DARK PLACES

Perhaps Gillian Flynn’s name as the author of the novel on which “Dark Places” is based will be enough to attract viewers who flipped over “Gone Girl.” But David Fincher’s film, despite its flaws, was obviously the work of a master craftsman; Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who directed this film as well as adapting the book, is not in the same league, and what he delivers is a moodily grim, choppily edited potboiler with a howlingly ludicrous ending.

Of course, he didn’t have much to work with. Flynn’s tome is a pretty tasteless mash-up of “In Cold Blood” and the Robin Hood Hills murders covered by the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, along with bits and pieces of various other grotesque true-crime horror stories and plenty of over-the-top imagination. The narrative centers on Libby Day, who as an eight-year old child (Sterling Jerins) survived the murder of her mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two older sisters in their Kansas farmhouse. It was on the basis of the girl’s testimony that her fifteen-year old brother Ben (Tye Sheridan) was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison.

Thirty years later, Libby (Charlize Theron) has exhausted the royalties from her book on the tragedy and the donations of well-wishers. Exuding toughness on the outside but tormented within, she’s in desperate need of cash to keep her dumpy house and get her car out of hock, and so accepts an invitation from slightly creepy true-crime buff Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) to visit with the members of his so-called Kill Club, some of whom are oddball re-enactors but others, like him, are serious investigators of notorious murders that might have ended in wrongful convictions. Many in the group, who are also tracking the itinerary of a serial killer called the Angel of Death, believe that Ben is innocent and want to pick Libby’s brain for clues about what really happened that fateful night. Prodded by Wirth, her need for money, and her suppressed fear that she might have been induced to give false testimony against her brother, Libby undertakes an investigation of her own.

In laying out what follows Paquet-Brenner juxtaposes contemporary scenes featuring Theron against gritty, black-and-white flashbacks of the killings and others in color showing Patty’s struggles to keep the FHA from foreclosing on the family farm, even going so far as to meet with an enigmatic fellow (Jeff Chase) who promises deliverance from her woes, while fending off the monetary demands of her mostly absent ne’er-do-well husband Runner (Sean Bridgers), who’s deeply in debt to local bookie Trey Teepano (Shannon Kook). Trey is also the main figure in a Satan-worshipping cult that Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz) Wertzner, whom the lad’s gotten pregnant, involves him with as well. Ben’s even been accused by pretty eleven-year old Krissi Cates (Addy Miller) of sexually abusing her, apparently as part of the cult’s Satanic practices.

In looking into all the murky circumstances swirling around the night in question, Libby tracks down as many of the players as she can. After years of refusing to do so, she visits Ben in prison, finding that he wants to reconnect with her. (Incarceration has evidently been hard on him, since it has transformed handsome Sheridan into bald, horsey Corey Stoll.) She locates the still-menacing Runner (still Bridger, in heavy makeup) living, with some poetic justice, in a toxic waste dump somewhere in Missouri. She confronts Krissi (now Drea de Matteo) in a strip joint and finds her happy to confess her childish lies, and finds a reformed Trey (now J. LaRose), who gives her a clue to the location of long-missing Diondra (now Andrea Roth). Diondra proves key to unraveling the mystery, though a revelation from the Kill Club’s work on a different case is instrumental in revealing the full truth.

The labyrinthine character of the plot—the sort of thing that can work on the page but comes off as silly when reduced to a movie’s running-time—is mirrored in the complex, fragmented way in which Paquet-Benner and his cohorts have elected to tell it on screen. Their technique, with its chaotic meshing of past and present, may be intended to paper over the absurdities in Flynn’s narrative, but all it does is to produce a jumbled, tortured effect. Theron’s one-note performance isn’t much help, and though Sheridan, Hendricks and Hoult all manage hints of humanity, most of the other actors are either dull (Stoll) or indulge in wild overplaying (Moretz). The technical credits aren’t particularly strong, with Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography predictably variable, given the different visual modes for the various timeframes, and editors Billy Fox and Douglas Crise are defeated in their efforts to impose clarity on the myriad temporal shifts. But Laurence Bennett’s production design—complemented by Daniel Turk’s art direction and Linda Lee Sutton’s set decoration—certainly creates a grubby, messy look throughout, something April Napier’s costumes add to.

The sheer luridness of “Dark Places” may hold your attention, but by the close the goofy plot twists and laughable motivations will probably induce a few snickers—which can’t be what Paquet-Brenner intended.