Ever since her Oscar win in 2004 for the portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos in the movie Monster, Charlize Theron has been an acting force to be reckoned with. Before that it was like she was too beautiful to be taken serious as an actress. Now it is not surprising to see her shave her head for Mad Max: Fury Road, play the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman or a type of superhero in Hancock. Again in Dark Places, based on the novel by the suddenly hot Gillian Flynn, Theron is taking on a role that demands much of her acting muscles, but little of her looks.
Coming off her winning turn in Mad Max: Fury Road as feminist hero Furiosa, Theron is riding a high into Dark Places directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Paquet-Brenner is also coming in from a position of strength as his last film, which was five years ago, Sarah’s Key was fantastic. It featured a strong performance by female lead Kristen Scott Thomas and had a similar mystery theme to it like Dark Places. That, however, is where the good stuff ends. As surefooted as Gilles Paquet-Brenner was with Sarah’s Key is as unsteady as he is at the helm of this tale.
Instead of following through by depicting the novel’s darkness, Paquet-Brenner, who is the screenwriter, decided to skim over or eliminate all together some of the more black moments of the story. Instead of making a film that is a mystery/thriller featuring a female protagonist who is not very likable (Gilliam Flynn is a master at creating unsavoury female characters) Paquet-Brenner glosses over most of it resulting in the film having a superficial and pointless at times feel to it.
Libby Day (Sterling Jerins – World War Z, The Conjuring) is seven-years-old and is going to have a tragedy befall her that is just mind-blowing. The Days live on a run-down farm in rural Kansas. Patty Day (Christina Hendricks – from television’s Mad Men) is raising four kids all by herself as her good for nothing husband Runner (Sean Bridgers – Sweet Home Alabama, The Best of Me) is pretty much out of the picture, except for when he comes back looking for money. This lack of money hangs like an albatross around Patty’s neck and it finally seems like she is going to lose the farm as a result of it. She worries about what she is going to do with her three daughters – Michelle (Natalie Precht), Debby (Madison McGuire) and her youngest, Libby as well as her teenage son, Ben (Tye Sheridan – The Tree of Life, Mud).
They say when it rains it pours so at the same time that Patty is wondering how she will save her farm she finds out from her sister Diane (Jennifer Pierce Mathus – The Last Ride) that the police are looking for Ben as there has been a complaint put in against him that he was sexually inappropriate with some young girls.
Ben does not know anything about this until his pregnant girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz – Kick-Ass, The Equalizer) tells him she has heard some rumours around school. One thing leads to another and the entire Day family other than Libby, who managed to escape, ends up dead and Ben goes to jail for killing them based largely on circumstantial evidence and Libby’s testimony.
It is now twenty-five years later and a nearly broke Libby (Charlize Theron) is approached by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult – About a Boy, X-Men: Days of Future Past) on behalf of his kill club offering her money to investigate the killings. Despite the fact that she is convinced that Ben is guilty (which the club isn’t), Libby is desperate for money and agrees to start trying to locate those that were involved back then like her father Runner, Ben’s friend and fellow Satanist Trey Trepano (J. LaRose – Insidious, Saw III), Krissi Cates (Drea de Matteo – from television’s Sons of Anarchy) the one who accused Ben of molesting her, and the missing Diondra (Andrea Roth – from television’s Rescue Me). Even her brother Ben (Corey Stoll – from television’s House of Cards), who she has not seen for twenty-five years, is on Libby’s to do list. The deeper she goes, the more she finds out and the more she finds out, the more she doubts what she held to be certain.
Most of the cast does a great job with what they are given. Charlize Theron, playing the deeply damaged woman-child, conveys much despite the fact that her character does not say much. The talented actress uses her body and eyes to convey her character’s feelings. A wild Chloe Grace Moretz and a shy and likable Tye Sheridan play well off of each other.
A film like this relies heavily on the plot and there is so little for the cast to grasp onto that it feels completely shallow. It, like the book did, goes back and forth between the present and the past, but does not go into any kind of depth with either time. Maybe trying to bring this novel in which there was a ton going on at every moment to the screen was too tall an order? With the limited time allotted to a film Paquet-Brenner has to keep things moving along quickly…too quickly and it causes some important parts of the story to fall between the cracks.
While it does do a good job putting twists and turns and red herrings in the path that you are guessing who done it right up until the end, Dark Places is certainly not going to gain author Gillian Flynn the same type of notice that Gone Girl did.