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10 Aug 2015

A Cinematic Crime: Gillian Flynn's 'Dark Places' Flops as a Movie, Wasting Charlize Theron

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Charlize Theron in Dark Places. Charlize Theron in Dark Places.

For the second time within a year or so, a Gillian Flynn novel has been made into a movie. While David Fincher’s Gone Girl was a masterpiece, Dark Places, based on Flynn’s second novel, is bloody awful.

Even though Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is its star, Dark Places never rises above the level of a Lifetime movie. The storytelling is ham-fisted, and the stars, especially Theron, look absolutely lost. It also boasts shoddy production values that give off the vibe of a subpar episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit—and that’s a show I hate this much. (I have stopped typing, and I’m stretching out my arms, palms parallel, as far as possible.)

As with Gone Girl, Flynn’s story is inspired by real news events. Gone Girl was an obvious nod to wife-murderer Scott Peterson, while Dark Places draws its inspiration from ’80s and ’90s cases involving alleged Satan worshippers (including Ricky Kasso, as well as the Robin Hood Hills murders). Fincher took Gone Girl (with a screenplay penned by Flynn herself) and went for something darkly satirical and outrageous; meanwhile, director and screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner plays Dark Places straight, with a far-inferior script.

Theron is Libby Day, a bitter woman who witnessed the murder of her mother and sisters when she was a child in 1985. Her brother, Ben (played by Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life in 1985, and Corey Stoll of Ant-Man in the present), is sitting in prison for life, based on her testimony. It was suspected the murders were fueled by Ben’s love for all things Satan.

Libby has been living off the spoils of unwanted celebrity, having received money over the years from sympathetic check-senders. The book she wrote, however, did not sell all that well, and the checks are drying up, so she’s a bit desperate. She gets a weird letter from Lyle (Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Nicholas Hoult), offering her a few hundred bucks to appear at a weird meeting for some sort of “murder club.”

The “murder club” is a sort of miniature macabre comic-con at which people dress up as murderers (yes, the John Wayne Gacy clown is in attendance), and people involved in infamous cases make appearances. Libby thinks she’s just a guest of honor, but soon discovers the murder club also looks to solve murders—and they believe her brother is innocent: They think Libby lied in her testimony. After being initially pissed off at this accusation, she joins forces with the club to solve her family’s murders.

The film becomes two stories in two different times, with Libby and the murder club investigating the killings in the present, and the actual build-up to the murders in the past. The 1985 cast includes Sheridan; Chloë Grace Moretz as Ben’s Satan-worshipping, cow-slaughtering girlfriend; Christina Hendricks as Libby’s noble mother; and Sterling Jerins as young Libby.

Paquet-Brenner doesn’t navigate between the two periods well, as his film features sloppy editing to go with some bad acting. While Hendricks delivers a decent-enough performance, the normally reliable Moretz goes overboard in her bid to be bad. Sean Bridgers plays Libby’s dad in both periods, and is trying to do his best Charles Manson impersonation. A scene Theron shares with Bridgers—whose character is coughing from progressive arsenic poisoning—is unintentionally hilarious.

As for Theron, she often looks confused and frustrated, as if she regrets taking the role. It’s very difficult to make Theron hard to watch, yet that’s what happens here.

Flynn didn’t have a hand in the screenplay; perhaps that’s one of the reasons Dark Places is so flat and putrid. Or perhaps Flynn only has one great story suitable for the movies in her—because this one is an undercooked dud.

Dark Places is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430). It’s also available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

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