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Film Review: Kansas Citians Unlikely To Recognize These 'Dark Places'

Doane Gregory
Charlize Theron stars in 'Dark Places,' based on Gillian Flynn novel.

Given the titanic success of Kansas City native Gillian Flynn's third novel Gone Girl and the subsequent David Fincher film, it isn't surprising that Flynn's back catalog would look tasty to the entertainment industry. But can lightning strike twice?

Dark Places, Flynn's second book, is director Gilles Paquet-Brenner's stab at tapping the writer's success in creating shady, complicated women characters. In this case, Charlize Theron is the enigmatic blonde at the center of a murder mystery set in contemporary Kansas City and thirty years earlier in the fictional town of Kinnakee, Kansas, a bucolic landscape stained by the 1985 "Prairie Massacre" — and filmed mostly in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Libby Day was eight years old when she escaped the slaughter of her mother (Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men") and two sisters. Now a wayward, lost adult (Theron), Libby has been perpetuating her grief by capitalizing on the generosity of sympathetic supporters. But the cash begins to dry up; too many other child survivors of ghastly crimes are distracting from Libby's once unique notoriety.

She finds a potential bankroll at The Kill Club, whose members meet in the smoky back room of a Kansas City bar and are united by obsessions with all things murder. There's a faux corpse outlined in white chalk, a Lizzie Borden wannabe, and a chilling encounter in which Libby is introduced to Bob Berdella, Kansas City's most monstrous serial killer.

Intent on correcting questionable murder convictions, the group pleads with Libby to rethink her testimony against her brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan as a teenager and Corey Stoll decades later), thirty years earlier. More money passes her palm and she half-heartedly takes up the challenge, visiting her brother in prison for the first time and returning to the town where her life was obliterated by violence and entangled in more sinister secrets.

Theron adopts a defensive stance and joyless demeanor similar to that of her Oscar-winning portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Libby, though, is ultimately more redeemable. It is not unfair to wonder whether Flynn's novel was too labyrinthine to make a movie as concise and pungent as Gone Girl. A few characters seem pertinent until they're not. And while the massacre recalls the blunt force of In Cold Blood's close-range killings, it's filmed too chaotically to be credulous.

Flynn, who wrote the Gone Girl screenplay, hands that Dark Places duty to Paquet-Brenner, which might explain one glaring inaccuracy about the region. The tag below a fake CNN newscast reads "Kansas City Prairie Massacre," reinforcing the stereotype that our metropolis is a dusty bowl with rolling tumbleweeds. One scene supposedly set downtown shows no building anyone here would recognize. But mentions of Kearney and Columbia ring true in a movie that doesn't always do the same.

Dark Places | Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner | 112 minutes | Rated R |Playing at Cinetopia, AMC Barrywoods 24, and AMC Studio 28.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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