Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Dark Places</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – Dark Places (2015)

Sean Hanson

August 7th, 2015


When David Fincher announced that he would direct Gone Girl and novelist Gillian Flynn set out to adapt her own mega-selling breakout thriller, which hinges on one ingenious twist, she faced two dilemmas: how could she surprise fans of the novel (or, for that matter, anyone who caught spoilers from the endless parade of reviews and analyses that saturated the Internet) and translate a twist that played with strictly literary conventions to a different medium entirely? As much as I disliked the gender politics of the resulting film, Flynn’s solutions — she treated the twist more like a starting point instead of the big reveal and tweaked the structure to create a clear, if unlikable, protagonist — were as elegant as Fincher’s direction, resulting in a gorgeous 150-minute elegy for marital angst and the woman scorned.

Dark Places, faithfully adapted by writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner from an earlier Flynn novel, is decidedly less ambitious, a (relatively) straightforward mystery in which Libby Day (Charlize Theron), destitute now that the steady stream of charitable contributions that subsidized her existence have slowed to a trickle, accepts cash from a group of true-crime enthusiasts to re-examine the 1985 massacre that left her an orphan and her brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in prison. As such, the mystery unfolds across split timelines: we watch the tragedy take shape in 1985 while Libby, growing less certain that her brother murdered most of his family, plays catch-up thirty years later.

The mystery genre is no stranger to this structure — Mr. Holmes, still in theaters, runs on three parallel narratives, the temporal hat trick, to speak — and, when used to its full potential, it can lend a film that haunting feeling of near-universal importance if we secretly believe (or fear) that we spend our lives running in circles, chasing tails and ghosts.

Does Dark Places attain that kind of gravity? Not quite, but if Paquet-Brenner falls short of making the next Mystic River, it’s because the film’s moments of greatness (and there are a few) are offset by a rolling sum of little shortcomings: not enough intercutting between the two timelines to better forge the tyranny of cause-and-effect and the tragedy of incomplete knowledge; unremarkable cinematography, aside from a handful of shots that were clearly planned from the start; and underexplored relationships between fascinating characters. Quite simply, Paquet-Brenner remains too slavishly faithful to Flynn’s novel to restructure it as a film, trimming it down to fit it into two hours and patching the holes with clumsy exposition, but doing his best to leave it otherwise intact. Ironically, it’s a mistake Flynn herself probably wouldn’t have made.

Fortunately, there’s an upside to Paquet-Brenner’s one-to-one adaptation strategy. Most, if not all, of the unusual elements that made Flynn’s novel such a crackling dark pleasure survived the transition. Libby is still bitter and blunt, prone to the antisocial behaviors that make her so unlike the archetypal trauma survivors of movies past, and Theron fills her shoes perfectly; the Satanic panics and the farm crisis of the ‘80s remain a fascinating Petri dish for the narrative’s suspects and victims; and the film is a morbidly joyous celebration of the novel’s enthusiastically improbable plotting, preserving the ways in which seemingly stray threads of the plot tie together during the climax. Even the most random asides ultimately prove relevant.

In some ways, Dark Places succeeds where Gone Girl failed. It may lack Fincher’s glass and polish, but by aiming lower and limiting its scope, it’s free to be a fleet and dirty mystery built around things we’d rather not talk about instead of some operatic misfire about the supposed horrors of marriage and privilege. And, while everyone in the cast plays their parts with actorly dignity, no one has more fun than Chloë Grace Moretz, cast so far against type as the Joan Jett-lovin’ bad girl because she apparently understands what’s going on here: if Fincher and Flynn wrought an honest-to-goodness, capital-F Film out of Gone Girl, this is the exceptionally lurid Lifetime flick Dark Places was always meant to be.

Dark Places continues its run at the Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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