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Dark Places
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by Jay Seaver

"Theron & Hendricks are anything but cold cases."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm mildly curious how big a part a secondary character had in the original book; after an amusing introduction (and fairly high billing), he gets streamlined right in the background. It's the right choice - this is a story about people involved in a crime rather than those investigating it, and while that material can be a bit uneven, but when it hits, the results are fairly impressive.

Thirty years ago, Libby Day's mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and her older sisters Michelle (Natalie Precht) and Debby (Madison McGuire) were killed in one night, with Libby (Sterling Jerins) barely escaping. Her brother Ben (Tye Sheridan) was convicted in large part based on eight-year-old Libby's testimony, and an outpouring of support from across the country gave her a trust fund to live on. Now it's about to run out, and Libby (Charlize Theron), who has never held a job, is approached by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) with a chance to earn some money. He's part of a local "Kill Club", which among other things investigates old cases where there has been a miscarriage of justice, and Ben's has a lot of holes even considering how unreliable kids' eyewitness testimony is now considered to be. Time is of the essence, though - as part of budget cuts and consolidation, the records of closed cases that old will be destroyed in three weeks' time, so Libby will have to take an active role in the investigation, despite never having learned much about that part of her life or having any contact with her brother (Corey Stoll).

Libby's ignorance makes an interesting, if sometimes confusing, way to pick up the case. She's the film's narrator, but the film will often flash back to the weeks and days before the murders with details that Libby has not learned in the main timeline. The story has to be told that way - the audience doesn't need that information well before Libby discovers it, though it's better than spending a lot of time in the past toward the end of the movie - but it does create a bit of a disconnect between sleuth and viewer at points. It's a bit surprising that Lyle and the rest of his team sort of fade to the background; one would think they'd be kind of useful in terms of doing legwork or maybe being with her in situations that may turn threatening. There's also something mentioned early on that quickly seems too relevant to not be connected that viewers will be waiting for that to happen.

As much as Dark Places may not be a great fair-play mystery, each half of the film has an impressive leading lady with interesting things going on around them. In 1985, that's Christina Hendricks as Patty, a model of perseverance whom the audience will quickly come to admire even if she herself can only see her own failures, both in terms of the farm that the family is about to lose and what the accusations being leveled against Ben say about her as a mother. It's a performance whose entirety is hinted at in the film's first distorted screen, but whose details are perfect. It would be nice if Tye Sheridan matched it; young Ben needs to have a little more anger to him, but Sheridan mostly just gets the opportunity to show how nice Ben is under his black-dyed hair. It's no wonder Chloe Grace Moretz often makes a much stronger impression as his far less friendly girlfriend.

In the present, the film's got Charlize Theron, and she is just as good. There's a hard shell on Libby, from her initially hostile narration that bleeds into the story as she snaps at everybody around her to how she really does not like being touched, and it gives her showy things to do even as the character is trying to avoid dealing with people at all. It's a nice job of growing into a capable adult, though; the way she snaps early on hints at her being able to see through crap when she feels like it, so that her spending the latter part of the film figuring stuff out doesn't seem out of character or capability for her. The way the movie's built doesn't let her play against Nicholas Hoult much, despite there being great mismatched sleuth potential with his laid-back Lyle, who may be smitten with her, and as much for her having a mystery attached as her beauty. She does have nice scenes with Corey Stoll as a much-softened Ben, and the folks who pop up as adult versions of some of the characters from the past - notably Andrea Roth and Drea de Matteo - do good work in smaller parts.

Though Gilles Paquet-Brenner's script has rough bits, he does good work as a director. For the most part, he seems content to tell a crime story without a whole lot of embellishment or suggestion that things are subjective; aside from being clear, he uses Libby's narration sparingly, probably when a line from the book was too good to drop and it's worth risking the film feeling like a detective audiobook for a while. There's a flourish or two throughout the movie, but his hand becomes clearest when it's time for something terrible to happen; as much as Paquet-Brenner wants there to be some suspense as to whether Libby can get out of a situation, he makes sure that violence is awful and something the audience wants no part of. We can see why it scarred Libby in the past and is challenging in the present, along with how there must be something fundamentally wrong with those who see killing as an option.

That alone, really, puts it a notch above a lot of detective stories that are fixated on the solution to a mystery. Maybe that's why Paquet-Brenner occasionally has trouble with the parts of the story that are paperback-mystery material, but he and the film more than make up for it when Theron or Hendricks is on screen.

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originally posted: 08/01/15 02:40:24
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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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  07-Aug-2015 (R)
  DVD: 06-Oct-2015

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