The kindest thing to say about Dark Places, the second Gillian Flynn novel adapted for the big screen, is that it’s no Gone Girl. And, while we’re at it, director-screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner is no David Fincher, either. It’s a wobbly, ridiculous, and far-fetched thriller made with zero sense of humor or the saving grace of irony and starring Charlize Theron as a closed-off, belligerent survivor of a violent childhood tragedy about which we’re asked to care deeply without being given much reason to.
Theron plays it glum and surly as Libby Day, who, back in the mid-‘80s era of satanic cult murders, lost her mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters in a horrifying rage-murder apparently committed by her goth, fringe-y older brother (Tye Sheridan). Exploited by the rabid media as the only survivor of the “Kansas Prairie Massacre,” Libby is still milking her notoriety decades later. But royalties for her ghostwriter-penned book expose (titled, with a nice satiric edge, “A Brand New Day”) are dwindling and even the bleeding hearts and death porn groupies have stopped sending her envelopes stuffed with cash; they’ve moved on to newer, shinier atrocities.
Libby gets invited to speak to a group of true crime junkies who get their jollies reenacting and examining grisly scenes, led by a twitchy, fluttery Nicholas Hoult (with whom Theron co-starred in Mad Max: Fury Road). Strictly for the cash, she allows herself to be barraged by the group members’ probing questions about her night of horror, why she survived, and whether she deliberately lied about her brother’s guilt. This leads her (for motivations the movie never bothers to clarify) to track down her imprisoned brother (played by Corey Stoll) and to take another long, hard look at the crime and herself.
Despite plenty of ripe, sardonic and scarifying material from Flynn’s original novel, Dark Places is so indifferently shot and directed that when it leads us down all rabbit holes and blind alleys of subplots, cheesy flashbacks, fake-outs, and final revelations, we’ve tuned-out. Glammed-down and with a trucker cap pulled low on her forehead, Theron plays ornery and bruised well. Hoult is fun to watch doing “odd” and “spooky,” Drea de Matteo is sad and strong as an exotic dancer with recollections of the past, and Chloe Grace Moretz shows up as a twisted, druggy perv, a girlfriend of the heroine’s brother, who gets her kicks stabbing and mutilating livestock. The movie doesn’t earn the darkness, nor the satiric jabs Flynn’s novel sets up for it. It’s just too bland to pack a wallop.