An intriguing central mystery can’t elevate Dark Places (2015), a competent Midwest-set chiller that’s diverting but unremarkable. Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is the lone survivor of the Kansas Prairie Massacre, a horrific outbreak of violence that killed her mother and sisters when she was ten. After years skating by on charitable notoreity, Libby falls out of the spotlight and her financial desperation leads her to accept an invitatation from Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), an earnest young member of a true-crime puzzle-solving club full of PIs and amateur sleuths fascinated by unsolved cases. Although the murder of Libby’s family was blamed on Libby’s troubled brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the club doesn’t think that adds up—and lures Libby into helping them uncover the truth about that night.
Based on a Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places gets its hooks in with an interesting early setup, but ultimately never develops into compelling viewing. Theron has more charisma in one cheekbone than most actors do in their entire bodies, so it’s easy to root for her as she delves into her grimdark past. But the mystery unfolds in an awkward combination of in-the-dark, first-person narration and third-person omniscient flashback. This unusual tactic feels like an authorial cheat, leaving the viewer selectively informed as the film doles out clues. The performances are solid, at least, with Christina Hendricks and Chloë Grace Moretz standing out in the flashback scenes. But the mystery, while interesting, resolves in a clumsy mix of expositional dialogue and offstage deus ex machina. Overall, a polished but unexceptional crime tale.