“Dark Places” opens Friday at Star Cinema. R, 1;54, two stars out of four.
A man sits in prison. He may not have committed the crime he’s convicted of. So why doesn’t he fight? Is he afraid? Is he protecting someone?
Or, as in the case of “Dark Places,” is the real solution to the mystery so silly and convoluted that he’s embarrassed to even say it out loud in a courtroom.
Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn, famous for “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” starts off in a promising place and devolves quickly from there. Writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Sarah’s Key”) completely loses the emotional thread of the story in a tangle of red herrings, false scares and wasted performances.
Charlize Theron plays Libby Day, a woman who survived the massacre of her family in their Kansas farmhouse when she was eight. She testified against her brother Ben (Tye Sheridan in flashbacks, Corey Stoll as an adult), and moves through life armored by grief. Theron is predictably good in the early scenes as a brooding, broken woman haunted as much by her own guilt in profiting off tragedy (she ghost-wrote a best-selling book about the case) as by the murders themselves.
Libby is contacted by Nicholas Hoult (her “Mad Max: Fury Road” co-star), the leader of a so-called “Kill Club,” which is like a book club for investigating famous murders. They believe Ben is innocent of the crime he was convicted of, and basically want to pay Libby to pick her brain. The way they appropriate Libby’s personal tragedy as their own hobby makes for a fresh and queasily fascinating angle on the mystery.
Unfortunately, the Kill Club is pretty much forgotten as Libby starts digging into the case, interviewing old acquaintances and enemies she hasn’t seen in decades. Along the way, the mystery plot involves Satanic rituals, secret love children and even a serial killer. When one character implores, “I know this is a lot to take,” I had to agree. It’s like Flynn couldn’t settle on one solution to her mystery, so decided to check “all of the above.” It all builds up to a simply unbelievable twist ending that makes “Gone Girl” seem like gritty realism.
It’s very jarring to see this ridiculous mystery play out in such a realistic rural setting, the characters all hard-bitten, repressed Midwesterners living in crummy apartments or windswept prairies. Paquet-Brenner also includes extensive flashbacks of Libby’s childhood, with Christina Hendricks playing her mother and Chloe Grace-Moretz as Ben’s bad-girl girlfriend. Ultimately, we lose interest in Libby’s investigation because it’s the flashbacks that are telling us what happened anyway.
Somewhere in here, among the ludicrous plot turns and overstuffed cast of characters, there’s a simple, devastating story about the lingering effects of childhood trauma. But finding it is one mystery that can’t be solved.