Earlier this summer, Charlize Theron played a character called Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But Furiosa would also make an apt nickname for her character in “Dark Places,” a largely neutered, by-the-numbers adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s second novel — the one that came out just before the author’s mega-hit “Gone Girl.”
As Libby Day, a Kansas woman still grappling with the long-ago murders of her family and the fact that she fingered her older brother Ben as their killer, Theron is basically a walking bundle of unbridled hostility, sometimes wearing a baseball cap. In the book, Flynn describes her protagonist as less than 5 feet tall and barely able to fit into her “grown-up, big girl clothes.” Theron is obviously not that. Even drab apparel and the aforementioned cap can’t hide her statuesque, Dior-spokesmodel beauty. More critically, although Flynn’s prose subtly conveys why Libby is physically and psychologically stunted, the movie must resort to explaining away her rage via a blunt voice-over. The character’s f-bomb-studded attitude exists mainly because the script says it does.
That’s just one of the things that feels off in this adaptation of Flynn’s grim crime thriller, written and directed by French filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Sarah’s Key”). Like the novel, the movie toggles between events that occurred in 1985, when the murders of Libby’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters took place, and the present, when Libby and a guy named Lyle — played by Theron’s “Fury Road” castmate Nicholas Hoult — attempt to dig for the truth behind the deaths. Lyle is part of a “Kill Club,” an organization devoted to an odd combination of serial-killer cosplay and serious detective work. The members of the group’s investigative unit believe that the still-imprisoned Ben — played in flashbacks by Tye Sheridan and as an adult by Corey Stoll — is innocent. They’re willing to pay Libby to help them prove it. Broke and desperate for money, she reluctantly agrees to join forces with Lyle, which inevitably leads to the slow revelation of long-held family secrets.
Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” traffics in third-act plot twists, women who reach breaking points and flawed men who may or may not be guilty of the horrific acts they’re accused of committing. But unlike David Fincher’s elegantly warped cinematic rendering of “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” is a pallid effort, with awkward cuts and clumsily executed close-ups that sometimes drain the film of all surprise. (Note: If the camera pulls in tight on a tattoo that a character is trying to hide, you can bet that tattoo is important.) Taking cues directly from the movie’s title, Paquet-Brenner casts scene after scene in tones of somber indigo, dusty sepia and, sometimes, almost no light at all, making it nearly impossible to see anything other than the whites of Theron’s eyes. The director’s hand here is nearly always too heavy.
Paquet-Brenner has assembled a talented cast, which also includes Chloë Grace Moretz and Drea de Matteo. Yet he elicits mostly unmemorable performances from just about everyone involved. The one standout is Hendricks, whose character is trying to raise four kids on her own with little money and the looming threat of losing the farm that has been in her family for years. The way the “Mad Men” vet hides her desperation from her children, then unleashes it during a conversation with her sister, is the most emotionally affecting part of “Dark Places.”
True to its name, though, this is a film that, as soon as it’s seen, will settle in the deepest recesses of the brain, that part where unremarkable movie experiences go to be forgotten.
R. At the Angelika Pop-Up; also available on demand. Contains some disturbing violence, coarse language, drug use and sexual content. 113 minutes.