The charge for any movie based upon a popular novel is two-fold. First, they must remain faithful to the source material. You can’t have a writer bandying critical alterations in plot or character, lest they invite the chagrin of a million swarming fanboys, ready with pitchforks and sub-reddit comments. Secondly, they must inject some modicum of vision into the material. To transform a novel into a film without tact or some place of purpose is to present an audience with a run-down of in-book events without much-needed personality or intent. Think James Franco adapting Faulkner or Angelina Jolie taking on “Unbroken”. They failed because they were “adaptations” and nothing more; they changed the medium, but lost the soul.
In Dark Places, writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gotten the first part right (kind of) but totally bungled the second, resulting in a boring, soulless, paint-by-numbers mystery that never clicks or finds its footing.
Though filming wrapped nearly two years ago – it began filming a month before other Gillian Flynn adaptation Gone Girl – Dark Places has been cordoned off to, welp, dark places. And for good reason. It just isn’t any good. Thankfully (for the filmmakers, not for us audience members) Dark Places has emerged into the light of day in large part due to the success of Gone Girl. Through Gone Girl’s massive critical and commercial success, Dark Places had an in. Right up to the point that it ousts itself as cinematic smut.
That’s not to discount the film’s impressive cast. The combined power of Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz and Corey Stoll wrapped up in a murder mystery from Gillian Flynn is irresistible on paper. And though none of the performers are truly bad in the film, their effort is undercut by Paquet-Brenner’s inability to properly manufacture a scene.
Hendricks in particular, as the down-on-her-luck and eventually murdered mother to the film’s protagonists, reaches for something new and almost bold. She’s even chopped her hair, washed out the distinctive red, foregone the makeup and cowered and cried for the camera. Even still, Paquet-Brenner does not know how to exploit the aspects of said performance that make it pop. It’s just left to sit there, unassisted and alone.
Chloë Grace Moretz, surprisingly, is the one performer made to look best. Scenes of her struggling and squirming in the throes of a meth hangover are the only ones that feel the least bit real. Should we consider it ironic then that Rosamund Pyke posed fierce award competition while this film struggled to get out of the the way of its performances? Paquet-Brenner vs. David Fincher is a showdown that’d be an embarrassment to witness. It’s David vs. Goliath without the slingshot; Jonah and the Whale sans God. A good filmmaker versus a guy who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
A big issue for me, having read the book, is that the film pales in comparison. Sure the source material is unabashedly airport fiction but there’s a pulse to it that escapes the film at every turn. Paquet-Brenner hits the high notes with a squeaky toy and lets the rest crumble into ennui. For those who’ve not sullied their experience of Dark Places with this cold, clueless adaptation, read the book.
Flynn’s novel (and Paquet-Brenner’s film) tells the story of Libby Day, played aptly here by Charlize Theron. (Not to nitpick but the book’s Libby barely stands five feet where Theron towers at 5’10”. At least Paquet-Brenner had the decency to leave all the “little girl” stuff out of his script.) Nowadays, Libby is a barnacle on society, living off an estate culled from sympathetic benefactors who’ve donated to her “my family was murdered” fund. Having fingered brother Ben (Corey Stoll in present day, Tye Sheridan in 1985) for the murder of her entire nuclear unit, Libby lives in a prison of her own making. A prison of distrust and, like, being angry and stuff. It’s edgy, alright mom!?!
When she’s approached by the treasurer of The Kill Club (a group of amateur murder investigators with piss-poor club-name-picking skills), Libby is forced to contend with the idea that maybe her brother didn’t gun down her family like she said he did after all. Whoops!
Thoughtless inconsistencies riddle the script (also from Paquet-Brenner) who fails to match up the images he’s presenting on screen with the ham-strung dialogue he’s forced his able cast into saying. Take for instance our introduction to Lyle Worth. Upon meeting him, Libby narrates that he looks like a serial killer. In reality, he’s Nicholas Hoult, looking as gentle and unassuming as Nicholas Hoult always looks (well, when he’s not playing a War Boy).
Such blind inattention to detail is bad writing and even worse directing. If you aren’t going to get someone who looks like a serial killer and you aren’t going to dirty up the immaculate Hoult with a scrubby wig or a bunch of face tats, just jettison the line from the script. When we’re forced to behold inconsistencies this glaring and lazy, suspension of disbelief goes out with the bath water.
Take also the existence of a certain character, Crystal, born directly after the events of the alleged slayings of 1985. It’s been 28 years and yet the girl couldn’t be a day over 17. I don’t know if we can blame the casting department on this glaring omission of logic as any director with half a brain and an elementary-level math education should have been able to piece together the fact that those numbers just don’t add up. In all places, dark or not, neither does the movie.
CONCLUSION: A hodgepodge of movie-like parts that fail to ever click, Dark Places is a monumental ball-drop on the part of writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner.