The title of Dig Two Graves comes reportedly from the writings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, who emphasized the cultivation of character virtues and wisdom above action. It’s debatable whether or not he’s actually responsible for the phrase, which essentially is a warning to those seeking vengeance. Of the two graves, one is for the quarry, but the other is, metaphorically, for the death of the soul of person seeking that vengenance. In effect, it’s saying that the cost of vengeance on those seeking it is greater than the sense of justice one expects to come from achieving it. Upon watching the movie, I mostly disagree with using the phrase as the title.
I disagree for a couple of reasons, actually. The title implies – indeed, necessitates – a strong central character arc. It’s the kind of title that would be appropriate for a movie in which a conflicted protagonist seeks vengeance that may or may not involve a transformative arc. That kind of protagonist and arc is not to be found in this movie. Additionally, the revenge plot itself is hatched, not by the protagonist Jake (Jaqueline) Mathers, but a trio of backwoods types who are the villains of the movie in a kinda-sorta way. By focusing on these guys as the drivers of the plot, but keeping Jake (played by Captain Fantastic’s Samantha Isler) as the protagonist, the structure of the movie is severely weakened. Jake spends the majority of the movie as a puppet o the trio, and the trio are never developed enough as characters to really care about why they’re seeking revenge.
Because the movie unfolds with a dual, parallel narrative structure, it’s hard to give an accurate, spoiler-free synopsis, but here goes: in 1947, two small town cops drop two bodies into a lake outside of town. Fast forward to that same lake 30 years later where Jake sees her elder brother leap into the same lake, to presumably drown. Suffering from grief, Jake is approached by the aforementioned trio with a proposal: we can get your brother back, but you need to find someone to take his place. The story goes on to examine the events of the past, and how they directly affect the present, a trope that will be familiar to anyone who’s a Stephen King fan – which is not to say that this movie feels like a King novel, I hastily add!
The movie is produced by the great Larry Fassenden (Darling, Jug Face, Carnage Park), a champion of well-made, low budget indie horror/thriller movies, and to be sure, it’s not a cheap looking production. Eric Maddison’s cinematography is very nice indeed at times, the score by Brian Deming, Ryan Kattner, and Joe Plummer is good and very appropriate for the setting, and the production design works. It looks and feels like it comes in on the high end of low-budget, maybe around the $2 million-all-in range. However much it cost, the money was well spent. Isler isn’t required to do much more than mope, so she’s wasted here, especially given that she exudes a great, natural charm and maturity. Ted Levine (Bottom of the World) is the stand out performer as her grandfather, and one of the cops in the 1947 scenes, but it’s hard to believe that he is the age he’s supposed to be (which I think is given as 59), considering he looks at least mid 50s in 1947.
Watching this, I was impressed by these technical aspects of the movie, but considerably less by the story itself. I was engaged by the plot until the first appearance of the trio. When they confront Jake in a lonely forested area under a bridge, I was alarmed by the lack of fear in Jake. While I don’t think for a moment, a girl in her mid teens can’t be plucky and combative, there’s also the reality of that situation to think of, and Jake simply doesn’t react to these dirty, oafish, menacing men. It’s not like bad things didn’t happen to kids in the 70s, so I was immediately pulled out of the movie by this scene. And if that didn’t get to me, the main thrust of the plot happens within this sequence of scenes. The trio are headed up by a tall guy in a top hat, clearly the more cultured of the three (the other two have sketched in traits, but could never be considered as characters), and he offers Jake the chance to bring her brother back. At this point I was expecting a variant of the old Monkey’s Paw storyline, but actually almost nothing comes of this at all, leaving the story to take on a more or less uninteresting morality struggle that then morphs into a sins-of-the-past storyline. The implied supernatural aspect of the story is downplayed to the point where there’s almost nothing overtly supernatural that happens whatsoever. I was really disappointed by this – it’s not exactly a bait and switch, but it felt like it. There are two scenes where you think something might come of it, notably two cave scenes featuring some kind of vaguely cultish dealings.
The parallel narratives, complete with reveal, begin towards the end of Act 2, then gain momentum through the climactic scenes, but they feel strangely weightless, and the overall effect of them – of the entire movie, actually, imbues the movie with the notion that it’s one of those true crime recreation documentaries you see on TV, where the actual story is a lot more interesting than the scripted, low-cost version. That blandness is something I could feel throughout the 84 minutes, and at the end I looked back to see if I could find anything of any great value to write about it, and the truth is, I couldn’t.
© Andrew Hope 2017