A girl’s obsession with her brother’s disappearance leads her on a nightmarish journey through a small town’s Gothic landscape where she is faced with a deadly proposition. How far will she go to save the people she loves?
A pale, quiet young girl. A desolate lake. A grieving sheriff. Slithery snakes. While all the ingredients of your typical horror flick are here, filmmaker Hunter Adams subverts them into an effective little drama about redemption – one with slashed throats and blood guzzling. In that way, it’s similar to “Personal Shopper,” another horror-cum-redemption-drama I just reviewed (read it here), yet “Dig Two Graves” lacks the French film’s assuredness, wackiness, and depth.
That said, it would be unfair to expect Hunter Adams to be on Olivier Assayas’ level, and in his feature debut, the young director gets a lot of things right. Its outcome may be obvious from a mile away, and there are a few niggles on the way, but “Dig Two Graves” still manages to tickle heartstrings, as opposed to shredding nerves. This is the kind of film that marks its writer/director team as “one to watch.”
Dedicated to Candy and Pam, “DTG” starts in 1947, with Deputy Waterhouse (Ted Levine) threatening to shoot Sheriff Proctor (Danny Goldring), after they dispose of two wrapped-up bodies in The Lake. Waterhouse clutches an occult-looking pendant in his hands, his eyes filled with remorse. 30 years later, siblings Sean (Ben Schneider) and Jake (Samantha Isler) are living out their halcyon days, riding bikes and exploring the wilderness surround their suburban little town – until Sean dies, that is, in The Lake.
Time passes. We find out that Waterhouse – now the town’s sheriff with hemorrhoid issues and a predilection for Confucius – is Jake’s grandfather. Upon hearing the news that a baby sibling is on the way, Jake escapes to his house and has feverish dreams about drowning in The Lake.
Mysterious, dirty, hillbilly-looking men appear in Jake’s life, led by the creepy Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), who wears a top hat and seems to know a bit too much about the night Sean died. Upon making Jake perform the grisliest magic trick of her life, Wyeth “assures” her that Sean “is not dead, he’s just hard to find.” They bring her back to their devilish headquarters and offer an exchange: her brother, back from the dead, in exchange for Willie (Gabriel Cain), her bullied friend at school.
What follows is a gradually unfolding mystery, with weird sidetracks into the occult that bring down an otherwise solid, and at times touching story of two men (and a girl) dealing with grief, guilt and revenge – until the ultimate face-off (and plunge). Stomped and chomped snakes mesh uneasily with a resonant shot of blood mixing with egg yolk; half-naked characters mumbling occult gibberish and dancing around the fire precede a tense stand-off in the forest; there are laughable lines, like “put the goddamned egg salad down and listen to me” or “don’t speak fucking gypsy to me” – but then most of what come out of Waterhouse’s mouth is borderline-profound.
Which brings me to Ted Levine’s performance, going a long way in buoying the film. Though at times he chews scenery as slavishly as his character chomps on his cigars, the actor brings gravitas and depth to an otherwise quite straightforward film. When he says, “you ’bout done suckin’ my dick?” to his kiss-up deputy, one can’t help but wonder what this film would have been like if it focused solely on his character.
Samantha Isler needs a stronger directorial grip, but there’s a steel shade in her eyes and a poise in her demeanor. She certainly has her standout moments, such as when she defends William from bullies by smacking one of them in the face with a bar of soap, or brings to mind Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree, in the way she nonchalantly guts a deer.
The ending got to me, even though I saw it coming. Perhaps the film caught me at a vulnerable time. There’s no denying its ominous atmosphere, the effectiveness of Eric Maddison’s icy-cool camerawork or the gravity of its lead actor’s performance. Hunter Adams went for something more than your average spook-house here, and for that, she must be applauded. Candy and Pam, I’m sure, are very proud.
In theaters and On Demand Friday, March 24th