DIG TWO GRAVES
Director: Hunter Adams
Cast: Samantha Isler, Ted Levine, Troy Ruptash, Danny Goldring, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Kara Zediker, Audrey Francis, Ben Schneider
Running Time: 1:25
Release Date: 3/25/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 23, 2017
The title comes from one of Confucius' aphorisms: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." It's almost a given that someone in the movie will quote it, and we know this even before we see a character randomly reading a book about the philosopher. There's a sense of inevitability to Dig Two Graves that goes beyond the philosophical implications of the title.
It's a revenge story that's told from the perspective of an innocent victim of the revenge plot. She's a 13-year-old girl who's wracked with grief and guilt over the accidental death of her older brother. Her only crime is being related to a man who, decades ago, may or may not have wronged a family of outsiders in a local town.
The girl is named Jacqueline (Samantha Isler)—nicknamed Jake. She lives in a small town in Southern Illinois, where borders of the town quickly give way to a wooded area, where a dirt road sets the scene for a prologue set in 1947. Two cops drive to a nearby quarry, remove a pair of bodies enclosed in burlap sacks from the back of the truck, and unceremoniously dump the corpses into the water. One of the cops confronts the other—the local Sheriff—and forces him to give up his position of power on the spot.
Thirty years later, the semi-decent cop is now in charge of the department. Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine) is Jake's maternal grandfather. The death of Jake's brother (Ben Schneider), after jumping off the same cliff and into the same water where those bodies were dumped decades ago, has hit the family—and the town, for that matter—hard. That's especially true of Jake, who was with her brother at the time, refused to take the leap with him, and couldn't get help in time to save him.
While walking home from school one cloudy afternoon, she's confronted by a trio of strangers near an old railway tunnel (The movie, shot on location, offers a bounty of atmospheric and unlikely locales such as this). The three are led by Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), who is dressed, like his compatriots, in ratty, postdated clothes. The leader looks a bit like a magician, with his heavy coat and towering top hat, and he has a magic trick to show Jake.
He reveals a sack with a snake within it. After ordering her to stomp on the beast and revealing that it is dead, Wyeth brings Jake back to the gang's rundown shack, where he shows her that the snake is now alive again. He can do the same for her brother. All that he asks for is a life in exchange for her brother's.
The screenplay, co-written by director Hunter Adams and Jeremy Phillips, melds three moral dilemmas. There's the story of Waterhouse and his former partner Proctor (Danny Goldring), the ex-Sheriff who owns the shack where the three men live, who were partners in a senseless crime based on ethnic prejudice all those years ago (revealed through a series of flashbacks) and are now trying to atone in their own, separate ways. There's the story of the three vagabonds, who may or may not possess legitimate magical powers but are definitely trying to pay back the wages of a grandfather's sins on his grandchild.
Of primary focus, though, is Jake's dilemma. Her choice is simple, but either decision is devastating: Either she kills an innocent to save her brother, or she loses her brother forever, while denying herself and her family the opportunity to have him returned. It's simple on moral grounds, of course, and only somewhat complicated by the trio's apparent possession of magical abilities (The movie is shaky on this, providing a couple scenes of some dark ceremony in a cave, but again, those locations are really effective in setting the mood). Isler's performance makes the character's decision-making process, not so much a black-and-white matter (murder and resurrection or inaction and mourning), but more a matter of moral certainty mixed with temptation. It's a complex performance despite the screenplay's simple setup.
Also excelling here is Levine, who is simultaneously playing to and against type as a tough but weary lawman. His performance is more than simply a balance of the two types, though. This is a man wrestling with guilt from the past, a sense of responsibility for how his actions have come around in the present, and simple loneliness. There's love and genuine concern in his scenes with Jake, but there's also the kind of no-nonsense attitude that comes when talking with someone who, like Jake, is of a similar worldview. It's a great performance from an actor who is often overlooked after a career of being pigeonholed into certain kinds of roles.
The movie itself isn't quite as adept with its own balancing act. Its relationships outside of the one between Jake and Waterhouse are fuzzier (The way in which the flashbacks move back and forth results some minor confusion about who did what and when), and once the truth of what happened in the past is clear enough, the screenplay is essentially moving toward a given end result. Dig Two Graves is bolstered quite a bit by its focus on atmosphere, as well as the two central performances, but it remains a journey toward the inevitable.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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