Weaving the Satanic Panic of the 1980s into a modern day mystery seems like an interesting concept.
In 1985 an entire family was brutally murdered save one eight year old girl. The family’s only son went to jail after all but confessing to the heinous crime. Almost thirty years later, the young girl has grown into a women who cannot function in society and reluctantly begins to investigate the horrific event. Weaving the Satanic Panic of the 1980s into a modern day mystery seems like an interesting concept. Based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, 2015’s Dark Places is an uninspired narrative that never lives up to its intriguing premise.
The main issue with Dark Places is its lack of tension. In a film that deals with Satanism, a grisly murder of a single mother and her daughters, drugs, and abuse it would seem the movie’s tone would be oppressive. Despite the dark subject matter, director Giles Paquet-Brenner’s effort never has a sense of immediacy. Told through flashbacks and present day scenes, Dark Places is a series of events that are happening in a setting where few people seem to care.
One reason the movie lacks suspense is its characters. Lyle Wirth is part of the poorly named Killer Club, a group interested in true crime. He is obsessed with the murders and what he feels is the wrongful imprisonment of Ben Day (Corey Stoll). He is vague when confronted by Libby Day (Charlize Theron) about his odd fascination and when he finally tells her his reason, it is ridiculous and seems untrue. Since Libby laughs it off and it is never mentioned again, the audience can only assume his nonsensical answer is the truth. What makes matters worse is Lyle is essentially the catalyst for the movie.Along with Lyle, there is an abusive father, a character that suddenly and frustratingly becomes very important and, since the film takes place in Middle America, rich neighbors who dislike the farmers who live in the same town. It is impossible to get behind any character since none have any depth to them.
Dark Places is also held back by its writing. The movie has a lot to say, and at times does a great job of saying them. Most poignantly, it deals with memories-specifically what we remember versus how we remember things versus what actually happened. This theme is constantly brought up and the potential story can be fascinating. Adding to that is the movie is being told through Libby’s flashbacks, causing the audience to question the reliability of what is being shown.
Regrettably, this idea of using the flashbacks to deepen the mystery is quickly abandoned. While the flashbacks are initially through Libby’s perspective the movie goes in a different direction. Dark Places instead tells the uninteresting story of the days leading up to the massacre. This undermines the mystery as the movie once again becomes just a story that is being told with no excitement.The poor storytelling also diminish strong performances from Theron, Stoll, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Theron does a great job of playing the emotionally scarred Libby, constantly giving short answers and not even allowing people near her. Stoll is exceptional at playing the supposed murderer who seems to know more than he is letting on, and Moretz is appropriately over the top in a role that demands it.
Dark Places is a great idea that will immediately draw interest. Strong performances from most of the cast only add to what should be a good movie. Unfortunately, a poor story, silly conclusion, and lack of interesting characters will disappoint even the staunchest Gillian Flynn fan.