Acting is sort of an unspoken agreement between the thespian and the audience: He or she pretends to be someone else, and we pretend we don't know about the pretending. Unfortunately, however, there are some actors whose stratospheric celebrity is making it increasingly difficult for us to hold up our end of the bargain. George Clooney immediately springs to mind, as does Brad Pitt. Charlize Theron seems to have entered that realm now, too. She and her shaved head did a decent job blending into the grime in "Max Max: Fury Road," but in her new film, the disappointing murder mystery "Dark Places," the one-time Oscar winner's adequate performance as the troubled survivor of a grisly triple homicide can't overshadow the fact that she is Charlize Theron.
Based on the 2009 novel by "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn, "Dark Places" stars Theron as Libby Day, a 30-something Kansas City woman who was present at the slaughter of her family 28 years earlier. Young Libby's testimony resulted in her older brother Ben being convicted for the killings, and nearly three decades later Libby is a surly, hermetic hoarder long dependent upon the kindness of strangers, but that gravy train is about to derail. Libby agrees to rent her insider access to a strange group of true-crime enthusiasts, known as the Kill Club, who are convinced that Ben Day is innocent. And though she remains staunchly convinced of her brother's guilt, Libby, with the help of the Kill Club's Lyle (Theron's "Fury Road" co-star Nicholas Hoult), dives into the investigation.
The film essentially unspools in two threads. One storyline flashes back to the events leading up to the murders of Libby's mother (the excellent Christina Hendricks, "Mad Men") and sisters, an overheated potboiler of money problems, child molestation, domestic abuse, satanism, and teen pregnancy; while the other follows Libby and Lyle as they try to dredge up a past that wants to stay secret. It's never easy to shoehorn a novel into a two-hour movie, and here necessary details don't get the foundation they require, leading to several seemingly out-of-nowhere developments and unsatisfying reveals. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner adapted the source material himself, keeping some of Libby's deliciously noir narration but mostly eschewing her verbal guidance in favor of simple, one-dimensional characters.
"Dark Places" is exceptionally well-cast in the flashback sequences, with the gifted Tye Sheridan ("Tree of Life") as the young Ben, a good but impressionable kid being led around by his hormones, and Chloë Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") laying it on appropriately thick as the manipulative teen temptress Diondra. The drab modern-day action doesn't fare as well despite the efforts of performers like Corey Stoll ("Ant-Man"), Drea DeMatteo ("The Sopranos"), and the unavoidably elegant Theron. Theron dutifully slouches and scowls as the resentful Libby -- described in the book as 4'11" and a D cup, incidentally -- but there aren't enough dingy baseball caps in the world to dim Theron's inherent dazzle.