DARK PLACES, murder-mystery thriller, rated R, Violet Crown, 2 chiles
Given that some childhoods are profoundly more traumatic than others, it’s not always a certainty that growing up can make troubling memories easier to confront. In Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s 2009 novel by Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, who also directed, Charlize Theron plays the grown-up Libby Day, who was just seven years old when her mother and sisters were murdered in their Kansas farm house in 1985. She’s been living off a fund established for her by strangers, but the cash is finally depleted, so she accepts an offer from a group of true-crime aficionados who pay her to help them vindicate her older brother of the slayings, for which he’s been sitting in prison for nearly 28 years thanks to Libby’s damning testimony. Her sleuthing is cynical, because she believes her brother is guilty, but soon digging up the past proves irresistible, even as it further hurts her. Libby says she has a “meanness” inside of her that doesn’t allow her to heal.
Though the story is engrossing and a tone of sadness effectively pervades the movie, the film is inert. Theron isn’t terrible, but she plays Libby without emotional nuance — all anger, without underlying fear or desperation, or any moments of normalcy. Libby’s interior monologue and perceptions, so much a part of the novel, are not well-conveyed here, a lack that further distances the audience’s connection to the protagonist. (Flynn’s recent screen adaptation of her 2012 novel, Gone
Girl, relied heavily on voice-over and still distanced the audience from the characters.) Some performances are strong, especially that of Christina Hendricks as Libby’s mother, but most of the characterizations are narrow in complexity, with important details tossed in via last-minute expository dialogue, in order to make the story make sense — a structural issue within the adaptation. Elements of 1980s social hysteria, including Satan-worship and claims of mass molestation, are presented without irony or historical context, rendering crucial plot points distracting and a little silly. The story’s ultimate villain is clownish in her evil, both as a teen played by Chloë Grace Moretz and as an adult played by Andrea Roth. Flynn is a deeply psychological writer of flawed, truly unlikeable characters with immensely layered back stories and emotional baggage most people will never relate to. So far this has not translated to film as well as it could. The dark places here are more surprise-plot-twist than the kind of visceral revelations Flynn inspires in her novels. — Jennifer Levin