Like Gone Girl, the mystery thriller Dark Places is based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, and the formula is similar: Take a true crime story that's been sensationalized in the tabloids, and then adorn it with imaginative plot twists and red herrings.
There are way too many of those things in the workmanlike, often bland Dark Places, which borrows from the West Memphis Three case, involving a trio of boys wrongly accused of "Satanic" killings in a conservative community.
The film, which features an impressive cast, takes us to Kansas City, where Libby Day (Charlize Theron) remains haunted by the slayings of her mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters. Libby escaped the carnage and provided testimony that convicted her troubled Goth brother, Ben. But 25 years later, she harbors doubts about whether her memories about that night were reliable.
Enter Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), the creepy yet affable leader of the Kill Club, who pays skeptical, broke Libby to help find out whether the authorities got the wrong man. (Their Laundromat meeting is one of the best scenes in the movie.) The setup offers delicious possibilities, but unfortunately, the film never quite gets going, whether it's in current time or in flashbacks leading up to the murders.
That's because the characters are mainly of the cardboard variety, a problem on full display when Theron meets up with Corey Stoll (the older Ben) at the penitentiary. Even these two fine actors can't generate any heat with this thin gruel of a script.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner compensates for this problem with one plot implausibility after another, and the last third of the film feels forced. It also doesn't help that the film fails to capture the Midwestern ethos that's central to the story — yet another sign that plot machinations have overwhelmed the proceedings.
Still, Dark Places isn't a disaster. Instead, it's the definition of average, and it's too bad it didn't take us to some more interesting places.