Mark Reviews Movies

Dark Places (2015)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sean Bridgers, Shannon Kook, Andrea Roth, Sterling Jerins

MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing violence, language, drug use and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 8/7/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015

Dark Places certainly devises an intriguing way to avoid being accused of overloading its plot with red herrings. They're here, or at least they seem to be here. By the end, though, they never existed.

This movie's remedy to the trouble with red herrings is sort of simple, because a red herring isn't really a red herring if it actually has something to do with the solution to the mystery (In this regard, every mystery story is, essentially, a thought experiment akin to the one with Schrödinger and his hypothetical cat, since correctly identifying a plot development or character as a red herring is impossible until the figurative box is opened). The solution here, then, is to make the final answer of the mystery so complicated that it involves pretty much everything that's introduced, explained, or hinted at throughout the story.

To be sure, it's an economical approach, in an "A place for everything, and everything in its place" sort of way. The loose ends are all tied together, and everything that needs to be accounted for gets counted. Sure, it loses the inherent messiness of a decades-spanning murder investigation full of misconceived notions about human behavior, as well as multiple misperceptions about people's motives based on prejudices and a lack of pieces of key evidence. It also downplays coincidences that are almost cosmic in their convenience and secrets for which a person is willing to give up his or her life to protect.

Everyone on screen and in the audience, though, gets to go away from it all with a feeling of completion. That's all that really matters, right?

The screenplay by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (based on the novel by Gillian Flynn) features two parallel stories. In the present day, Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is the sole survivor of the "Kansas Prairie Massacre," a triple murder in which the victims were her mother and two sisters. Her older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) was convicted of the crimes and has been in prison for almost 30 years based on Libby's testimony. Up until now, Libby has been living off donations from strangers who were horrified by the news and the best-selling book, which she neither wrote nor read, that recounted her experience.

Libby has spent all but several hundred dollars from the fund, leaving her desperate for cash. Lyle (Nicholas Hoult) gives her an opportunity for some easy money. He runs the Kill Club, a group of crime aficionados who investigate ongoing and closed cases that catch the members' attention. The crime she survived is a club favorite, mainly because everyone in the group is convinced that Ben is innocent. Lyle wants Libby to help with their inquiry into the case, and she grudgingly agrees—for a price.

The second through line follows the events leading up to the murders in 1985. A young Libby's (Sterling Jerins) mother (Christina Hendricks) is having financial problems, and her only son Ben (Tye Sheridan) has gotten himself caught up in satanic rituals, accusations of molesting younger girls, and a troublesome relationship with a spoiled, rich girl named Diondra (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is pregnant by him.

Much of this material—within both storylines—is potentially fascinating. Libby makes for an intriguing character—jaded by the way everyone abandoned her once the crime left the headlines and surviving as a mooch from her status as a victim. In the early parts of the movie, Theron thrives on the weary but harsh exterior that barely covers up genuine pain and loss. Libby narrates events on occasion, but it doesn't feel like some cheap plot device, because Theron infuses the voice-over with the hardened edge of a noir anti-hero who can't help but comment upon the rotten way of things.

The setup, really, to each character and every plot point seems to be pointing at some unique element to each of those characters and events. The Kill Club is a clever, demented creation of people playing dress-up, others role-playing a crime scene, and some doing actual detective work. There's the way Ben seems content with being in prison and happy to see the sister who put him there. Even the early flashbacks take on Libby's subjective point of view, with a handheld camera serving to see things through her eyes and events unfolding based upon her presence. It's as if Paquet-Brenner realizes that the best mysteries aren't about the mysteries themselves but about how they affect the people involved.

Once those setups occur, though, the movie shifts to the method of the lesser variety of whodunits. It's all about plot, more plot, and even more plot. The characters lose their personalities and become mouthpieces for spouting off exposition. The flashbacks take on an objective, all-seeing perspective, and the only suspense is artificial, as the past story's straightforward trajectory is interrupted to stop too much from being revealed too soon (Once the solution arrives, the movie belabors it by relating the particulars three times: once in flashback, again by actions in the present, and a final time through a news broadcast).

All the elements of a worthy mystery are here but subsequently ignored. Dark Places has its sights misguidedly set on the pieces of the puzzle instead of the people assembling it.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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