The moment Gone Girl went from a much buzzed about beach read to an even more buzzed about motion picture, Gillian Flynn’s stock rose exponentially in Hollywood. So naturally, the rights were snatched up to all three of her debut novels, and with Gone Girl’s success, you’d think marketing a project based on her work would be easy as pie. Unfortunately, Dark Places doesn’t have the marketing muscle that its high-profile sibling had to its name. This is a damned shame, as Dark Places is, surprisingly, a more thrilling mystery tale than Gone Girl before it.
Thirty years ago, Libby Day (Charlize Theron) barely escaped the brutal killing of her mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters. Everyone, even Libby herself, labeled the culprit as her brother, Ben (Corey Stoll); but a group of crime-solving hobbyists think otherwise. Drawn in by the lure of the truth, as well as the money she so desperately needs, Libby is drawn back to those dark places she’s suppressed for so long. With time running out before her brother’s case goes cold, she’ll have to dive into her family’s uncomfortable past to find the answers she seeks.
How Dark Places got buried in VOD and sporadic theatrical release, I’ll never know. What I do know is that writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name is a film that could have made a splash with a wider release in the August doldrums. The central mystery behind Dark Places’ conflict jumps between 1985 and today, giving us just enough information from the past before bringing us back to the present each time it flashes back. All the while, Paquet-Brenner’s film tells an engrossing story that draws the viewer in to an extent that they only realize after the film is finished that they basically watched an extended episode of any detective procedural.
What separates Dark Places from a run-of-the-mill procedural is the fact that its investigator is also one of its most affected victims, which gives Charlize Theron a lot of room to create a character we can pity but also despise. Libby starts off investigating her family’s past strictly for the money, coming off of a decades-long streak of trading on the tragedy that befell her as a child. Yet as she dives deeper into the mystery of her family, we see Theron’s character softening with each puzzle piece she snaps into place. By time the film ends, she’s as scared as we are that she won’t make it out alive, and it makes for a harrowing final act.
Supporting Charlize Theron is a colorful cast of characters that show just how Libby Day came to be so damaged by life, the most important one being her brother, Ben. While we don’t get to see too much of Corey Stoll in the role, as the film shows us more of the younger incarnation (played by Tye Sheridan), both actors inhabit the role in a way that makes their limited time on screen worth watching. While the ensemble surrounding Theron’s protagonist is equally as important to the film’s success as she is, there’s no mistake that this is Theron’s show.
The only real drawback to the way Dark Places tells its story is that it seeds the eventual resolution to the mystery in a way that you’ve pretty much figured it out before the third act reveal. There are a couple of elements you might still be puzzling out as it all plays out on the screen, but it’s almost assured that you’ll figure out two thirds of the mystery’s solution. Still, the film is populated with a story so tense that you’ll find yourself getting wrapped up in the moment more than the big picture. Lots of mystery pictures tend to wrap themselves up in the actual mystery itself, without paying much mind the characters that are puzzling them out. Dark Places almost inverts that formula, but to an extent that it still works as a stellar example of what a film full of sleuthing can do.
With an engrossing story, and characters worth spending time getting to know better, Dark Places should have been A24’s sleeper summer hit. Instead, it’s a film that will probably be seen by fewer people than those choosing to see Fantastic Four. That doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake. If you’re looking for something to help you ease your way out of summer tentpole season and into the more prestige heavy slate of the fall box office, then you should seek out Dark Places any way you can.
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