Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast: Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, Drea de Matteo, Tye Sheridan
Runtime: 1 hr 53 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 2 July 2015
Synopsis: Set in a farming town in Kansas, Dark Places follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), the only surviving witness of a horrific massacre that took her mother and sisters. Believing the slaughter to be the work of a Satanic cult, Libby testifies in court against her own brother. 25 years after the murder, she remains haunted by the gruesome violence of her past when she meets a group of amateur investigators who call themselves "The Kill Club". Looking to satisfy their morbid curiosity, the group begins their own inquiry about the case, believing Libby's brother is innocent. In order to help them, Libby must unearth painful memories of the event and learn that her past may not be what it seems.
Thanks to David Fincher, Gillian Flynn’s novels are the hottest page-to-screen property around Hollywood, and the first out of the gate following ‘Gone Girl’ is this Kansas-set thriller built around class poverty, twisted family secrets, true-crime obsessives and Satanic cult worshippers. At the heart of ‘Dark Places’ is a tragic murder one fateful night which claimed the lives of a mother and her three daughters on their family farm in 1985, for which one of its sole survivors Libby gave testimony against the other, who happens to be her older teenage brother Ben, that led to him spending the next three decades in prison. As you may expect, the truth is hardly as simple as it sounds, and which we spend the next two hours puzzling about until the final reveal.
Indeed, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who assumes both screenwriting and directing duties here, keeps the mood tense and suspenseful as she sends Libby in her late thirties (played by Charlize Theron) tracing the dots from a girl whom Ben allegedly sexually molested as a teen as part of a Satanic ritual to her no-gooder father who abandoned them when they were kids and now lives in a toxic waste dump outside town and finally to Ben’s girlfriend at that time who happened to be pregnant with his kid. Just as the novel, the present-day events unfold largely from Libby’s perspective, and Paquet-Brenner also retains the first-person narration of her protagonist’s own thoughts as her investigation slowly unearths her own long-buried memories of her childhood days.
Like ‘Gone Girl’, perspective is a defining characteristic of the storytelling here; instead of just Libby, the complex narrative toggles back and forth between past and present, the former provided from the point-of-view of Libby’s mother Patty (Christina Hendricks), who was struggling to make ends meet as a single mother of four children, as well as the taciturn Ben (Tye Sheridan), whose obsession with goth and Devil worship got him in trouble not just in school but also the local community at large. Thanks to deft cinematography and some ace editing, the intertwining time-periods play out with absolute clarity, in particular when one bleeds into the other as part of Libby’s flashbacks or daydreams.
But it is also due to the multiple perspectives that this mystery thriller turns out surprisingly character-driven. Not only do we appreciate the emotional and mental trauma which Libby had to endure as a kid, we empathise with her current haunted self-loathing state, living off donations from sympathetic strangers and the dwindling royalties of her ghost memoir. Theron plays the character to a fault, which is also why Libby remains compellingly watchable. On the other hand, we have considerable sympathy of a different kind for Patty, especially as she is confronted with a heartbreaking option to ensure that her daughters have enough to go by. Hendricks brings both grit and vulnerability to Patty, and though Theron is top-billed, the former provides just as strong an emotional anchor.
Alongside Theron and Hendricks, other supporting actors also add vim and vigour to the grim Midwestern setting. Drea de Matteo plays a former child abuse victim who is now a stripper. Sean Bridgers is Libby’s deadbeat father, whom you wish were the one shot dead instead. And most memorably, Chloe Grace-Moretz is Diondra, Ben’s psychologically unhinged girlfriend who is needy and manipulative at the same time – oh, she also teaches Ben to slaughter cows as a sacrifice to Satan. You’ll wonder if any of them are in fact responsible for the deaths of Libby’s mother and older sisters, but the ending will surprise and break your heart anyways.
Those hoping that we’d end by comparing the book and the movie need not bother; as with such adaptations, it is inevitable that fans of the former will consider the latter a poorer cousin. But having not read Flynn’s novel, we’d dare say that Paquet-Brenner’s version is captivating in itself, unfurling a twisty narrative with a deep sense of atmosphere, intriguing characters and a gut-wrenching revelation at the end to top it off. It may not boast the showmanship of ‘Gone Girl’, but this is also tonally a much more downbeat thriller that thoroughly lives up to its title.
(True to its title, this gripping mystery is brooding and atmospheric, but with a gut-wrenching revelation that will leave you reeling)
Review by Gabriel Chong