Dark Places

DARK PLACES, mur­der-mys­tery thriller, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 2 chiles

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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

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