Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
“Dark Places” is a rather lifeless movie about a mass murder. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, the author of “Gone Girl,” I think they were hoping for a similar success. Although the movie has moments of interest, there is a hole at the center.
That hole is the performance of Charlize Theron as Libby Day, one of two survivors of the murder of her family one night 28 years previously. The other survivor (aside from her father, who did not live with them), was her older brother Ben, who went to prison on the strength of Libby’s testimony against him.
It’s not fair to fault a movie by comparing it to the book it’s based on, as movies should stand or fall on their own merits. But a comparison in this case is illuminating. One of the main strengths of the novel is the unforgettable narrative voice of Libby. Wry, self-deprecating and cynical, she pulls the reader into the mind of this woman severely traumatized as a child.
But in the movie that voice is lost. There are a few voice-overs to convey what Libby is thinking, but in most of her scenes Theron must bring out Libby’s inner life with her outer performance. Given that Libby is a closed-up, suspicious woman, it’s a huge challenge to give the audience inner access to her. Theron doesn’t seem to get a handle on how to accomplish this, and the viewer thus does not identify with her to the extent needed to get them to invest in her story.
Theron is also a producer on the movie, so I speculate that she was attracted to the dramatic challenge and pushed to get the movie made. In the end credits there were so many additional producers, co-producers, and executive producers that I couldn’t count them, which is never a good sign—too many cooks and all that. Maybe in raising the cash to get the movie made she lost control of her vision for it. I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt here.
Writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner doesn’t help her any. His script follows the plot of the book in an almost pedestrian manner, never finding a thematic focus that works cinematically. The story involves the unravelling of what really happened that night 28 years ago, bringing Libby closer and closer to facing her inner demons. But it plays like a police procedural, systematically moving from one revelation to the next, generating curiosity but not much suspense.
The moments of interest come primarily from the supporting actors. Tye Sheridan, as the young Ben Day in flashbacks of the events leading up to the murders, is sympathetic as a confused outcast of a teenager who gets in with the wrong crowd. Corey Stall as the older Ben, seeing his sister for the first time in nearly three decades when she comes to question him in prison, gives a moving performance as a lonely man hoping for redemption.
Chloé Grace Moretz, who I last saw in “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” again brings energy to the role of a conniving young woman, the younger Ben’s supposed girlfriend. Sean Bridgers acquits himself well as both the younger and older versions of Ben and Libby’s no-account father. And Christina Hendricks somehow transforms herself from the sexpot of “Mad Men” into Libby’s murdered mother, a dowdy, put-upon farm woman.
These performances breathed some life into the movie, keeping it from total expiration. And Nicholas Hoult does his best as a young true-crime aficionado who prods Libby along on her journey, giving Theron a side-kick to play off of, although his role is too skimpy to produce the humanizing effect on her that it is supposed to have.
If you like stories in which the truth of horrible events gradually unfolds, “Dark Places” is okay if you don’t mind it dragging a little. Just don’t expect too much.
Another “Gone Girl” it’s not.
You can read my review of “Dark Places,” the novel, here.