by Bill Stamets

Dark Places: “our blood” and “a useful life” in true-like crime

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 9, 2015

Dark Places
written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
acted by Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tye Sheridan
distributed by A24 and DirecTV

 

Charlize Theron (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Prometheus,” “Monster”) powers through another role as a damaged combatant. In “Dark Places” she plays Libby Day wrestling with a 28-year legacy of lies. She is dragged into digging up ugly truths about the murders of her mother and two sisters in their Kansas farm house.

Back in 1985 Libby testified that her older brother Ben did it, and he’s been in prison ever since. Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life,” “Joe,” “Mud”) plays Ben as a 16-year-old with Satanic metal band posters in his bedroom, and Corey Stoll (“Ant-Man,” “House of Cards”) plays middle-aged Ben as a prisoner with Shakespeare tattoos on his forearms.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” is adapted from a novel by Chicago author Gillian Flynn, a one-time TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Although I cannot compare novels I have not read, I can say “Dark Places” is almost as good as “Gone Girl.”

“I was eight the night they were killed,” narrates Libby, who was seven in the novel. “And suddenly I was famous. The little orphan girl of the Kansas Prairie Massacre. So strangers sent me money just enough for me to do nothing. Which is exactly what I did.” She neither wrote nor ever read “A Brand New Day,” a book about her trauma that no longer earns her royalties.

The film opens with Kill Club– a Kansas City gathering of true crime buffs– inviting Libby to make a paid appearance. Her contact there is the treasurer. He’s a local laundromat owner played by Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Warm Bodies”). “Lyle Wirth looked like a serial killer, which probably meant he wasn’t one,” narrates Libby.

French writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner retraces themes found in “Sarah’s Key,” his historical mystery melodrama from 2011. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a journalist investigating a 1942 incident during the police round-up of Jews in Paris. Ten-year-old Sarah hides her little brother in a closet. He dies before she can escape a detention camp and unlock the closet. In “Dark Places” a more charged bond between a sister and a brother is uncovered decades after a tragedy.

Redundancy is a drawback in Paquet-Brenner’s screen adaptation. Perhaps Flynn’s prose is to blame. On the trail of her no-count drunk dad, Libby learns from the manager of a men’s shelter: “I’d bet anything he’s living at that toxic waste site, that’s an old dumping spot for grasshopper bait, loaded with arsenic.” Right afterwards, Libby narrates: “I wondered what it said about me, that my own father was living in a toxic waste dump.”

If the narrative is overly framed, the editing of diverse timelines puts each revelation into a sequence without off-the-shelf suspense. Thankfully, there’s no countdown over the three weeks before the Day case evidence is tossed due to budget cuts. But why does Libby need to tell others they have no idea what happened that night in 1985 and then not tell them what did? Her own father uses that line too.

Visually and tonally “Dark Places” is not too dark, but using different film styles for different perspectives on the past is unoriginal, especially for the first-person killer. A costuming faux pas is outfitting Theron with a dark green baseball cap that makes her look like a celeb hiding her fabulous face from the paparazzi. When she takes it off for a closing scene of trite closure, it’s just another overdone touch.

“Dark Places” works in the true crime genre on more than one level. Although the triple homicide, the conviction that was never appealed, a survivor’s book, and a club of crime-solvers are all made up, Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel make compelling use of truly dark news from the 1980’s: foreclosed farms, serial killers, child molester charges, and teen satanists. The Day family deals with “the Day blood,” “our blood,” “my blood”– and how to make “a useful life” out of too many lies and too little money.

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