Film Review – Dark Places
Gillian Flynn has had a lot of influence in the book world since her novel Gone Girl was released. And for good reason, it’s a nasty, twisty, fun little thriller. David Fincher – working from Flynn’s script – made a pretty decent movie from the source material, and now everybody and their sister is putting out books with similar themes. Some like You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz are really good, and others like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are mostly fun. (And a lot of them suck, but I guess that’s to be expected.) While the movie world has yet to turn all of these properties into films, they’ve started on Flynn’s back catalogue with her 2009 novel Dark Places. I don’t usually write about books when dealing with film adaptations because I believe movies should be able to stand on their own. I don’t think this one does though, and in order to explain myself I’ll need to refer back to the structure of the book. But first, a synopsis of the film:
Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who also wrote the screenplay) is the story of Libby Day (Charlize Theron) a woman whose claim to fame is her mother and two sisters were murdered thirty years ago by her brother Ben. She’s been living off checks sent to her by well-meaning folks who feel sorry for a little girl who’s lost everything. But she’s not a little girl anymore and the money has run out. She’s got no skills or drive to get any, so when she is offered money by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) to come talk to some friends of his interested in her history, she accepts. Turns out, Lyle is a member of a “Kill Club,” a group of amateur and professional detectives who are interested in a variety of crimes. Some are just historians, but others are interested in solving open cases. They do not believe Libby’s brother (Tye Sheridan) committed the murders, and they look to Libby – the main witness in the case – for answers. She thinks they are full of shit, but they’re willing to pay her, and she could sure use the cash. So she agrees to assist them in their investigation and starts by contacting her brother (played as an adult by Corey Stoll), whom she has not seen since he was incarcerated. The film shifts back and forth from present day to the time right before the murder, with the flashbacks mostly focused on Ben and his mother (Christina Hendricks.)
I liked the book Dark Places okay, but I did not love it; I felt it was over-plotted. By the end of the book, every single teeny tiny thing that had been mentioned fit together like a very elaborate puzzle. Which I guess is the point of that kind of novel, but it felt artificially constructed. It was like watching a really cool magic trick while having someone explain it to you. It’s still really neat, but the magic is gone when you can see how it’s done. I wondered how they were going to translate the intricacies of the plot to the screen, and the answer is not very well. There are just so many threads to the plotline it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. There are story lines in the past and present, and then several different mini-plots in each timeline that are supposed to converge in the end. But it’s just kind of a mess, and there’s no real satisfaction when all is revealed. In Paquet-Brenner’s attempt to stay true to the novel, he’s done the film a disservice. Some things that might have read well on paper just look silly on screen. There’s a good story here to be told, but this isn’t it.
The film has some great actors in it, but the overemphasis on plot doesn’t give them much to work with. Libby is almost a complete blank. She keeps saying what a bad person she is, but we never really see any of it. She’s just kind of dull. Charlize Theron is a pretty great actress, but there’s just nothing for her to do, and Nicholas Hoult is also wasted. Christina Hendricks stands out as Patty Day, as did both actors who played Ben, but they had much meatier characters to explore. Also, the camera work and editing for this film was annoying. I felt like I was watching a cable television police procedural. You know, the kind where they zoom in a lot and focus on objects just a little too long. This isn’t unwatchable; it’s just not any good. What made the Gone Girl movie work was the ability of the filmmakers to cut away anything that wasn’t essential to the central story. They didn’t do that here, and the film suffers for it.