August 12, 2015 by Zack
“Dark Places” is the second adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel. The first, of course, was the acclaimed “Gone Girl”, which was adapted by Flynn herself. Here, her work is written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who has mostly done French language films (except for 2009’s “Walled In”). The two films could not be farther apart in terms of quality of narrative execution, and adaptation itself. Where “Gone Girl” successfully brought page to screen with the same depth and care, “Dark Places” feels like it’s merely a recitation of the book.
The story revolves around Libby Day (Charlize Theron, who may be miscast for this role), who when she was a child, witnessed the murder of nearly her entire family save her older teenage brother Ben, who is convicted of the killings. She is coaxed into witness testimony that sends Ben to life in prison–but years later, a group of people called the “Kill Club” (they follow serial murders and try to solve cases on their own) believe that he may be innocent. One of the leaders of the group, Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), tries to persuade Libby to reevaluate her stance that her brother is guilty. There are inconsistencies in the crime scene itself and Ben doesn’t seem to have a real motive. Back in 1985, during the mass hysteria of satanic occult witch hunts, it was easy for a jury to believe that Ben was a devil worshiper and wanted to make a sacrifice to Satan. In actuality, Ben (Tye Sheridan) is a meek, quiet, reserved normal boy who gets in with a crowd that claims to be Satanists. Older Ben (Corey Stoll) now claims he is innocent, and wants Libby to change her testimony in order to clear him. But she still doesn’t necessarily believe that he didn’t do it. What she begins to discover is that there were other people involved with that night–including Ben’s girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and even his own father, Runner (Sean Bridgers). When his mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters Michelle and Debbie are murdered, they are killed in different ways, suggesting there may have been more than one culprit.
The film, like the book, jumps around between timelines, sometimes going back to 1985 on the day of the murders and the hours preceding them, and then going to present day where we have the older versions of the characters being visited by Libby to try and piece together what really happened. In the book, this is all done in a way that makes the story more a thriller than a character study–but it succeeds in being both, really. The movie tries to replicate that, but because it begins jumping around too early (in a book you can get away with that because you can always go back and use reference points), anyone who hasn’t read the book would probably be confused and check out emotionally rather quickly. The story seems like it would be compelling enough to string together a 3 act story easily, but there are too many characters and too much going on to be able to follow it if you’re not already familiar with the material.
The individual scenes are nicely acted. All of the sets are well done, and there is a sense of desperation in the murky atmosphere of the rural midwest. Instead of using that as a theme, however, it’s more like a backdrop. A set, simply to set the stage. The characters speak to each other but they don’t interact. There is no real conflict, no stakes, nothing to gain or lose. We don’t really care if Libby sets her brother free or finds the truth because nothing was established in the first 15 minutes that made us really care about the outcome.
In “Gone Girl”, Flynn is able to reconstruct her novel and keep the theme intact with David Fincher’s masterful directing ability. Not to say that Paquet-Brenner is incapable–but it’s disappointing to see someone completely botch a compelling story simply by missing the point that you need to set everything up credibly and with enough simplicity that the story unfolds naturally and comprehensively. Here, we are given little cuts of meat rather than the whole steak. And it definitely leaves one starving for a better movie.