[Review] - Dark Places

Courtesy of Mandalay Pictures
A month or so ago, when I saw the trailer for Dark Places, I was confused. Considering all the gush and hoopla surrounding last year's Gone Girl, I would have assumed that an adaptation of another of Gillian Flynn's three novels would have generated a larger buzz. Or at the least, the producers of the film would want to trade off of Flynn and Gone Girl's notoriety. It's cast was no less impressive then Fincher's film, featuring Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, and Chloë Grace Moretz. So why the small scale push?

Well, upon seeing the film, it becomes very easy to see why the film received a quite release, exactly two years after filming began. Viewing the final product it is very easy to trace the thought process of the production and distribution companies, and how their primary concern would be to limit the financial damage to themselves, but not dumping money into what, once it saw the public eye, would quickly become a sinking boat. It's because Dark Places, under the direction and from a script by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is not a good movie. I haven't read the book, so I don't know how faithful the adaptation is, and whether the failures of the plot or of the characters belong to Flynn originally or Paquet-Brenner, but they are there, and they are dominate.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that know what happen that night but aren't going to tell you.

Dark Places is a movie that thinks it is about characters. It thinks that it is saying something about these characters, and developing them, but it isn't. There is no characterization, and no character development. What it is, is focusing on plot, and attempting to pass that plotting off as characterization. The plot, such as it is, is needle thin and entirely predicated on Carmen Sandiego-style advancement and utterly bizarre leaps of coincidence and happenstance. And the characters alternate between criminally underdeveloped and wholly unlikable. The entire enterprise smacks of a gross misunderstanding of traditional story telling elements. A misunderstanding I'm uncomfortable lobbing at the screen writer because, as I said, I haven't read the book. So, this film is the product of one of two scenarios: 1) the book was guilty of this same underwriting, and the adapter lacked the cognizance to recognize these flaws and correct them, or b) the book wasn't guilty of these literary shortfalls, and the adapter strip-mined the book for elements that he believed were effective and butchered them.

28 years after her mother and sisters were murdered and her brother jailed for the crime, Libby Day is a hollow, hateful, desperate person. She's spent her life living off the charity of others, and it has run out. She does nothing to help herself, nor does she do anything to justify why we should care. Nor does the film offer any explanation or justification as to why she is a bitter shell of a person. From the outset, I assumed it was PTSD or survivors guilt, but by the end of the film there is the suggestion that it was just regular guilt. But that didn't stop her from being a greedy, selfish, incredibly lazy individual. The larger implication of Libby's backstory is that it was the nation's reaction to her that caused her to turn out to be a dredge of society, and that if anonymous benefactors hadn't stagnated her ability to fend for herself, she might have moved beyond her situation and accomplished something with her life. Or maybe she's just mid-western trash. The movie's strongest endorsement of any theme is that people are what they are, and never change.

Libby's desperation for doing as little as possible to maximum profit lead to Hoult and his "Kill Club." Hoult's character is as ill defined as he is magical. I say magical, because nothing in the film suggest he isn't her fairy god father, come to make her life slightly better. I say this because he appears infrequently and with little elaboration. And every time he does, it is to forcibly push Libby towards the next plot point. He's the cinematic equivalent of Toad appearing at the end of each level of Mario, telling Libby that her family's murderer is in another castle. She shows up to the Kill Club, which gets one scene and is relegated to passing mentions, and is inspired by their tenacious belief in her brother's innocence to begin investigating her family's murder. No, I'm joking. I have no idea why she starts investigating her family's murder. Well, I do: the script says she does. That's about as deep as the reasoning gets. And understand, there is no logical or sensible reason why Libby is the one doing the investigating. She, by her own admission (and we know it's true because she's also the narrator), knows nothing about what happened that night. Meanwhile, the Kill Club is made up of private investigators, retired cops, and people genuinely interested in the crime. Libby is none of those things. And, in the course of her investigation, there isn't a single piece of information that she is able to obtain that she uniquely would have been capable of discovering.

Thus begins Libby's walk through memory lane, where she interviews a succession of actors who look nothing like the child actors portraying them in flashbacks, while they recount with perfect and total recall the events of a night 28 years prior, each giving her a letter from the princess suggesting that she'll find out more if she goes to the next castle. All the while this happens, the events of the day of the murder play out in flashbacks, showing the truth behind the information Libby is receiving. these flashback sequences are the most interesting in the film, because the story of Libby's mother's desperation and her brother's teenage stupidity is the most engaging, sympathetic and interesting of the film. Christina Hendricks is the only actor in the cast to put in a half ways decent performance, I expect because she's the only actor in the cast with a hallways decent character to perform. And the saddest thing about all of that is that the flashbacks are cliche and hack-eyed and pedestrian. But at least they make linear sense. Well, to a point.

The ending makes no sense. No damned sense at all. Well, it makes sense in terms of cause and effect. An element, interacting with an element, has effect on both. This is not a film that breeds red-herrings. This is a film that, at the last minute, throws a bear into a dog-fight and claims that it's a valid victory. It is a ridiculous reveal that fails to contain any shock value because it makes so little sense, robs one character of any dignity, and robs the progression of another's story line of any value. The end result is a film about character we never really care about, taking action that they have no business taking part in, and fail to discover anything of substance. There is, probably, an interesting story in here, and it isn't Libby's. It is Hoult's and the Kill Club, who spend the entirety of Dark Places off screen, investigating an entirely different crime to greater result than anything Libby is capable and interested in. Even his meager backstory is more interesting than Libby's decades of self-devaluing.

You may notice that this review is a vague recounting of the plot of the film, and that is a sure a sign in any review that the subject barely contains enough material, good or bad, to constitute a conversation. And that is entirely the case with Dark Places. It is a bland, flat piece of  badly written nonsense. I might have been more forgiving if Paquet-Brenner's direction had been more delusional, or if any of the performances had been noteworthy in either direction. If anyone involved had swung for the fences, there might be something worth discussion here. As it stands, it's a film worth ignoring.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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