DARK PLACES is awash with dark moodiness as it tells a raggedy story that suffers from a failure of to find a narrative structure as strong or as compelling as the performance of his star, Charlize Theron. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, on whose novel of the same name GONE GIRL was based, it is another twisted tale of family secrets and jumping to conclusions.
Taking place in the present and 30 years ago, it centers on the brutal murder of a mother and two of her daughters in what came to be dubbed the Kansas Prairie Massacre. The surviving daughter, Libby Day is still traumatized by what she saw when she was eight, and the fact that it was her testimony that sent her brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan), to prison for the crime. Now grown into adulthood in name only as a kleptomaniacal hoarder with both boundary and anger issues, she is forced for financial reasons to accept an offer to collaborate with Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), an earnest, eager young man obsessed with the case, and determined to prove Ben innocent. The process involves reliving the hours leading up to the massacre, reconnecting with Ben (Corey Stoll as an adult) for the first time since the trial, as well as the other people in her family’s orbit, including her long-estranged drifter of a father (Sean Bridgers), and tracking down Ben’s old girlfriend (Chloë Grace Moretz), the bored and dissipated rich girl who disappeared the night of the crime, all in an attempt to find out what really happened that night.
We see much to which Libby was not privy that day, and some that she was not, though the flashbacks are sometimes muddled as to which is which, leaving them rather less than tantalizing or illuminating as we try to work it out. Red herrings are solemnly dispersed, as well as a key clue, which is dropped with a disconcerting lack of subtlety. It all but stand up and hollers at us to pay attention. It’s one of the reasons for the lack of suspense that makes this film less sharp than the material demands. Even the necessity of solving the crime before the records are shredded by the government to save space is a, you’ll pardon the term, paper tiger that lacks the proper bite.
On the other hand, credit for wonderful performances from all involved. Theron in particular is ferocious, spitting vitriol and refusing to pander to the audience by finding something soft in her damaged character, opting instead to channel a child’s fear into an adult’s resentment. As her mother in the flashbacks, Christina Hendricks is equally compelling, and movingly restrained, as a good woman who made bad choices and suffers for the consequences that those choices are visiting on her children.
DARK PLACES is a noble failure that gives away too much too soon, then takes much too long to get to its twist.