“Gone Girl” is a hard act to follow.
That 2014 film — the first to be adapted from the three best-selling mystery novels by Kansas City native Gillian Flynn — offered a surfeit of riches: a gnarly yarn that nastily doubled back on itself, a scathing indictment of modern media and its consumers, and one of the most savage commentaries on marriage ever sold as popular entertainment.
Add to the mix masterful direction by David Fincher (who absolutely nailed the darkly hilarious misanthropy that characterizes Flynn’s best work) and stellar turns by Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike, and you had a film that excelled on numerous levels.
By comparison, “Dark Places,” adapted by writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner from an earlier Flynn novel, is fairly straightforward and one-dimensional.
The film captures Flynn’s gloomy outlook without offering the antidote of biting humor, and is so single-mindedly bent on building its narrative that there’s little room left to explore other ideas.
Most problematic, the plot relies on mind-boggling coincidence. This was bothersome on the printed page; it feels patently phony on the screen.
Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is an antisocial loner living in hoarder squalor in a Kansas City apartment (though set in Kansas and Missouri, “Dark Places” was filmed in Louisiana).
Nearly 30 years earlier she was the sole survivor of the notorious “Kansas prairie massacre” in which her mother and two older sisters were murdered on the family farm. Based largely on Libby’s testimony, her teenage brother Ben was convicted and is now serving a life sentence.
For years the emotionally damaged and employment-challenged Libby has gotten by on donations from a sympathetic/morbid public. But now her bank account is empty.
So when Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), president of a local society of true-crime groupies, offers to pay to have Libby’s brain picked by the membership, she reluctantly accepts — even though it means a bizarre confrontation with a man role playing as KC serial killer Bob Berdella.
Lyle is one of the many armchair sleuths who think Ben was railroaded. Libby thinks those theories are pure B.S., but Lyle has deep pockets, so our desperate protagonist proposes re-excavating her ghastly past — for a price.
As in the novel, the book shifts between Libby’s search for her family’s killer in the present and her childhood as the youngest of a divorced mother (Christina Hendricks, looking authentically worn-down) who watches helplessly as a financial noose tightens around the farm that has been in her family for generations.
Back in the ’80s, we’re introduced to brother Ben (Tye Sheridan), a bored, alienated kid drawn to a slatternly local rich chick (Chloe Grace Moretz) and older teens dabbling in satanic rituals. Young Libby and her two doomed sisters are basically faceless cyphers in these flashbacks.
In the present, Libby visits her imprisoned brother (now played by Corey Stoll), her alcoholic no-good father (Sean Bridgers) and some of Ben’s now-grown acquaintances.
It seems that she’s spinning her wheels. She doesn’t realize that actually she’s getting closer to the truth, and it’s putting her in danger.
With a short shaggy ’do and a manhole-cover-on-the-shoulder attitude, Theron isn’t likable, but she is watchable. (You’ve got to wonder how much we tolerate the character just because Theron has that movie star thing going. What if they’d cast a physically unremarkable actress?)
Do we feel for her? I don’t think so.
Hoult is one of our best young actors, but he’s pretty much wasted here, his character mostly a device to get the plot started.
Hendricks is the real revelation, clothed in thrift store fashions and oozing desperation and despair. Here she leaves Joan Harris of “Mad Men” far behind.
The film looks good (albeit deliberately dark, as if shot through a gray filter) and Flynn’s grim world view comes through loud and clear. Overall, though, a bit of a letdown.
(At Barrywoods, Cinetopia, Studio 28.)
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 1:53