It’s hard to watch the aggressively forgettable Dark Places and not consider David Fincher’s Gone Girl, if for no other reason than to mentally stimulate oneself while awaiting the end credits. Both films are adaptations of novels that cemented author Gillian Flynn’s reputation as the most prominent writer of American blockbuster thrillers since Stephen King, and both pivot on a self-conscious exploration of the cyclical perversion of matriarchy. In these books, self-absorbed mothers beget unhinged daughters, who themselves grow into even crazier mothers and so on, until the nation is presumably populated entirely by master villainesses and the hypocritical patsies they take as partners in their diseased mating rituals.
Both novels (as well as Flynn’s first, Sharp Objects, which remains her best and nastiest) are ostensibly structured as mysteries, but their solutions are beside the point—a pretense for introducing the reader to a toxic milieu that’s based on social flourishing at the price of personal annihilation. Fincher understood Flynn’s purposefully flip, banal prose as her greatest weapon, which she uses as a comically ironic counterpoint to the atrocities she describes, and honored it by fashioning his own counterpoint: a characteristically chic, posh, creamy formality, which abounds in tracking shots that suggest the cinematic equivalent of silver serrated knives. The lushness of the filmmaking contrasts with the shrill thinness of the writing, yielding a sculptural screwball comedy set in hell.
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Dark Places features no such counterpoints, offering instead a perfunctory series of scenes in which actors dutifully recite dialogue from the book, each moment leading to the next with no sense of emotional progression. The film’s grim, pretentious impersonality is reminiscent of the 1990s-era detective procedurals that abounded in the wake of Se7en’s success (usually featuring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, or both), or evocative of a particularly shabby and uninspired spinoff of Law & Order. Paquet-Brenner evinces little talent for the glancing, casual touches that can heighten even a routine thriller.
In place of Flynn’s humor and empathy are an assortment of uninspired over-compensations that serve to revel pornographically in the misery of poverty and grief. The film insecurely asserts its theoretical intensity to the audience, abounding in poses in which characters stand pointedly apart so as to underline their already obvious alienation, while tilting their heads in diagonal angles to establish their anti-authoritarian torment. Most of these people talk in unvaryingly pregnant murmurs that are punctuated with profanity that’s often uttered with extra-embittered emphasis. This literal-minded nihilism is completed by cinematography which renders every image a muddy, indistinct eyesore that’s occasionally broken up by over-lit splotches of the actors’ furrowed faces.
These enervating artistic choices, un-survived by the talented cast (especially the overrated Charlize Theron, who resorts to the distanced editorializing that she managed to briefly, finally discard in Mad Max: Fury Road), inspire one to regrettably concentrate on the actual plot. The mystery, which figured on a chillingly inevitable merging of internally suppressed forces on the page, is contrived on screen, accentuating the absurdity of a tediously flashbacking, flash-forwarding narrative that depends on the coincidental intersection of two unrelated, equally unconvincing criminal conspiracies. The payoff is a huge and telling visual howler, in which we see a close-up of a tickertape that runs at the bottom of a news program within the film, summarizing the entire plot with a blithe indifference that will inevitably mirror the audience’s.