For the second time in a year, a Gillian Flynn novel has been made into a movie. While David Fincher's (Gone Girl) was some kind of masterpiece, Dark Places, based on Flynn's second novel, is bloody awful.
Despite having Oscar winner Charlize Theron as its star, Dark Places never rises above Lifetime movie levels. It's ham-fisted storytelling where its stars, especially Theron, look absolutely lost in their scenes. It also boasts shoddy production values that give off the vibe of a subpar episode of Law & Order: Special Crimes 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 for you).
Like Gone Girl, Flynn's story is based upon real news events while not utilizing real people as characters. Gone Girl was an obvious nod to wife murderer Scott Peterson, while Dark Places draws its inspiration from 1980s and '90s cases involving alleged Satan worshippers (Ricky Kasso, Robin Hood Hills murders). While Fincher took Gone Girl (with a screenplay penned by Flynn herself) and went for something darkly satirical and outrageous, 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. In addition to her sister's damning words, Ben was jailed after it was suspected the murders were fueled by his love for Satan and all things Satan.
Libby has been living off the spoils of unwanted celebrity, having received money over the years from sympathetic check senders. Her book, 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 costar Nicholas Hoult), offering her a few hundred bucks to appear at a weird meeting for some sort of "murder club."
A "murder club," as defined in the film, is a sort of mini macabre Comic-Con where 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 that the murder club also looks to solve murders, and they believe her brother is innocent. They also believe 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 different times, with Libby and the murder club reinvestigating the killings in the present, and the actual build up to the murders in the past. The 1985 cast includes Sheridan, Chloe 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 the two periods well, as his film features some 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, 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 what she has signed up for. You have to be a pretty poorly constructed movie to make Theron hard to watch, and that's what this is.
Flynn didn't have a hand in the screenplay, and perhaps that's one of the reasons Dark Places is so flat and putrid. Or, maybe, Flynn only has one great story suitable for the movies in her, because this one is an undercooked dud.