Dark Places (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, “Dark Places” is a mystery-thriller that offers many secrets but it does not come together as tightly as it should have. A major reason is the screenplay’s attempt to cover too much ground too quickly. As a result, the cursory characterizations fail to build up to anything substantial. We never get to know them in meaningful ways. So when a secret is revealed eventually, it is usually met with a shrug rather than with genuine surprise, horror, or something that resonates.
It has been twenty-eight years since the murder of Libby’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters, which means that her brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan, Corey Stoll), has been in prison for almost three decades. Ben was the primary suspect although evidence against him were inconsistent at best. Libby (Charlize Theron), still haunted by the trauma of the past, is approached by a young man named Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) who claims to be a part of The Kill Club, a group of people who dedicate themselves to solve murder mysteries and other crimes. They believe Ben is innocent, but they need Libby’s help in order to exonerate the man.
The story’s structure requires careful attention because it jumps between the past and the present. Although the look between the two periods is distinct enough, there is often a lack of flow from one scene to the next. This is inappropriate because critical pieces end up being overlooked as we acclimate between eras. There are many names, faces, and motivations to remember so it is critical that the audience is never lost in the process. The material ought to have been approached as a procedural.
Furthermore, Libby’s narration enters and exits seemingly without control. I felt the narration should have been more consistent with its presence because Libby, although solidly performed by Theron, does not get enough personal scenes that allow us to understand that depths of her thoughts and therefore her actions. This is a woman who is supposed to be so plagued by guilt that she is unaware she is living in her own prison but we never realize this until another character provides an expository dialogue. It lacks the elegance of well-written mystery.
There is a lack of balance between past and present. It is strange that we learn more about the characters in the past rather than the present where the actual investigation is occurring. Thus, when the picture jumps to the present, it gives the impression that the answers are merely given as opposed to excavated. There is a glaring lack of tension in the present which is most disappointing because the present offers great performers like Theron, Stoll, and, to some extent, Hoult. Take note of the final time Theron and Stoll meet in prison. It is the best scene in the movie. The film lacks scenes that command emotional weight and catharsis.
And what about The Kill Club? We are given very limited knowledge about the group which is unexpected, in a negative way, because the script makes a big deal about it in the beginning. The writer-director’s screenplay has a nasty habit of introducing characters and potential avenues worth exploring and dispensing them just as quickly.
Perhaps “Dark Places,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, might have turned out to be a more effective piece of work if it had a writer who appreciates the most minute details as well as a director who has a patience of a sphinx. A slow-burn approach is perhaps most appropriate and so when revelations are thrown in our laps, we are jolted eyes wide open.