Dark Places Written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn; with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Corey Stoll, Chloe Grace Moretz, Andrea Roth, Drea de Matteo, Sean Bridgers
“Dark Places,” an English-speaking movie by French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, examines the effect of the past on the present. So did Paquet-Brenner’s previous film, the 2010 “Sarah’s Key,” but this time the physical and historical circumstances are entirely different. The film is based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, which was published before “Gone Girl,” her subsequent mega-success, which also became a hit 2014 picture. It moves between past and present to tell the story of Libby Day (Charlize Theron), a woman whose life was shaped by the murder of her mother and two sisters when she was a child.
Libby, who was eight when the murders occurred, is a tough, isolated woman who regards herself and her history with a blend of depression and irony. She is aware of her own hypocrisy: after the murder, she became the focus of public attention and received quite a bit of money in donations so that she might begin a new life. But the money has run out, and Libby refuses to talk about what happened to her, even though, like any victim of a sensational crime, she has published a book about her ordeal (which, she admits at one of the movie’s better moments, she did not write herself).
When we first meet Libby, she seems certain that the murder has set the course of her entire life, and that she has no choice but to continue in this emotionally rigid existence. American pop culture, however, does not allow its heroes to sink into permanent depression and despair. Since we realize this as soon as the movie begins, it is not really all that suspenseful. We know that Libby is in too low a place, as a movie heroine, not to get help – and maybe redemption as well – even so many years after the murder.
And help does arrive, from an unexpected source. Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) is the treasurer of a club obsessed with true-crime stories; some of the members try to get to the bottom of murders they think were incorrectly solved. He contacts Libby and invites her to join the club’s investigation of her family’s murder. Libby accepts Lyle’s offer (explaining in voice-over that he looks too much like a serial killer to be a serial killer), not because she really thinks there is a mystery to solve, but because his offer includes a financial incentive – and she needs the money.
The triple murder, in this case, already has a convicted murderer: Ben, Libby’s brother (played by Tye Sheridan as a boy and by Corey Stoll as an adult), who was there in the house when his mother and sisters were killed. As a child, Libby (her childhood self is played by Sterling Jerins) testified that she saw Ben commit the murders. Lyle and his friends do not believe that Ben, who has spent 28 years in prison, is the real killer. Because the records in his case are scheduled to be shredded, they have only a limited amount of time to prove his innocence.
This is where “Dark Places” becomes complicated, sinking into a plot so convoluted and high-paced and adding so many underdeveloped characters that the movie buckles under their collective weight. The constant wandering back and forth in time doesn’t help; it has a dizzying effect that ultimately proves oppressive.
One casualty of the movie’s breakneck pace is the Kansas setting. Libby grew up on a Midwestern farm struggling with the collapse of agriculture as a way of life. Her alcoholic father (Sean Bridgers) had abandoned the family long ago, leaving her mother (Christina Hendricks) to run the farm by herself. Just before the murder, the farm has gone bankrupt, and so has the bank that might have helped the family get by. Although “Dark Places” is almost two hours long, it does not take the time to portray Kansas of the past – or the present, which is equally bleak. This creates a void in the movie, which seems to race from one plot twist to the next without looking up at the world around it. All we’re left with is the story, which doesn’t work very well either as a human drama or as a thriller (the solution that arrives, after many red herrings, is indeed unexpected, but it seems contrived and is presented to us without any cinematic sophistication).
The main problem with “Dark Places” is that it fails to offer any meaning beyond the story itself, leaving the audience to ask only what happened before and what will happen next. The direction lacks style and delicacy, as do the numerous characters, who in many cases are played by two actors of different ages. These include Ben’s girlfriend at the time of the murders (Chloe Grace Moretz/ Andrea Roth) and a stripper (Drea de Matteo) who, as a young woman, accused Ben of sexually harassing her and taking part in a devil-worshipping cult (the presence of such cults in Kansas is another plot element that the movie introduces but leaves itself no time to explore beyond showing its bare visual symbols).
Perhaps a mini-series would have been a better package for all the plot of Flynn’s book, which Paquet-Brenner tries to cram into a movie. All this leaves us with Charlize Theron, an unquestionably talented actress who has somehow failed to find her rightful place. She won an Oscar in 2003 for her role as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” In “Dark Places” her lovely face is visible, but is partly concealed by the baseball cap with which Libby usually covers her short hair, and her performance strikes a single note of toughness that often seems mechanical and artificial. “Dark Places” is ultimately one of those movies that signals the tough heroine’s internal transformation by having her take off the baseball cap, and showing us that she is letting her hair grow long.