After American Fable, I decided to sample another one of Netflix’s period piece thrillers set in rural America. That led me to Dig Two Graves (made in 2014 but released last year), director/co-writer Hunter Adams’ 70s era tale of a grieving girl and the lengths she’ll go to to resurrect her dead brother. However, while American Fable is a flawed journey worth taking Dig Two Graves is more of a I-watched-it-so-you-don’t-have-to situation. It’s going for a kind of American true crime, Fargo-meets-gothic horror kind of thing, but it’s seriously handcuffed by an overwrought flashback device and subpar make-up work. What begins as a compelling story about a grieving child turns into revenge plotting and cranky old dudes and their competing, fake-looking beards (or self-hate, but I really think it’s the beards).
After a brief prologue depicting two cops dumping a couple of dead bodies in a quarry under the cover of night in 1947, Dig Two Graves jumps ahead thirty years to 1977 and follows the innocent, around-the-town adventures of Jake (Samantha Isler) and her older brother Sean. Quickly, they find themselves staring down the very same quarry we glimpsed in the prologue, and even though they promise to jump in at the same time Jake loses her nerve at the last second, leaving her brother to take the plunge alone.
Except he never resurfaces. Jake waits and waits, but Sean never comes up for air, screams for help, or makes any noises whatsoever. In fact, the water is as still as it could be.
Did Sean drown? Was he somehow quickly kidnapped? Is there something supernatural afoot? Did the ghosts of the people from 1947 get to him? Is Jake even a reliable narrator in this situation?
Before we can even really ponder those questions, the film cuts to Sean’s funeral, with incidental dialogue confirming the body was never found. Then, just as quickly, we cut to some time later as Jake is being informed by her parents that her mom is pregnant. They just lost one child, but now they’re going to bring another into the world.
Devastated, Jake accuses her parents of forgetting all about her brother and rushes to her grandfather (Ted Levine, channeling a bit of Hell or High Water Jeff Bridges) for comfort. He’s the Sheriff in town and was one of the two officers up on that quarry in the prologue. Loving and never condescending toward Jake, he appears to be a good grandpa. However, this is where the film pivots into the dual story of the choices Jake makes out of grief and the secrets Sheriff Waterhouse keeps hiding out of necessity as well as the long-simmering feud he’s had with his old boss.
Before long, Jake comes upon a trio of gypsies who look a bit like Little Red Riding Hood characters who’ve been dressed by Bill the Butcher. You might think they’re actually supernatural entities, but, no, they’re just a couple of dudes up to no good who act and look like they’ve been airlifted in from a gothic fairy tale. They offer Jake a Faustian bargain to bring her brother back.
At the same time, the Sheriff keeps flashing back to a series of encounters he had with gypsies which led to him helping dump those darn bodies.
Could the two plot strands be connected?
Will I easily predict exactly how they’re going to end up connecting well before the movie ever gets there?
Predictability is not the problem, though. The true problem is that, perhaps true to its title, Dig Two Graves tries to be two movies at once and struggles to satisfy both of them at the same time. The movie starring Jake as a grief-stricken, emotionally wounded young girl who will fool herself into believing in magic and agree to possibly kill her best friend just to see her brother again is compelling, unsettling, and at times downright weird. In her eyes, the gypsies do seem otherworldly. Adams’ dutch angles and atmospheric lighting presents the trio as undeniably menacing figures, yet Jakes’ refusal to ever indicate she’s in any way afraid of them reinforces just how committed she is to bringing Sean back.
But there’s just not enough of all of that nor is there sufficient time devoted at the beginning to establishing Jake and Sean’s bond or her friendship with the boy (pictured above) whose life she means to sacrifice.
That’s because there’s this other movie set in the 40s where a then-Deputy Waterhouse, who is meant to be 30 years younger at that point even though Levine looks roughly the same, bears witness to some truly heinous acts perpetrated by his boss yet does nothing about it. In the present, Sheriff Waterhouse and his old boss, both with obviously fake old age make-up, now hate each other and vaguely grumble their way through confrontations. It all turns into the sins of one generation being visited upon the next before culminating in a Taylor Sheridan-style standoff.
Then there’s a third, much smaller film involving Jake’s mom grieving Sean’s death in her own way. But by the time you get there you just really wish the movie had focused on Jake and Jake alone. Instead, there’s too much happening and the central driving force of the story – Jake’s grief – ends up feeling far too much like a mere plot point to be ticked off instead of a fully realized set of emotions.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dig Two Graves is a film which simply tries to do too much and struggles to successfully combine the various genres it’s playing with. Director Hunter Adams repeatedly executes impressive camera movements, scene transitions and shows a real knack for evocative, atmospheric imagery. Samantha Isler shows exactly what led casting directors to later put her into Supernatural, Captain Fantastic, and Molly’s Game. The Southern Illinois University film students who contributed to the production as interns should be proud of the work they’ve done here. But this is clearly a film made by people still learning the craft and the amount of promise they display is ultimately undercut by an inferior script.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The Independent Film Project provides first-time filmmakers whose projects cost less than $1m to make and are already in post-production with a year-long mentorship program to help edit, market, and release their movie and launch their career in the process. In the past, it has helped people like David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine). Hunter Adams was awarded acceptance into the program in 2013.
- Producer P.J. Fishwick regularly uses Southern Illinois University film students as interns as part of his productions, and according to him some of the students he employed on Dig Two Graves have since moved to L.A. while others work for him in Chicago now.