or more. Such stories can become the vehicle for exploring a society, showing the rot hidden in plain sight. Or it can simply be a pulpy time-filler. A Dark Place aims to be the former, a critical examination of the US Rust Belt as it descends into hateful politics and increasing social atomization, but the film would have been better off steering into its put-extra-butter-on-that-popcorn-and-have-a-good-time narrative framing device.
The opening scene of A Dark Place features the camera lingering on the body of a dead boy in a stream. The police in the small Pennsylvania town where the film is set soon find the body and rule the death an accidental drowning. But sanitation truck driver Donald (Andrew Scott), after the boy’s grieving mother offers a terse refutation of the police story, is convinced that the death was no accident. He begins an obsessive investigation on his own, desperate to uncover the truth. To complicate the story, Donald is on the autism spectrum.
This complication leads to one of the film’s biggest narrative shortcomings. This is a small town in rural western Pennsylvania where everybody knows everyone else, so Donald’s autism is widely known. The film uses this fact to allow Donald to still progress in uncovering the truth even though he completely bungles every step of his investigation. Characters still offer up information to him and look the other way when he commits heinous criminal acts that would see anyone else tossed into jail. Because of this, Donald eventually does discover what precisely happened to the drowned boy, but it is not very compelling (or believable) at any step.
Another issue here is that A Dark Place wants to provide commentary on its setting. It is literally there in the title: this is a dark place. In that spirit, Donald is pursued by violent antagonists who are as subtle in their threats as he is with his pursuit of truth; that is, not remotely subtle. His investigation, it seems, is ruffling feathers and looks poised to uncover the seedy private lives of several of the town’s power brokers. He must be stopped! But here is the rub: one of those most threatened by Donald’s attempts to uncover the truth is the sheriff, who could have easily arrested Donald at several points for blatantly criminal behavior, but instead smashes Donald’s face in after luring him into his truck. That does not make any narrative sense.
This reveals another, broader issue with A Dark Place. It wants to be a film not just about the Rust Belt, but specifically the Trump-era Rust Belt. The establishing shots during the introductory credit sequence show numerous Trump-Pence signs. The message is clear: these people are rubes. So the viewer should expect them to do stupid stuff, it seems. But there is something cynical about a film supposedly about the Rust Belt that is directed by a British man, stars Irish-born actors in its top three billed roles (all three are excellent in the film, it should be noted) and was filmed in Georgia (not the Rust Belt) for tax purposes. It does not come across as authentic; much like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it feels like a sort of bingo compilation of various stereotypes used for lazy shorthand to make an argument that might seem deep to a superficial observer of American society. Donald’s mother, as another example, spouts Bible verses at him instead of answering his questions or solving his problems. This is not to say that English directors with European actors cannot make great films about the United States (see 12 Years a Slave), but it does suggest that more care should be taken, lest they just fizzle out into a sloppy potpourri of almost-but-not-quite ideas.
All that said, A Dark Place is entertaining enough to amuse an audience for its run time. It does, after all, open with a dead body.