After the dark satire of David Fincher’s excellent Gone Girl, the possibility of fast-tracking another of Gillian Flynn’s intricately plotted thrillers from page to screen must have seemed like a fantastic idea. Dark Places revolves around another complicated woman, the kind of role that Charlize Theron would be perfect for if she added a dash of emotional trauma to the arrested-development cocktail she so astutely served up in Jason Reitman’s Young Adult. Add a wealth of acting talent to the mix and this should be a sure fire hit. To call the final product a botch job would be a considerable kindness; it’s just plain awful.
Regardless of individual readers’ receptiveness to her chilly prose, employing Flynn to turn Gone Girl from novel to screenplay was a shrewd move. She took the scalpel to her own work with gusto and came out with a perfectly tuned refit for a different medium – in many respects, the film corrects and improves on the blemishes of the source. Dark Places is a weaker novel in the first instance, but the hatchet job done in adapting it for the screen by Gilles Paquet-Brenner guts it of almost everything that makes it a compelling read, losing along the way its pulp scuzziness, disarming protagonist and the vital, taut mystery that keeps the pages turning. In lieu of tension, Paquet-Brenner believes a breakneck race through the convoluted plot should suffice as long as he shows a – surprising – fidelity to the original dialogue. Suffice it absolutely does not.
The novel switched back and forth from Libby Day’s (Theron) present, to the horrifying ordeal of her family’s murder decades earlier when she was but a child. A chapter at a time, like clockwork, it laid out Libby’s cold-case investigation into the historical crime with the slow-building, simultaneous reveal of the events of that fateful night. The film lurches back and forth through time, firing off staccato scenes like a machine gun, hitting you again with something new before you’ve had a chance to appreciate the pain of the last bullet. Context is sorely lacking for almost everything that happens, leaving a strong supporting cast woefully adrift in trying to convey any kind of import. Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloë Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll and Tye Sheridan all pop up in one timeline or another, desperately grasping for some form of lasting effect.
Theron comes off worse, though, constantly peaking out from beneath a baseball cap – pulled down over her face so as to almost hilariously pre-empt embarrassment at the resulting film – and allowed no time to inhabit what might have made for a genuinely watchable role. Instead, she is just another body shifting through a complete muddle of exchanges that seem in a rush to get to the next plot point without taking the time to check whether it will make sense. The visuals have a rough-edged griminess to them that feels like a TV-movie-of-the-week, which could have been suitable under better circumstances. Instead, Dark Places ends up feeling cheap, and more damning still, most resembles the massacre at the heart of its fumbled narrative. A worthy successor to Gone Girl this isn’t.