One of the most striking things about Gillian Flynn's 2009 novel Dark Places – the famed Gone Girl author's second – is how, in the unlikely context of a beach read, it believably depicts the evolution of childhood trauma into adulthood. Beyond being an addictive example of a twisty (if fluffy) thriller, its lead character, Libby Day, is an admirable take on the damaged anti-hero trampled by her horrific past. Libby's kleptomaniac quirks and acrid bitterness act as a compelling conduit for a story that often needs to be forgiven for its leaps and bounds in narrative logic.
Although casting Charlize Theron in the film adaptation seemed like a stretch – she's visually a distance from the small, awkward redhead that Flynn so deftly put on the page – the choice was a promising one. Theron recently impressed with her nuanced yet fierce performance as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, and a well-deserved Oscar decorates her mantle for a memorable turn in Monster. She's more than capable of transforming herself into a damaged woman who, as a child, testified against her 15-year-old brother, Ben, for the slaughter of her mother and two sisters in their remote farmhouse.
Theron is indeed notable as the grimy, grownup version of "the little orphan girl of the Kansas prairie massacre," cursing and skulking around in her torn white T-shirt and faded trucker cap, delivering lines such as, "Half the time I look down and my hands are in fists." Unemployed and presumably unemployable, Theron's generally hostile Libby has run out of money, and in desperation accepts cash from the Kill Club, a fringe group of murder-obsessed groupie nerds who are convinced Ben has been wrongly imprisoned and determined to employ Libby to get him out.
Libby reluctantly teams up with the group's unofficial leader, Lyle Wirth (played by Theron's Mad Max co-star, Nicholas Hoult), and the pair go on to unravel the elaborate secret of what happened that blood-soaked night in 1985. The process transforms our protagonist, as she begins to question her memory of the events and ultimately believes she may have been coached to testify. The amateur who-really-dunnit investigation visits a strip club, a halfway house and a homeless camp, the pair interviewing a variety of ne'er-do-wells to claw to the bottom of a family mystery that eventually reaches its shocking, if convenient, conclusion.
With drug use, debt, pedophilia, Satanism, animal sacrifice and the kind of absurd M. Night Shyamalan-esque final twist that Flynn is now famous for, this complicated plot convinces on the page, but feels more than a little flabby onscreen. Eighties devil-worshipping hysteria transforms into cartoonish hilarity (those kids and their crazy metal music), while the self-serious and melodramatic Kill Club becomes eye-rollingly ridiculous.
While there is still some flicking at the book's more human themes of best-intentioned familial deceit, forgiveness and healing, they're all but blotted out by Gilles Paquet-Brenner's slapdash direction. Climactic action scenes are ungainly and poorly shot, drained of all potential audience investment until we no longer care about who did what and why.
The women make, if not save, this otherwise inelegant adaptation – not surprising given the source material comes from a writer with a gift for the fleshed-out female character. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) gives a much less glamorous performance than we're used to from her, and is impressive as the washed-out, hard-done-by and tortured matriarch of the Day family. Chloe Grace Moretz (The Equalizer) is perfect as teenage Ben's tweaked out, vicious and manipulative girlfriend. Yet this sloppy showing can't be absolved by its considerable star power, especially when it feels blood-let of all suspense and horror.
Dark Places lacks the gloomy meditative quality that Gone Girl rode to success on, with none of the grace or subtlety necessary in making a convoluted thriller a watchable enterprise. While the book's shocking conclusion was a stretch that Flynn barely made believable, this poorly paced film simply makes it impossible. Dark Places is a disappointment, especially to those who enjoyed the novel's thoughtful exploration of trauma, violence and human tragedy. Those who haven't read the book will likely be better off, but even then it's hard to believe this clumsy effort can transcend to anything more than merely tolerable.