DARK PLACES (2015, Gilles Paquet-Brenner)
David Fincher makes dark movies. FIGHT CLUB exists a lot at night, and even when it’s daylight it’s coated with a grey haze. SEVEN is pitch black both in tone and often in visuals, but the genius DP Darius Khondji worked magic in that darkness. And Fincher’s most recent film, the excellent Gillian Flynn adaptation GONE GIRL, goes into a slightly more moral darkness, but manages to be smart, exciting, funny, and incisive. A lot of credit for GONE GIRL should go to Flynn for writing a cracking story and adapting it nicely for the screen, but a lot of it should also go to Fincher for knowing his way with actors and with camera work.
By the same token, a lot of blame for DARK PLACES should fall on Paquet-Brenner, who both directed and wrote the adaptation of this Flynn novel (which I haven’t read). Paquet-Brenner takes the word “dark” in the title far too literally, and unlike Fincher, simply can’t handle a movie that occurs in black rooms on starless nights. He and his DP Barry Ackroyd (who amazingly has cinematography experience on such films as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and the HURT LOCKER, because watching this you’d think it was his first movie) just let the night interiors fall into that digital-video black, which isn’t rich, but just swallows up everything so all you see is a very dark grey piece of mud. Here’s a still from a tense conversation between Charlize Theron and her FURY ROAD co-star Nicholas Hoult:
And later in the film, there’s a thrilling action piece inside a house, occurring in a flashback to 1985. Here’s a gripping still from that sequence:
Okay, to be fair, there are some scenes where you can actually see actors. But that isn’t too much of a saving grace. Hoult is wasted in a role designed to be nothing but an engine for exposition. MAD MEN’s Christina Hendricks is narcoleptic in the flashback story — we’re waiting for her to show any signs of inner life, and she never gets the chance. Theron fares a little better since she’s in virtually every scene in the present day story, but the dialogue lets her down — it sounds unnatural and overly written, not like the peppier, engrossing dialogue from GONE GIRL. Corey Stoll only gets a couple of scenes; not enough to build any sort of real character. Tye Sheridan, so terrific in MUD and THE TREE OF LIFE, plays Stoll’s character in the flashback story, and while he’s immediately sympathetic and believable, also falls victim to a story engineered to force him down the path of a convoluted plot. A few nice moments make their way in here and there, especially with a great and weird teenage villainess played with gusto by Chloë Grace Moretz, but this is a glorified TV movie with no emotional current, no great mystery, and serves as a lesson that a great cast and good source material do not make a great movie by themselves. Sometimes it’s nice to have a David Fincher around.