No matter how you feel about “Gone Girl,” there’s no denying that Gillian Flynn’s second bigscreen adaptation is a relative disappointment. While the raw ingredients — thick with serial killings, satanic cults, true-crime obsessives and twisted family secrets — certainly make “Dark Places” deserving of its title, the mystery itself can’t hold a candle to the much higher-profile David Fincher pic that sparked the town’s wave of Flynn-terest (though rights were sold as far back as 2010, the greenlight waited till “Girl” went). On the bright side, with Charlize Theron as its damaged-goods heroine, this more routine Kansas-set chiller should still rake in some decent cash for the U.S. distrib duo of A24 and DirecTV, which still haven’t dated the release.
Despite whatever forces have delayed “Dark Places” on the domestic front, where such “gritty” R-rated offerings once earned between $60 million and $120 million starring the likes of Ashley Judd rather than Oscar winners, several international territories are forging ahead with their release plans. First out of the gate is France, the home turf of helmer Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who directed Kristin Scott Thomas in “Sarah’s Key,” and who boarded the new project amid the excitement of another femme-driven split-time-periods puzzler. Genre qualifications nothwithstanding, Paquet-Brenner seems an unusual choice to tackle this uniquely Midwestern story, given the novel’s corn-country brand of paranoia — a regionally specific, God-fearing sensibility found in the country’s more conservative areas, best exemplified by the “Paradise Lost” documentary series.
In her book, Flynn exploits a sense of hysteria similar to that witnessed in the Robin Hood Hills murder case — or “In Cold Blood” before it — imagining a seemingly senseless group murder that decimated the Day family, claiming the lives of Patty Day (Christina Hendricks) and two of her three daughters. Flynn, who wrote for Entertainment Weekly before turning to fiction, is as media-savvy as they come, and “Dark Places” (like “Gone Girl”) shrewdly recognizes the role journalists play in the American justice system.
Though she didn’t exactly see the murders, young Libby Day (Sterling Jerins) is easily manipulated by lawyers and press into testifying against her brooding older brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan), a fringy goth kid who’s gotten mixed up in some weird stuff, like pot smoking and devil worship. In 1985, a town like Kinnakee simply isn’t equipped for such threatening behavior (alarmist news reports remind the sort of hysteria sweeping the nation at the time), and Ben finds himself the target of a modern-day witch hunt that lands him on death row and leaves Libby all but orphaned.
Nearly three decades later, when most of the film takes place, Libby (now played by Theron) has milked her survivor’s tale for nearly all it’s worth, surviving off donations from sympathetic strangers and the ever-dwindling royalties of her ghost-written memoir, “A Brand New Day” (another one of those touches, like the Amazing Amy phenom, that Flynn includes as a cynical dig at the publishing world). Normally, she wants nothing to do with the freaks hung up on the so-called “Kansas Prairie Massacre,” but running low on funds, she agrees to meet Lyle (Nicholas Hoult, channeling Anthony Perkins’ weirdo “Psycho” energy), who invites her to the annual Kill Club meeting, where creeps obsessed with unsolved (or incorrectly solved) mysteries convene to re-enact the crimes.
Just imagine what David Fincher could do with a setup like that. By contrast, Paquet-Brenner plays it surprisingly tame, as the cash-strapped Libby allows herself to be talked into reopening the most traumatic event of her youth in order to consider the possible innocence of her brother, unlocking a full-blown flood of flashbacks, which had only been teased as dreams before — most of them moments she couldn’t possibly have witnessed.
Ben’s boyish innocence has disappeared behind bars (his grown-up counterpart, Corey Stoll, looks nothing like Sheridan), though Libby never once doubted his guilt before. We can be sure that the explanation isn’t as simple as it first appears, and yet the screenplay (which Paquet-Brenner adapted himself, albeit with Flynn’s blessing) introduces its clues without any compelling red herrings to throw us off the trail, making the terribly implausible solution the only real possibility — at least as far as the film’s never-set-foot-in-Kansas logic is concerned (it was even shot in Louisiana).
While “Dark Places” doesn’t seem to understand the essential nature of its own Midwestern setting (whose desolation leads idle teens to act out and hard-pressed farmers to despair), that’s not to say the film lacks in atmosphere. If anything, it manages to pull off the same trick as HBO’s “True Detective,” skewing away from realism and into some alternate, half-imagined realm of terror, where rural bogeymen and white-trash stereotypes are twisted into the stuff of nightmares, augmented with shadowy lensing, a limited color range and eerie mood music.
Fleshing out the pic’s gallery of ghoulish supporting characters, there’s an old classmate-turned-stripper (Drea de Matteo) who paints a vivid picture of child molestation; Ben’s seriously disturbed, manipulative and possibly pregnant girlfriend, Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz); and Libby’s deadbeat dad, Runner (Sean Bridgers), who lives in a toxic waste dump outside town.
Norman Rockwell would have an aneurysm if confronted with small-town folks like these, who would be more at home in the world of David Lynch, though he did audiences the courtesy of presenting a white-picket facade before revealing the true depravity behind it in “Blue Velvet.” In “Dark Places,” cynicism has choked out even the surface illusions: Libby got a crash course in evil at a very young age, and judging by the jaded expression Theron wears throughout the film, there’s no coming back from such disillusionment. That look seems as much a part of Libby’s wardrobe as the tattered trucker hat and worn-out white T-shirt.
As heroines go, it’s refreshing to get one as complex as this: When psychologically scarred female characters do turn up in thrillers, they’re usually little more than shivering victims who set a group of male cops in motion, but here, Libby does her own detective work, while Hendricks lends star power to the flashback scenes. Society assumes that there must have been a single male killer, but the explanation defies such conventional thinking (even if it replaces it with a ludicrous alternative). And when Libby’s investigation eventually leads to its disappointing end, there’s no man waiting on the sidelines to rescue her — all intriguing new flavors in an otherwise bland potboiler.