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Dark Places

D: Gilles Paquet-Brenner / 113m

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Sean Bridgers, Andrea Roth, Shannon Kook, Drea de Matteo

In 1985, in a small rural community in Kansas, a single mother and two of her daughters are all killed one night at their farmhouse; later, the surviving daughter, Libby (Jerins), tells the police her brother Ben (Sheridan) did it. After his arrest and during his trial, Ben offers no defence and he’s sent to prison for the rest of his life.

In 2015, the adult Libby (Theron) is down on her luck and counting on her minor celebrity status to keep her afloat. When she’s contacted by Lyle Wirth (Hoult) with the offer of $500 for a speaking engagement, she arranges to meet with him first. Lyle tells her he belongs to a group called The Kill Club, an organisation of volunteers who look into old unsolved murders, or cases where they believe an innocent person has been put in jail. She attends one of their meetings and finds that several members believe Ben didn’t commit the murders, and Libby finds herself challenged over her version of events that night. Angry at first, Libby agrees to help the group look into the  case, and begins her own investigation alongside theirs.

Lyle convinces her to visit her brother, something she’s never done. Ben (Stoll) is happy to see her, but Libby’s resentment of him means the visit goes badly. Back in her hometown she tries to find her father, Runner (Bridgers), who abandoned them when she was much younger. She also looks into the possibility of Ben having been part of a Satanic cult at the time, and why a young girl named Krissi Cates is relevant to what happened. As she learns more and more, she discovers Ben had a girlfriend called Diondra (Moretz). With Lyle’s help, Libby begins to put all the pieces together, and finds that what she believed happened all those years ago is far more complicated than she could ever imagined – and the repercussions of those events are still being played out in the present.

Dark Places - scene

Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, Dark Places is a murder mystery where what appears to be a simple, unexplainable crime proves to be something a lot more complicated and strange, and with a bewildering set of coincidences that make up the solution to the murders. Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation keeps the narrative skipping backwards and forwards between 1985 and 2015, showing us the events that led to the murders in 1985, and linking these scenes to the discoveries Libby makes in the present. As the story gradually unfolds, and we see the drama that played out in the past, we gain a greater understanding of the whys and hows that govern the actions of Libby and those people who were involved.

It’s a delicate balancing act at times, with the structure dictating that there be some degree of repetition throughout, as what we see in the past is explained in the future. Thankfully, Paquet-Brenner avoids such a hazard by making each new discovery as confusing as the last, and by throwing in so many suspects it almost seems as if the entire community could have done it. As Libby’s investigation leads to some unsavoury truths and revelations, the director makes it clear that her memories of that night have always been tainted, but to what degree she and the audience have to find out for themselves.

The dark places of the title are the ones we go to in our minds when we contemplate issues of murder and perceived guilt. The movie explores these avenues via the adult Libby’s increasingly fractured certainty that Ben killed his mother and sisters. And while the script plants a very big clue early on as to what really happened, it’s more concerned with the various ways in which we, through Libby, justify our actions and sense of culpability. Libby is tormented by having not been able to do anything to stop Ben, but as his innocence becomes more and more likely, her own assertions (the ones that have carried her through all these years) begin to crumble and she’s faced with the daunting prospect that her testimony condemned her brother to prison for the rest of his life.

But it proves not to be so simple. Ben has his own reasons for staying quiet, and so we, like Libby, have to seek answers in those dark places mentioned already. Thanks to a tight, focused script, and a clutch of telling performances, the movie shifts and turns with every passing minute, making it more and more difficult to work out what actually happened. Theron is impressive as the outwardly angry but internally uncomfortable Libby, her strained features and abrasive attitude in keeping with a survivor who only has her celebrity to keep her going; without it she’d be aimless (another reason why she agrees to help the Kill Club). As Lyle, Hoult brings a determined optimism to the role that offsets and complements Libby’s antagonistic approach, while Hendricks stands out as the harried mother struggling to keep her home and family together in the face of impending financial ruin. With more than able support from the likes of Sheridan, Moretz and de Matteo as the older Krissi, Dark Places succeeds in making each character credible, even when they’re sometimes asked to behave in ways that don’t make sense until the final reveal.

To add to the effectiveness of the script, the acting and Paquet-Brenner’s solid, unshowy direction, the movie is filmed in a gloomy, downlit style by DoP Barry Ackroyd, his compositions and framing illustrating proceedings with confidence and giving scenes an eerie quality that makes it seem that there’s other, stranger stuff we should know about happening just out of frame. With a running time that allows more than sufficient time to detailing events in both time periods, and a score by Gregory Tripi that subtly adds a level of foreboding to the material, Dark Places is an intelligent thriller that holds the attention and makes for avid viewing.

Rating: 8/10 – riveting in a sombre, calculated way, Dark Places maintains its gloomy, oppressive mise en scene to good effect throughout, and makes its audience work hard to solve the mystery; a better than average adaptation that showcases another fine performance from Theron, and flits between the past and the present with assured clarity and focus.