The mind is such a complex mechanism. We see what we want to see, decipher what we can how we can, are easily seduced by those around us. And sometimes we might even get it right.
And then there’s reality.
In the case of “Dark Places,” the latest Gillian Flynn novel to make it to the big screen (you might recall last year’s blockbuster “Gone Girl”), the mind plays cruel tricks on a Kansas farming community — and the movie-going audience — as a grisly tale of murder unfolds across three decades.
Charlize Theron stars as Libby Day, who, as an 8-year-old, survived the horrific night her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their soon-to-be-foreclosed-on Kansas farmhouse. Under police questioning, the traumatized tot “confesses” that her troubled 16-year-old brother Ben was the killer.
But that was then.
Flash forward 28 years, and a grown-up Libby is broke and miserable. Her royalties from sales of books about the “Kansas Prairie Massacre” have fizzled away. Fan mail filled with checks from a generous public wanting to help an orphaned little girl have dried up. The rent is overdue. Her car is being held hostage at a repair shop for lack of payment. Libby, who likes to wear a baseball cap pulled down over her face, is as foul-mouthed and tough-as-nails as they come. But we all know she’s still that frightened little girl.
Enter Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult of “About a Boy” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a quirky laundromat mogul and Crime Club treasurer who knows his way around soapsuds and clever accounting. He’s quick to dole out hundreds of dollars on the spot to get Libby to agree to speak at one of his club gatherings (and to get her car out of the shop).
At one such club meeting, true crime enthusiasts grill Libby on the events of “that night,” in essence accusing her of lying about her brother’s guilt and commanding her to help them appeal his life sentence. This sends an infuriated Libby off into the wilds of the Kansas prairie to track down the personages from her youth who might shed new light on the story. What’s her sudden motivation?
Libby starts her trek with a visit to her brother, the imprisoned and stoic Ben, played with steely reserve by Corey Stoll. Ben has never proclaimed his innocence nor asked for any kind of intervention, until he sees Libby. Brother and sister must now confront their innermost demons, and their seemingly all-forgiving familial bond.
Other persons of interest quickly come forth (amazing how Libby can track everyone down where gobs of investigators could not) including a stripper (Drea de Matteo of “The Sopranos”) who as a little girl accused Ben of some awful deeds, a Native American drug addict/bookie (J. LaRose), a teenaged Ben’s Satan-worshipping, pregnant girlfriend (played by Chloe Grace Moretz in flashbacks) and Libby’s deadbeat dad (played to disturbing lengths by Sean Bridgers). Talk about conspiracy theories.
The third offering from Flynn (published between “Gone Girl” and her 2006 debut “Sharp Objects”) “Dark Places” does its best to stir a multitude of emotions within us, but in doing so, the film feels contrived and hurried. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who also penned the screenplay, furiously moves between the storylines and backstories, rushing to tie up all the loose ends before the credits must roll. Too many unanswered questions are left in its wake.
A24 presents a film directed and written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated R (for some disturbing violence, language, drug use and sexual content). Opening Friday at local theaters.
Posted on Aug. 6, 2015.