Opening at Tower City Friday and destined to hit the road after a limited engagement, A Dark Place is an undistinguished murder mystery that can't quite do for the Alleghenies what Winter's Bone did for the Ozarks.
Though it's clearly trying.
Just take a look at the posters. The bewhiskered face of Andrew Scott (Moriarty, from the BBC's Sherlock) gazes out over the trees and dappled lake/river of his sylvan locale, just as Jennifer Lawrence, in 2010, gazed out over the trees and dappled lake/river of her sylvan locale. The double exposure, the composition of the image, even the title font — they're all virtually identical.
The only difference is, A Dark Place sucks. The film doesn't seem like much more than a vehicle for Scott, a gifted character actor, to experiment with ways to portray a socially and mentally stunted man.
He's Donald Devlin, a garbage man in Harburg, Pennsylvania. The Steelers and Penguins merchandise in his 11-year-old daughter's bedroom hint at the nearest metro. In the opening scene, Devlin notices that a young boy on his route, who usually waves from his bedroom window, is missing. He soon learns that the boy drowned in a nearby creek. But after a conversation with the boy's mother, Devlin is convinced that there's more to the story and sets off on a personal quest to solve what he believes is a murder.
The script's flaws are abundant, but chief among them is the fact that the mystery just isn't all that interesting. There are two or three characters who might've committed the crime, and screenwriter Brendan Higgins doesn't even bother fleshing out a red herring. Furthermore, for a man of Devlin's abilities — he is at times vaguely autistic, at other times more conventionally "slow" — the investigation goes off without a hitch. He rarely chases down the wrong scent and even conducts an interrogation he seems wholly unequipped for. Both the unique history and dynamics of the small town and the motivations for Devlin's pursuit — i.e., beyond "he was just an innocent kid" — are unexplored.
Unfortunately for A Dark Place — a title that, while we're on the subject, ought to have been workshopped — the likes of True Detective and other prestige crime TV shows have upped the ante on quality storytelling. Viewers these days are more sophisticated. They expect depth and originality in the genre. And while it's difficult to orchestrate an edge-of-your-seat whodunnit in the confines of a 100- or even 120-minute movie, it can be done. But a creditable performance can't salvage a poorly written character, and lush nature shots can't compensate for a story uninterested in what makes a murder in the Alleghenies distinct from a murder in West Texas (No Country for Old Men), in San Francisco (Zodiac), or on an Indian Reservation (Wind River). There are ways to evoke and exploit a landscape for narrative economy, ways to communicate character and setting and tension in a single frame.
Look no further than Winter's Bone.