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Dark Places

Time for another exciting installment of “How the Fuck Did This Go Wrong?!”

Dark Places boasts a jaw-dropping cast comprised of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Chloe Moretz, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Corey Stoll, and other such incredible talents. The story was adapted from a novel by Gillian Flynn, the same author who gave us last year’s runaway hit, Gone Girl. You’d think this movie would be a huge freaking pop culture smash, promoted to the hilt and played on thousands of multiplexes nationwide.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Maybe it’s because there are so many huge movies out right now and the release date was poorly timed. If so, that still wouldn’t explain why the film has a pitiful 28 percent Tomatometer as of this writing. So how the fuck did this go wrong? How could so much talent and potential go so awry?

Well, let’s start with Gillian Flynn.

This time, she presents us with the harrowing story of a triple homicide, committed back in 1985. It happened in the small Kansas farming town of Kinnakee, where a woman (Patty Day, played by Christina Hendricks) and two of her three daughters were brutally slain. The only survivor was the youngest daughter, Libby Day (played as a child by Sterling Jerins), who was coaxed into testifying that her older brother did the deed. It seemed almost too easy, given that Ben Day (played as a teen by Tye Sheridan) was already the subject of criminal allegations and was reputedly a satanist. Yes, you read that correctly.

Flash forward about thirty years. Libby (played as an adult by Charlize Theron) has gone her entire life without doing much of anything. She’s subsisted purely off of her family’s life insurance, charitable funds sent from well-wishers all over the country, and royalties from a book that was ghostwritten by someone else. Then, of course, the money starts to dry up. Enter Lyle Wirth, played by Nicholas Hoult, in a neat little reunion with his Mad Max: Fury Road costar.

Lyle is the treasurer of a weird little group called “the Kill Club”, comprised of people morbidly obsessed with real-life murders. Though the group has more than its fair share of role-playing whack jobs, Lyle belongs to a faction that attempts to solve cold cases. And they’ve ruled the Kinnakee Massacre a cold case, because there are some things about the facts that just don’t add up. This despite the fact that Ben Day (played as an adult by Corey Stoll) has never made any attempt at appealing his sentence, and Libby is perfectly happy to let him rot in prison.

But she’s up to her eyeballs in debt, so she agrees to take Lyle’s money in return for playing along with the investigation. Oh, and they only have three weeks to crack the case, because the authorities will shred their case file and all the evidence inside after the case has been officially closed for 30 years.

Just about everything wrong with this movie can aptly be summed up by the satanist content. I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, but there’s no way I can take satanism seriously. The moment it gets included, we’re either looking at a fantasy film, a horror movie, Z-grade exploitation schlock, or all of the above. But no, we’re still expected to take these characters seriously as they spill blood for the First Among the Fallen.

A bunch of dumb teenagers aside, we still have to deal with our protagonist, a spiteful shrew who’s gotten by purely on the charity of others and has made no apparent effort to make any kind of life of her own. Then we have Lyle, who serves as the catalyst of the story for no adequately explained reason, other than his general fascination with murder. As for Ben — whose freedom, remember, are the stakes we’re playing for — he proves to be a deeply troubled individual who’s probably better off in prison and shows no desire to leave.

That isn’t even getting started on Ben’s satanist immoral girlfriend (Diondra, played by Chloe Moretz); the utterly irredeemable shitstain that is Libby’s father (Ronald “Runner” Day, played by Sean Bridgers); or Krissi Cates (played as an adult by Drea de Matteo), who damns herself beyond any and all sympathy in ways that I won’t spoil here. Seriously, the only character in this whole cast who’s even remotely sympathetic is Patty, and the plot renders her practically inert.

Looking back on my review of Gone Girl, I remembered that it was merely a trashy story with unsympathetic characters that had the good fortune to be directed by Grandmaster David Fincher. Dark Places, on the other hand, is a trashy story with unsympathetic characters that comes to us from writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. He’s previously responsible for such films as Sarah’s Key, Walled In, Pretty Things, and a few other arthouse flicks you’ve probably never heard of. I haven’t seen any of Paquet-Brenner’s other work, but the reviews suggest that he’s actually a very capable director. Not in this movie, brother.

Fincher is a master of atmosphere. He knew exactly how to shoot and edit the story in a compelling way that carried his audience from Point A to Point B. Moreover, he knew how to use comic relief in subtle ways, such that the stakes were always high and yet the film wasn’t always oppressively dark.

Paquet-Brenner shows no such discretion. If anything, it seemed like he wanted to double down on the melodrama by drenching every other shot in darkness. There are some shots that look like he went and draped a veil over the camera. From the editing to the camerawork to the defiant lack of any comic relief, this film beats its audience about the head with how dark and moody it wants to be. It’s all so over-the-top and artificial that it doesn’t even qualify as awkward or unpleasant. It’s just boring to watch and forced as hell.

Needless to say, this presentation heavily affects the central mystery. When our protagonist spouts hammy voice-over like a wannabe noir detective and curses like a middle schooler, how is anyone supposed to take her investigation seriously? It also doesn’t help that the clues are dispensed by plot convenience, rather than as a result of the onscreen work, which comes right back around to the characters.

The one saving grace of the Gillian Flynn adaptations I’ve seen so far is that they somehow manage to attract a top-notch actors. The skill of the cast is the only thing that keeps this movie watchable, since Charlize Theron, Chloe Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, et al. are still endlessly watchable even on their worst days. Yet every moment onscreen is further proof that these actors are utterly wasted on godawful characters and leaving so much of their potential untapped.

Dark Places is a slog to sit through. The cast is full of reliable talents who are always a joy to watch, but their collective abilities still aren’t enough to salvage the paper-thin characters in this empty-headed twaddle. It’s an exercise in pointless angst, so much melodrama for the purpose of themes that aren’t even mentioned — much less explored — until the denouement. It’s hard to find any reason to sympathize with these characters or invest in the story, so why should we care about the mystery and how it unfolds?

If Gone Girl is what we get when a bad script happens to a good director, Dark Places is what we get when a director indulges all of the reasons why a script is bad. My sympathies go out to the actors involved, for they deserved a far better movie. And so do we.

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