Why is “Dark Places” being dumped into theaters the way a low-level mobster dumps a body in the New Jersey Meadowlands? Given its reasonably glittering cast — Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men,” young up-and-comers Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, and Chloe Grace Moretz — and a source novel by Gillian Flynn, of “Gone Girl” fame, your first guess would probably be that the movie’s just plain bad.
Your first guess would be correct.
Grim, ridiculous, and dull — the August-movie equivalent of a hat trick — “Dark Places” tells the story of Libby Day (Theron), whose mother and sisters were murdered 28 years ago and who’s still in a snit about it. Her brother Ben (Corey Stoll) went to prison on her testimony, but what did the 7-year-old Libby (Sterling Jerins) actually see? And why does Lyle (Hoult), the spooky leader of famous-murder fan-boy group the Kill Club, want her to investigate under the presumption that Ben might be innocent?
That’s a decent enough hook for a few hours reading at the beach or chilling in a multiplex, but scripter-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner wrings the suspense out of “Dark Places” almost from the get-go, with a plodding pace and characters who are meant to be powerfully repressed but only come across as drab. The cross-cutting between the present day and events leading up to the murders is confusing. Weird secondary characters wander in and out. The movie can’t decide whether teen Satanism actually exists or is a product of grown-up hysteria. Innocent cows are killed.
The only saving grace in “Dark Places” — the only person here with a pulse — is Moretz as a trampy rich-girl cultist in the flashback scenes. She’s like a baby psychopath who has wandered over from a 1940s film noir; you wish she’d wander back and take the audience with her.
For her part, Theron stomps from scene to scene in asexual drag: schlumpy T-shirt, cap pulled low, mouth set in a full-time grimace. Naturally, the appearance of this angry stranger on an aging witness’s doorstep prompts the divulging of all the secrets he or she has been hiding for three decades. Just like that. And, just like that, a laughably nonsensical late development jams the final pieces together like a poorly designed jigsaw puzzle. It’s not a twist, it’s a death spiral, and not a moment too soon.
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