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Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn’s novel “Dark Places” takes its titular theme to the hilt, in a film that is as its title suggests unrelentingly dreary. Not that it has much of a choice given the subject matter. A gothic Americana mystery, “Dark Places” spans two timelines as it unravels the truth behind one horrific crime. In the present, Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is a traumatized adult shuffling aimlessly through life. Nearly 30 years since her mother and sisters were murdered and her brother was convicted as their killer, the leader of a sort of underground crime “fan club" approaches her. At first they make a deal to pick her brain about what happened and then they drop a bombshell. They believe her brother is innocent and they want her help to prove it. From here the movie registers as a whodunit, unwinding all of the lurid details that led up to the awful conclusion with the promise of uncovering the real perpetrator.

Right off the bat, it’s clear that “Dark Places” suffers from the same ailment that afflicted “Gone Girl”; the lead female protagonist is neither sympathetic nor compelling. Libby is a self-involved and damaged individual who’s spent her entire adult life profiting from her family’s heinous demise. She’s also readily gone along with the idea of her brother’s guilt and in all of the time since he was convicted, she has not questioned it or wanted to believe otherwise. As the flashbacks begin to shed light on the prelude to the unthinkable, her behavior in the present becomes more and more disconcerting. In the 80's, her older brother Ben (Tye Sheridan) appears to be a good kid who’s kind to his family. There’s no indication as to why adult Libby is so certain of his guilt. Her confidence makes her increasingly irritating to tolerate. If the inference is that she was brainwashed by a zealous prosecution, it more than misses the mark. She comes across too jaded to accept the word of any authority figure, so the idea that she would go along with whatever a person in power would implore her to say is hard to believe.
Where the present day falls apart with a lead character too detestable to root for, “Dark Places” finds its footing in the past. Fastidiously wading through the time before all hell broke loose; Paquet-Brenner brings the Day household into bold and tragic focus. The family’s matriarch is Patty - a single mom with the entire world on her shoulders, dealing with volatile assaults from all angles. Financial calamity brought on by the 80's farming crisis, a deadbeat ex-husband, a precocious son slipping further under the influence of kids she does not know and a town gossip mill she cannot combat, has her proverbial lifeboat taking in more water than she could possibly bail. Patty’s struggle is heartbreaking and agonizing to watch unfold. She's fighting with everything she can to hold on for her kids and the world will not let up on her. Adding to the tragic underpinnings is the present day storyline that shows her grown daughter reflecting upon her beleaguered mom with zero empathy or affection. See to Libby, there is and has been no greater victim in the universe than herself.
To his credit, Paquet-Brenner brings the 80's to life in a way that is authentic and very much akin to how watching an old episode of “Dateline” or “20/20” can be. It looks the part and uncomfortably feels it too. The music is loud, the kids are angry and life is teeming with angst and economic uncertainty. The world is looking on with fevered concern, as its youth spirals down uncharted territory. 
True crime aficionados will have no trouble picking up on the various ripped from the headline crimes that are interwoven throughout “Dark Places”. As a commentary on those real life events, it offers a viewpoint but not one loud enough to necessarily decipher. People’s paranoia of the unknown and rush to judgment of outsiders serves as the common thread for requisite critique, which is nothing groundbreaking though enduring in its relevance.

Casting turns out to be the movie’s most pivotal upswing and simultaneous downfall. Charlize Theron delivers a sturdy supporting performance, despite feeling entirely miscast as the big mouthed Libby. With Theron’s imposing physique it’s hard to accept Libby’s pathetic squawking as her only defense when she is physically threatened, as it’s obvious she could more than handle herself if given the chance. The casting for young Libby is similarly off the mark as she and Theron share no physical resemblance. Because of this and the strong likeness between the young actresses playing the Day sisters, it is next to impossible to keep track of which girl is supposed to be Libby in the 80's storyline.
On the other hand, Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll are well matched counterparts for their character’s younger and older selves. Sheridan once again proves why he’s one of Hollywood's current crop of young actors worth keeping an eye on in the coming years. Still waters run deep and as he did in “Mud” and “Joe”, Sheridan offers up a brilliant characterization of a troubled kid with loads of heart, you can’t help hoping will turn his life around. His performance as Ben is understated, genuine and real and his avoidance of big flowery emotion pays off exponentially. As reliable as Sheridan has become, the most unexpectedly remarkable performances come from actresses Christina Hendricks and Chloe Grace-Moretz. Hendricks is nothing short of amazing as the worn out Patty. She portrays her helplessness and sorrow with a gravitas that is indelibly haunting. 
While Grace-Moretz gives her best performance to date as Ben’s wicked girlfriend Diondra. Grace-Moretz manages to walk the fine line between bratty kid and beyond her years Lolita with a refinement that indicates major performance strides. She’s never embodied a character to better effect. There are no echoes of Hit-Girl or any of the other tough-girl teens she’s played before in “Hick”, “Dark Shadows", “Laggies” etc. There’s something more adult, assured and mature about her performance as Diondra that hints at even better things to come from her as an actress. 
The performances of its cast, grounds “Dark Places” as more of a character study than a thriller. The storyline is grim, disturbing, heavy and about as far away from a popcorn thriller as you can get. Writer/director Paquet-Brenner brings an unflinching glimpse to the material, packing it with the distractive assets of its cast to buoy a downer of a story. The daunting scope of the tragedy that comprises the denouement makes for an ending that is impossible to forget. Due to this, “Dark Places” is a one-time watch kind of movie because it stays with you long after the credits roll. Rating: 7.2/10
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