By Tom Platt. It hasn’t been twelve months since Gone Girl hit theaters, and Gillian Flynn already has another novel on the big screen. And in its haste, Flynn’s latest film quickly finds itself in unfortunately familiar territories as it follows up what many consider a swan dive with a belly flop.
Dark Places is another Flynn thriller, this time following the story of Libby Day (played by Mad Max: Fury Road‘s MVP, Charlize Theron), who, as a young girl, was orphaned when her family was murdered in their country home. Due to 8 year-old Libby’s testimony, her brother, Ben (Corey Stoll) was quickly convicted of all three murders and sentenced to life in prison. Now, 28 years later, Libby is 36 years old, finding herself with no friends, no family, and less than 500 bucks to her name. Having spent her whole adult life living off the charity of others, Libby has become a fully grown adult with serious personal space issues, a miscreant who has never worked an honest day in her entire life.
With the spectre of rent looming, Libby decides against her better judgement to follow Lyle (Nicholas Hoult, also from Fury Road) to the “Kill Club”, a convention of weirdos and former cops-turned-P.I.’s. Upon arriving at what was pitched as a panel Q&A, Libby has to make her way through a noticeably sparse gauntlet of people cosplaying as famous murderers (cue the clown with the balloons), only to be grilled by a collection of sleuth enthusiasts who aggressively claim her brother’s innocence and then ask for Libby’s help. Clearly put-off by the whole experience, it is not until Lyle pulls a wad of cash out of his velcro wallet that Libby decides to talk to her brother and help figure out what really happened that night so many years ago.
Laden with voiceover, as well as countless flashbacks across a myriad of camera formats, Dark Places quickly loses sight of its intended purpose. As writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner struggles with the story (effectively creating a cliché whodunit), he is thwarted time and again by a question so deeply ingrained in the original story it refuses to be ignored. Why would a man who is “innocent” never ask to be free?
Placing the theme as a distant backdrop to the plot, it doesn’t take long for us to reach the carrot at the end of the string. (Within the first 15 minutes a dozen detectives have told us that there was literally no evidence to convict Ben Day other than 8 year old Libby’s testimony, which, in an earlier scene, we saw the police clearly bully out of her.) Over the next hundred minutes that empty string begins to taunt us as Dark Places continues to trick the uninterested audience into thinking the identity of the true killer ever mattered.
With these major flaws, Dark Places crowns itself as the reigning champion of failed formula films (move over, Maggie). In an attempt to jack the style of films like Niels Arden Oplev’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Fincher’s Zodiac (to be honest, Fincher’s entire career has made this moment possible), Dark Places forgets to look at its best-selling source material for inspiration on how to make the film interesting, resigning its focus to the least important aspect of the story.
Missing a clear opportunity to utilize his talented cast (which includes Christina Hendricks), with a novel from a writer who had proven herself viable, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner is left with the brunt of the blame for this far from thrilling thriller. Dragging a novel’s plot points and stylistic choices to the point of cliché, Dark Places* is like pushing a round story through a rectangular theater screen. If you shave off originality, theme, and character it just might fit.
*Warning: Dark Places should not be confused with Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. And it is the opinion of the writer that Dark Place is hilarious.