Everyone enjoys a brief opening paragraph, so why don’t we spend it listing all the things that “Dark Places,” from director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Sarah’s Key“), gets right. Its cast is undoubtedly committed, particularly a convincingly grimy Charlize Theron, and an enjoyably off-the-leash Chloe Grace Moretz, though it feels like they signed on to different films, and continued under that misapprehension all the way through shooting. Christina Hendricks is decent in a frumpy role that is sold from under her by the film’s last-act twists. Nicholas Hoult, alongside his “Mad Max: Fury Road” co-star, has little to do (zero mouth-spraying), while Tye Sheridan again proves he’s unsurpassable in the surly, misunderstood adolescent stakes, though even his talents cannot convince us he’ll grow up to be Corey Stoll. The Barry Ackroyd photography is unobjectionably gritty. Eyelines match. It’s all screamingly competent.
The problems emerge just about everywhere else, most fatally in the story itself, which turns out to probe places that aren’t so much dark as very, very dumb. How much the source novel from a pre-“Gone Girl” Gillian Flynn is to blame and how much it’s Paquet-Brenner’s stonyfaced take on it (he adapted the script in addition to directing) is hard to call, but it seems clear that without a David Fincher-level stylist at work behind the lens, Flynn’s characterization and plotting, which even in her more famous book favored splashy twistiness over any semblance of psychological realism, is even less believable. And without the spiky irony of Flynn’s first-person writing (the enjoyable Jim Thompson-esque noirisms that pepper the novel, like “I have a meanness in me, real as an organ” occur only rarely) Paquet-Brenner shears the text of any richness, to have it unfold instead in a relentlessly grim manner, less intriguing and evocative than straight-up dour.
Theron, once again willing to dial her genetic advantages right down to a level where we can believe she might not have an alternate revenue source as a Dior model, plays the embittered, lank-haired heroine, Libby Day, queen of sullenness, with a grimy baseball cap as her crown: Imperator Morosa. Survivor of a childhood tragedy that saw her mother (Hendricks) and sisters murdered, and her brother Ben (Sheridan/Stoll) incarcerated for the crime, Libby has lived a lonely and aimless life since then, subsisting largely on handouts from concerned do-gooders. But decades have now passed and the handouts are drying up, so in the first of many “what, really?” moves, she accepts the offer from a creepy dude in a laundromat (Hoult) to be a special guest at a “kill club” — a group of ghoulish true-crime enthusiasts who pool resources to try and solve old crimes. Even ones that have apparently already been solved, as there’s a vocal faction who believe in Ben’s innocence, and that young Libby lied in her testimony against him, whether coerced by outside forces, or because she has a meanness inside her, real as an organ.
While it’s not clear why Libby, who is clearly functionally capable of getting at least some sort of menial job that would not require her to dredge up very painful memories, would accept a few hundred bucks in exchange for then further investigating “that night” (which she apparently only remembers in hand-held grainy black-and-white), nor why Hoult’s character would offer to pay her to do so in the first place, she does, because that way we get to have a movie. And so Libby visits Ben in prison for the first time, tracks down her estranged father (who is living, no joke, in an actual arsenic-laced toxic waste dump), revisits various childhood acquaintances, follows clues and chases red herrings to gradually piece together What Actually Happened. And hoo-boy, turns out everything happened: Satan worship, serial killings, child abuse allegations, drug taking, threatened foreclosures, puppy love, Daddy issues, sibling friction, gambling debts, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and ritual cow slaughter — this film is a smorgasbord of unconnected plot contrivances, or as I like to call it, a full-on “Dreamcatcher.”
How high can one suspend their disbelief? Perhaps if you could erect some kind of pulley system between here and Betelgeuse, you might be able to perform the feat of psychological engineering necessary to accept the film’s reveal, which requires about seven completely different things to have occurred, each one highly dubious in its own right, at exactly the same time for it to have all shaken out as it did. And then for that to be followed by years of inexplicable silence on the part of almost every character involved before Libby’s intrepid investigations bear fruit at the very same moment the coincidental solving of a completely different case makes everything finally clear. Except, if you think about it, it doesn’t even really do that, as there’s a major facet to the plot that Libby, as far as I can tell, would have had no way of knowing, and that we are only let in on because of one of the handy omniscient flashbacks. And no, I’m not “overthinking” it: a genre thriller lives or dies on tight, logical plotting — it is supposed to trick us and to delight us by the cleverness of its trickery. “Dark Places” just throws lots of ropy plot at us instead, in the hopes we won’t notice the bits where it’s rotted through.
There’s a good idea rolling around inside this film, occasionally stabbing at its side like a pebble in a ragged trainer. Hinted at during the Kill Club sequences and in some moments of voiceover, there’s a sense that Libby is trying to assert, way after the fact, some kind of ownership over her own story. This is rich territory for a genre thriller, and shaping it through the eyes of a survivor of childhood trauma, whose fragile memories and possible guilt further cloud the truth, is compelling. But for that theme to have any sort of purchase on our imagination, the story Libby comes to own must have a basic thread of believability to it, and not be this near-comical concatenation of ridiculous twists and salacious, cloudily motivated behaviors. Sadly, it feels like after just two adaptations (was ever a writer’s “brand” more quickly established?) Flynn on our screens is becoming a byword for a high degree of preposterousness — which can be fun in more skilled and arch hands than Paquet-Brenner’s, but without some added filmmaker-y flash and dazzle, we get “Dark Places.” Everyone involved, including the audience, deserves a better movie than this. For fans of the book, there’s a possibility that some may not find the film version a disappointment, but like everything else in “Dark Places,” that seems very, very unlikely. [C]