Dark Places is Gillian Flynn's second novel to receive a Hollywood adaptation, after last fall's stellar Gone Girl. But the mystery of the film is why Flynn, the patron saint of schemers, couldn't brainstorm how to kill it. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner marshaled a top-tier cast — Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, and rising star Tye Sheridan -- and commanded them to tromp across Flynn's intelligent bestseller like investigators muddying a crime scene.
Our setting is a triple murder on a family farm in Kansas. Flynn went to the University of Kansas, and her novel had a feel for the state's poverty and religious paranoia. (Consider it the fictitious update of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.) In 1985, seven-year-old Libby (Theron and young actress Sterling Jerins) witnessed the slaying of her single mother and two sisters. Her testimony sent older brother Ben (Sheridan and Corey Stoll), a piffling Satanist, to prison for life.
Dark Places' nastiest twist is that ever since, lazy Libby has lived off the schadenfreude of strangers who mail her donations and, at her most desperate, offer her $500 to speak at their Kill Club, a warren of amateur sleuths and sickos tarted up like John Wayne Gacy.
Flynn, too, has made money from our morbid fascination with death. She's happily loaded the gun and pointed it at us, but Paquet-Brenner can't pull the trigger. Instead, he squanders Dark Places' icky setup for a rote investigation to find the real killer, a revelation greeted not with a "What?!" but with a "Whatever."