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Dark Places
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not "Gone" But Soon To Be Forgotten"
2 stars

With its collection of characters behaving in utterly inexplicable ways and a number of wildly implausible plot developments culminating in an explanation so ludicrously unlikely that it almost seems like a parody of standard genre trappings, "Dark Places" is perhaps the looniest thriller from a narrative perspective to hit screens since "Gone Girl." This makes some degree of sense, I suppose, since both films are based on books by best-selling author Gillian Flynn. The difference is that with "Gone Girl," one was able to overlook (at least temporarily) the numerous plot contrivances because of Flynn's skills as an adapter of her own work and David Fincher's consummate talents as a filmmaker. "Dark Places," on the other hand, does not have anyone of their caliber in the driver's seat--the film was written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, best known for the fairly ludicrous drama "Sarah's Key"--and as a result, the ridiculous twists and turns end up taking front and center, culminating in one of the least believable finales that I can easily recall and not even the efforts of the usually reliable Charlize Theron can help sell the increasingly goofball bag of goods being offered up here.

The film is centered around a 30-year-old crime that came to be known as the "Kansas Prairie Massacre," an inexplicable mass murder that left single mother Patty Day (Christina Hendricks) and two of her young daughters dead and her youngest daughter, Libby, pointing the blame at older brother Ben (Tye Sheridan), a odd kid who has recently gotten into pot smoking and Satanic worship, mostly to impress secret girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz). Libby didn't exactly see Ben killing her mother or sisters but thanks to her somewhat manipulated testimony, the legal trouble Ben was already in at the time (he was suspected of molesting a junior high-school girl at the school he was volunteering at) and no workable alternative theory to speak of, the prosecutors paint Ben as a Satanic weirdo and he is sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Libby, on the other hand, becomes a media sensation who winds up receiving a small fortune thanks to donations from strangers sympathetic to her plight and sales of "A Brand New Day," a "memoir" that she did not even read, let alone write.

Three decades later, the donations and book sales have all but dried up and Libby (Theron), who has never done anything with her life in that time, is down to her last few hundred dollars and in dire straits when she is contacted by Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), a guy who runs what he calls a "Kill Club"--a group of similar-minded oddballs who get together to obsess over grisly unsolved murders and try to come up with new evidence to help bring them to a more satisfactory close. Believing Ben (now played by Corey Stoll) to have been innocent of the murders and only convicted because of Libby's shaky testimony and the usual small-town prejudice against anyone different from the norm, the group asks for Libby's help in gathering new evidence by picking her brain and helping them look at new leads.

For reasons that barely pass the minimum levels of scrutiny required to sell the material, Libby agrees--for a fee, of course--and sets out to revisit the greatest trauma of her entire life. This journey involves visits with the brother she hasn't seen in nearly 30 years and who has inexplicably never filed an appeal during his entire incarceration, the girl that Ben was accused of molesting (Drea de Matteo), now a cynical stripper, and her monstrous father (Sean Bridgers), an abusive, drunken lout, then and now, who now resides--I kid you not--in a toxic waste dump. Through their stories and her own gradually expanding memories of what happened, Libby begins to get a clearer picture of what was happening at the time--the pressure her mother was under regarding the accusations against Ben and the imminent foreclosure of her home, Ben's problems with the law regarding the girl and, perhaps most important, the role that the mysterious Diondra played in the proceedings and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance at roughly the same time as the murders--and is forced to come to terms with the possibility that because of her, her only living sibling may have been rotting in prison despite being innocent. However, if he didn't kill her family, who did?

