1985. In a rural community of Kansas there was a young teenager named Ben Day (Tye Sheridan channelling Ezra Miller) who was very into the punk rock outfit The Misfits. He filled his sketchbooks with black-inked antichrist art, and was accused of molesting several of the girls in his volunteer art class at the local primary school.
Eventually he was convicted of the murder of his mother (Christina Hendricks), two of his sisters, and possibly his girlfriend (Chloë Grace Moretz) as part of a satanic ritual. The lynch-pin in the ensuing trial was Ben's surviving sister Libby, who pointed the finger squarely at her brother (after heavy coaching from the prosecution) to tie neatly off the "Kansas Prairie Massacre."
Emotionally engaging and effortlessly surprising, Dark Places is a narratively complex, fictional amalgamation of all the lessons learned from the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s. The film reunites Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult shortly after their very metal mega-adventure in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. Coincidentally enough, both actors are playing similar roles: that of tough-as-nails survivor (albeit Theron has all her limbs) and almost-innocent neophyte (albeit Hoult has hair) who is looking for truth in a broken world.
The actual events of this horrible evening (and the frazzled motivational strings that lead up to it) are given a measured reveal analogous (albeit cinematically polished) to the case of the West Memphis Three from the mid-1990s, which took decades of work and a plethora of news stories and documentary films to get even a misty picture of the truth. Ditto for the expensive and lengthy McMartin daycare trials of the 1980s and the fiction-over-fact slowly coming to light in the influential autobiography of Satanic Ritual Abuse, Michelle Remembers.
French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah's Key, Walled In) adapts an early Gillian Flynn novel (of the same name). Dark Places amalgamates all the above narratives into the type of procedural tale rarely seen on the big screen, and usually reserved for lengthier prestige television along the lines of True Detective -- fun fact: the first season of that show was based loosely on SRA events involving The Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula, Louisiana -- as well as thick real-crime books such as Errol Morris's A Wilderness of Error, and investigative podcasts such as NPR's Serial. It is a testament of the screenwriting, acting and editing here that it comes together so satisfyingly. It pleases me that in light of migrating to other media, this kind of filmmaking, the investigative thriller, has not completely disappeared.
Almost two films in one, Dark Places has grown-up Libby Day (Charlize Theron) becoming emotionally re-engaged via a group of innocence project investigators creepily called "Kill Club," in 2009. The club's treasurer and local laundromat owner, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) offers cash money to Libby, who is broke and barely treading water in her cluttered Kansas City home. Libby is aimless and lazy, and for the past 20 plus years has been living off donations and book sales of a ghost-written biography she neither wrote nor has even read. His world is one neat activity, as white and orderly as his strip mall laundrettes, lazy and cluttered and desperate, filled with bills, dirty dishes, and urine-yellow curtains.
Libby is initially disgusted by the Kill Club's more affectations elements and in particular, its investigative assumptions that her brother (now played by a bearded Corey Stoll, who projects prison wisdom with verismilitude) has been convicted as an innocent man. But she really needs the money. Their series of brother-sister conversations with the glass wall of security betwixt them effectively form the emotional basis of the film. Clearly Libby is the protagonist of the picture, but careful viewers will note the flashbacks in the film are actually mainly from Ben's perspective, not Libby's. It is either a happy accident or willing subterfuge -- this is a Gillian Flynn novel, after all -- that the opening grainy black and white shot of Libby's mother lovingly comforting Libby implies that the flashbacks are Libby's.
As the procedural effort gets underway to track down all the people involved, and suss out several of the people who were missing, a reconstruction of the events on that fateful night is slowly assembled in a fashion that is nuanced and manifold. Dark Places offers several reasons to explain why people want to boil a crime down to black and white motivations. It shows the headspace of both the children and the parents in the midst of poverty and hysteria. A scene between Hendricks' serene single-mom, who is strapped for both time and cash, and her ominous and pathetic ex-husband Runner (Sean Bridgers, also in Sundance's Rectify, which you should really, also, be watching) in front of their children is an achievement in and of itself for the perfect balance of drama, menace and functional exposition.
It is kind of amazing how much information is packed into Dark Places' crisp 113 minutes. And if the filmmaking is not as ambitious in form nor does it contain any of its pitch black humour, as David Fincher's Flynn adaptation, Gone Girl, things are more ruthlessly efficient, there are similarities in the complexities and motivations of certain female characters in both of these films.
is a fabulous dramatization of the moral panic that gripped the United States in the 1980s, and you will find several nods in the background. People familiar with the hysteria of that decade of Geraldo TV Specials, congressional hearings on rock music lyrics and role playing games, or have read Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe's recent compilation of essays on the period, Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s
(of which, full disclosure, the last essay I am responsible for) will no doubt note the significance of Twisted Sister's Dee Snider on a television in the background in one scene.)
Even more importantly, the film articulates that things are never as simple as Satanist or not Satanist, innocent or guilty, even violent intentions or grim accidents. Plus, Dark Places, echoing Donnie Darko of all things, ends with a genuine, emotional, wave of hello between strangers. While I am typically a sucker for this gesture in any movie, it is especially effective in a film notable for Charlize Theron's tense shoulders and grim-downward gaze cultivated over decades of her character, Libby's, unacknowledged pain. Ultimately, it is nice to know that we are all capable of better, given enough time.