Glum Adaptation of 'Dark Places' Doesn't Ripple Like It Could

Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner; Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: C

"Gone Girl" displays a hefty progression in Gillian Flynn's writing from that found within "Dark Places", her sophomore novel, revealing a noteworthy evolution in her flawed and distrustful protagonists, how she messes with the reader through the chronology of events, and twists with a strong thematic undercurrent. Unsurprisingly, the more popular of her novels beat the others to the film-adaptation punch -- directed by suspense mastermind David Fincher himself, no less -- casting a pretty broad shadowy that any others released afterwards will struggle to escape from. Despite shooting at roughly the same time and beginning production earlier, writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner's take on Dark Places arrives some months after Gone Girl, sporting unsavory subject matter and a more caustic protagonist plowing through the elusiveness of a family murder mystery. Unfortunately, neither the vigor of its performances nor the shrewd duplication of Flynn's foreboding tone can overpower the frustration it creates toward the sensational-yet-sluggish truths buried and sidestepped within.

As the sole survivor of the Kinnakee (Kansas) Massacre that claimed the lives of her mother and sisters, seven-year-old Libby Day testified that her brother, Ben (played in his youth by a quietly sinister and enigmatic Tye Sheridan), was responsible for the murders, drawing further national attention due to the killing's association with Satanic ritualism. Nearly twenty-five years after to the day, Libby (Charlize Theron) has run out of donation funds from the sympathetic and has no income prospects in sight, leaving her desperate for cash and saddled with numerous behavioral issues. Opportunely, she receives a solicitation from the leader (Nicolas Hoult) of the Kill Club, a group that specializes in solving unsolved or wrongly-solved cases, hoping to fund an investigation into the purported innocence of Ben Day (a sympathetic Corey Stoll) and uncover the veracity of what happen that night. Libby's dedication to the idea that her brother was responsible isn't strong enough to pass up the cash, luring her back into the bleakness of those murders and discovering that her memory of that night isn't as accurate as she thought it was.

Those who've read Dark Places will be quick to point out that Charlize Theron doesn't come close to matching the physical attributes of Gillian Flynn's Libby, switching out the book's petite, curvy woman with visible red roots for a tall, lanky frame topped with a trucker cap throughout. What does carry over, and what's most important, is the blunt and despondent aura following the character around after years of depressive inertia, a comfort zone for Theron given her experience inside the minds of tormented and acerbic loners. The prickly body language and thousand-yard stare she gives to Libby languishes within every step she takes toward new evidence, underscored by the verbal fury of her impatience whenever her integrity comes into question. Accompanied by Nicholas Hoult's mousy curiosity as the Kill Club's orchestrator, Lyle, Theron channels that haunted emotional tempo towards those connected to the situation, from a stripper (Drea de Matteo) recounting her molestation at a young age to Libby's deadbeat father, Runner (Sean Bridgers), assuring us that anything unearthed by her reluctant journey through her "dark places" won't restore what's been lost.

Similarly to Gillian Flynn's novel, Dark Places jumps between the '80s and the present on the thrust of Libby's investigation, juxtaposing the aches created by her discoveries with the events leading up to her family's murder, events that she doesn't really remember or simply doesn't know about. While Gilles Paquet-Brenner hits the necessary beats leading up to the massacre -- the origin and severity of Ben's deviances; his secretive relationship with wealthy wild-child Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz); his mother's frantic search for him in the midst of troubling accusations -- the writer-director does so in a way that hides information that's vital to elaborating on the other people involved, for the sake of dwelling on redundant mysteries. Leaving relevant characters in an underdeveloped state as they enter and exit the murky history of the Kinnake Massacre, the film forces them to serve purposes and move the story forward instead of existing as genuine personalities or, more importantly, lingering as suspects worth considering. In streamlining the story, Paquet-Brenner chops away the red herrings and counter-suspicions that form around substantial characters, clearing the way for Libby to discover the truth without engaging the audience's imagination over what that truth could actually be.

Revealing what really happened that day steers Dark Places through some rather provocative territory in the outskirts of the American breadbasket, ranging from psychotropic drugs and occult ritualism to illicit activities with children. Aside from the fraught, penniless panic of Ben's mother in response to such things threatening her family, displaying the lengths a mother will go to secure her children, the film concerns itself little with the tough themes of community witch-hunts and the fallibility of testimonies that are unceremoniously touched upon in Paquet-Brenner's docile adaptation. They're merely flavor for the plodding whodunit, thickening the atmosphere's edginess without the social critique that'd make them intriguing alongside the mystery's moving parts. Some of that boils down to the flexibility of a point-of-view telling of events and the truncation of Gillian Flynn's source material into screenplay form, but it's also in how the writer-director chooses what to conceal and what -- and when -- to reveal. On the surface, this is a jumbled but faithful retelling; in terms of substance and breadth, things are lacking.

Dark Places always was a story that worked in spite of the screwy answers at the end of the road, overly enthralled with its cluttered machinations and flimsy solutions, all of which remain intact despite Gilles Paquet-Brenner's subtle efforts to simplify bits of the convoluted tragedy. Sure, there's something effortlessly watchable about seeing how the procedural saga of Libby Day eventually plays out, hinged on the arduous sacrifices of parenthood and the difficulties in seeking absolution for one's past mistakes, bolstered by Christina Hendricks' devoted, tearful embodiment of a mother running out of options. A nagging sense of disbelief over anticlimactic twists in the Day household undercut that emotional sincerity, though, almost making the idea of Ben's Satan-inspired massacre of his sisters and mother seem less outlandish than the reality. Alas, that's part and parcel with Gillian Flynn's sophomore novel, and Paquet-Brenner can only be slighted so much for following through with what's there, even if it still doesn't stick.

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