Dark Places has everything in place to be a great film. Based on the eponymous novel it is the next film based on the works of Gillian Flynn, who also penned last year’s hit Gone Girl. It is also the second time this year that we see Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult together on screen, the first being the wildly dissimilar Mad Max: Fury Road. Even with this staging for success we were given a well-executed but apathetic film with no fire in its belly.
The film runs in two parallel timelines. Libby Day (Theron) is thirty eight years old and dead broke. She has been living off of donations from concerned strangers after the rest of her family was killed thirty years prior. Her brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), was serving life in prison for killing their mother and sisters brutally one night. While Libby’s finances have derived completely from that incident and her testimony was the deciding factor to send her brother away, she somehow maintains a massive psychological distance from that night. She does not think about it. She does not revisit it. That night is in her past and she actively refuses to look back. That is, until she begrudgingly meets with Lyle Wirth (Hoult). Wirth has both a good amount of disposable income and an interest in Libby’s family history and eventually convinces Libby to spend some time sifting through her own past.
As this story plays out on screen we also pop back to 1985 and the events leading up to the murders. Teenaged Ben (Tye Sheridan) is struggling with his penniless mother and three young sisters. Like any typical teenager he is rebelling against their attempts to keep him from growing up too fast. Ben has a secret life that his family is ignorant of, and the dark nature of his new friends initially leads the audience to assume that his stay in prison is justified.
One very strong element of the way that Dark Places approaches both the past and the present is by looking at a problematic social trend in each timeline. Back in the 1980s much of the nation got swept up in a satanic panic. Parents everywhere were convinced that their metal head teenagers had turned into devil worshipers who sacrificed animals and babies to Satan himself. There was little evidence of actual cases of sacrifices, but with the blanketed news coverage in that day it was the sexiest way to judge teenagers of that era. Dark Places addresses this very real but not often revisited cultural phenomenon.
In our modern-day world the film introduces the preoccupation with violence and death. Libby first meets Wirth because she is going to do a meet-and-greet with his friends who are obsessed with famous murders. This “Kill Club” focuses on vigilante research into long closed cases. Though they appear to be using their fixations for good, it is jarring for Libby to be faced with a group of strangers who are infatuated with her losses. This crime and the loss of her entire family has defined her whole life and here is a group ready to pull up popcorn and listen to her tale as if it were for their entertainment. For a second, their eagerness gave me pause, and made me question my own motives for my interest in violent and bloody films.
Theron is convincing and gives Libby the reservation and subtlety that the role requires. Conveying emotional deadness is quite different than giving an overall flat performance, and Theron rises to the challenge to reflect the nuance necessary. However it is this lack of investment and excitement in Libby, in addition to the temporal distance from the crime that denies the audience any excitement. Even after Libby starts to uncover long buried details of her family’s deaths there is no immediacy to her revelations. She will get paid her money regardless of the outcome of her digging into the past and this ambivalence is evident. There is no thrill of the chase or campaign for justice. She is just trying to get paid, and maintains that the truth is already out there.
The potential for excitement with no audience pay-off makes for an overall underwhelming film. The inevitable conclusion never satisfies because neither Libby nor the film itself have that true hunger for that nice bow at the end of her story.
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Chloë Grace Moretz
Film Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Distributor: A24 Films