I remember liking Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key (2011) rather a lot, but remember nothing about it as filmmaking — a situation I expect to repeat itself with his Dark Places. I may remember that I cringed while watching the film’s very grainy (the kind of grain that looks like small worms writhing in the screen) opening in all its shaky-cam glory, but otherwise the direction never seemed more than workmanlike. The appeal of this film lies in its twisted — even somewhat distasteful — mystery, its performances and its shrewd sleight-of-hand structure. However, Paquet-Brenner did direct those performances and did write the screenplay (based on Gillian Flynn’s book), so some credit must go to him. Of course, the structure may be inherent in the book, though I suspect it works better on film. The mystery itself may be pretty improbable — all right, it is pretty improbable — but it mostly works, though you may well guess half of the solution early in the game (assuming you’ve seen a few movies like this and know that seemingly irrelevant information usually isn’t).
Now, before you undertake Dark Places, it’s as well to know that this isn’t David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), despite being based on a novel by the same author. It has a similar sour tone — a rather unpleasant view of humanity — but it lacks both Fincher’s precise filmmaking, and the element of social satire inherent in Gone Girl. This is more of a straightforward — if impossibly convoluted and unrelentingly grim — mystery thriller that verges on being a horror picture. The story concerns Libby Day (Charlize Theron), the lone survivor of a triple homicide that claimed her mother and two sisters 25 years earlier. She’s been living off the “kindness” of sympathetic strangers who sent scads of money her way when she was a child and the proceeds of a ghost-written book she’s never read about her experience. But the money’s run out — no one sends cash to 30-plus-year-old victims 25 years after the fact — and Libby finds herself reduced to agreeing to appear at a convention of true crime enthusiasts (the Kill Club). It’s much like a faded B-movie star signing photos at film convention for $15 a pop, only with creepier participants.
What she’s completely unprepared for is that these people aren’t so much her fans as they are fans of her brother, Ben (played as a young man by Tye Sheridan and as an adult by Corey Stoll), whom they believe was falsely convicted and falsely imprisoned for the murders — falsely convicted on young Libby’s (Sterling Jerins) confused testimony. It is their mission to prove his innocence — they hope with her help. (As well as being true crime enthusiasts, they’re also amateur sleuths.) Satisfied that Ben did it, Libby wants nothing to do with the project, but they have money and she doesn’t. Or at least, their least peculiar member, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), has some money and he’s willing to bankroll her enough to get her to dig into the past to find the truth. And therein lies the plot and the bulk of the movie — interspersed with flashbacks that slowly reveal what happened all those years ago.
Overall, the film works as a thriller, but it’s a pretty grubby thriller in that none of the characters are very likable — the guilty and the innocent (to the degree that anyone in this can be called innocent). The most interesting aspect of this is that the characters are imbued with a sense of self-awareness as concerns their shortcomings. That at least gives the movie a certain illusion of depth — something that the performances help to convey. The tone may be a little off-putting, and the plot fairly preposterous, but it’s still a compelling watch. Rated R for some disturbing violence, language, drug use and sexual content.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.