The problem with setting a murder mystery in the context of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s is that Satanism has been thoroughly debunked as a criminal phenomenon. Back then it was all the rage to accuse weirdo kids who liked heavy metal of all manner of crimes, but now we know that there really weren’t human-sacrificing death cults or whatever else the squares were afraid kids were up to back then. There have been a number of high-profile cases overturned, most notably the West Memphis Three, and whenever people talk about the media whipping people into a fear-frenzy, the Satanic Panic is the go-to example. So it makes for a bad mystery, because the fastest way to communicate “misunderstood innocent” is to frame a character within that context. Show me a kid with dyed-black hair, heavy metal accoutrement, and a frown, and I will show you the one person who definitely did not do it.
Which is the chief problem of Dark Places, starring Charlize Theron and adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel. I have not read the book, and so cannot determine if this problem plagues the source material, too, but the movie is knee-capped by its Satanic Panic trappings. Dark Places tells two parallel stories, one set in the present and one in the 1980s. In the present, Libby Day (Theron) is a grown woman, the survivor of a massacre that left her family dead, and her brother jailed as the perpetrator. Libby is sullen and mean and broke, never having done anything in life except live off the donations strangers sent her and proceeds from a book she didn’t even write. But with donations and royalties dried up, she ends up taking money from the “Kill Club” to help them investigate the truth behind her family’s murders, and potentially clear her brother’s name—even though Libby thinks he’s guilty.
In the past, Libby is relegated to the background of her brother Ben’s story. Ben has dyed-black hair, heavy metal accoutrement, and a frown—he definitely did not do it. He also has a nutso girlfriend, Diondra (played with abandon by Chloe Grace Moretz), who actually is into animal sacrifice and Satanism, and his mother (Christina Hendricks, really great and sympathetic) gets involved with some shady people as she tries to save their bankrupt farm. And to top it all off, their father is a violent drug dealer and Ben is accused of molesting schoolgirls, so plenty of people have it out for the Day family.
There is an interesting movie tucked within Dark Places, if it was presented not as a whodunit but instead as a psychological study of Satanic Panic. An effective scene of young girls accusing Ben of molestation smacks of the Salem Witch Trials—that’s the compelling angle, not the eye-rollingly stupid reveal at the end that ties everything up too neat and pat for what is a messy, complicated confluence of bad luck and timing in Ben’s life. Libby would still make a good protagonist, as she was too young back when to understand the tide that swept her family away, but in the present could put it together and free her brother, and you solve the problem of knowing from the get that Ben didn’t do it. The most interesting parts of Dark Places have nothing to do with solving the murder and everything to do with the threads of prejudice, fear, and fate that play out in the 1980s timeline.
Individual scenes in Dark Places work, particularly in the 1980s timeline, where there’s a real sense of tension and paranoia as the world closes in on Ben and his mother. But the present-day story lacks that same tension as it’s clear from the beginning that Libby didn’t know what the f*ck was going on back when. And then the whole thing resolves in the silliest way possible, which puts a pin in whatever dramatic stakes they managed to dredge up. The movie has a dreary tone that aims for dread but only infrequently earns it, and the most interesting aspect of the story, the Comic-Con-like world of the Kill Club, is completely side-lined after one scene. (There’s a whole other version of Dark Places just about the Kill Club and the kind of person whose hobby is true crime.) Dark Places aims for the same kind of shocking twists and reveals as Gone Girl, but falls woefully short.
Dark Places is in limited release and available on demand.