I will give "Dark Places" some credit in the sense that I certainly did not predict anything like the final solution that it has to offer and unless you read the book prior to watching it, neither will you. Suffice it to say, it is a patently ridiculous explanation that not requires something like four or five wildly unlikely and unconnected events to occur, it demands that they all happen at almost exactly the same time for any of it to make even the slightest bit of sense. Now I don't necessarily have a problem with thrillers with wildly improbable final acts as long as they are put together with enough style and wit so that the logic-based questions do not begin to ring in the mind until after the end credits. (Brian De Palma's "Raising Cain," for example, has one of the craziest denouements imaginable but it is put together so beautifully that you are too caught up in the moment to care that it doesn't make a lick of sense.) However, "Dark Places" stages its climax in such a pokey and mopey fashion that all we can do is count all the lapses in logic as they begin to stack up likes planes circling a snowed-in airport--instead of exploiting the pulpy nature for all that it is worth, Paquet-Brenner takes the material way too seriously for its own good and the sequence somehow manages to be both lurid and boring at the same time.

An even bigger problem with "Dark Places" is that the flaws inherent in the climax--the nonsensical narrative that finds people doing idiotic things for no logical reason and at a pace that would require a rocket booster to speed up to the level of plodding--are just as prevalent throughout the rest of the film. Simply put, there is not a single thing regarding the story that I was able to believe for even a second. I did not believe that Ben could have been convicted on such flimsy evidence and I did not believe his reasons for not once protesting his possible innocence in the ensuing years. I did not believe that Libby would have failed to do anything with her life up to the point that the story begins (it seems that she has never so much as held a job before in her life) or that she would join forces with the Kill Club and either revisit the event that destroyed her or discover that she helped imprison her innocent brother. I did not believe in the Kill Club or the vast resources that they are able to count on whenever the story requires it. I did not believe the romance between Ben and Diondra and how it led to them slaughtering cattle in a drug-fueled haze to show their alleged allegiance to Satan. No, I did not believe any of it and as I watched the film, I got the distinct suspicion that Paquet-Brenner didn't buy any of it either but assumed that if he recounted the story at a slow enough pace and with a dark enough visual style (even Clint Eastwood might have employed more lighting that has been deployed here), some viewers might be convinced that it was far moodier and more profound about the bleakness of the human condition than the story itself ever manages to be.

The actors also fail in their attempts to sell the material as well, though they do come a little closer to pulling that off despite the the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of logic posed by the script. Theron, for example, does her damnedest to make something plausible out of the character of Libby but is hampered by the fact that a.) she is stuck playing a passive character who spends most of the film listening to others tell her about stuff that happened decades ago (when she isn't having flashbacks to things she could not have possibly seen, of course) and b.) seeing her playing another glum and deglammed type simply doesn't have the impact that it did in films like "Monster," "North Country," "The Burning Plain," "The Road," "Young Adult" and, of course, "Mad Max: Fury Road." Chloe Grace Moretz is another wonderful actress, of course, but not even she is able to make much sense out of the character that she is playing. As the various iterations of Ben, Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll are okay but their individual contributions are hamstrung by the fact that it is impossible to believe them for a second as the younger and older versions of the same character. In smaller roles, Drea De Matteo and Christina Hendricks are much more successful at cutting through the craziness of the story to present recognizably human characterizations but they simply are not on the screen long enough to make that much of an impact.

"Dark Places" is boring and implausible junk from start to finish and if it weren't for the combined star power of Theron and Flynn's names, there is virtually no chance that this would have ever gotten any other distribution outside of maybe cable television--as it is, even with their names, it is still only appearing in a handful of theaters while also playing as a VOD title. Even Gillian Flynn's most devoted fans will probably be hard-pressed to find much of anything to hold onto here as this appears to be one of those adaptations that knows the words but not the music. In the right hands, "Dark Places" might have been a perfectly acceptable B-movie thriller but instead, it has been turned into an unpleasant drag whose greatest artistic accomplishment is the way that it helps underscore just how good the film of "Gone Girl" really was after all.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29227&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/07/15 06:36:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  07-Aug-2015 (R)
  DVD: 06-Oct-2015

UK
  N/A (15)

Australia
  07-Aug-2015




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