Film Review: Dig Two Graves

This slow-burn thriller oozes suffocating menace as its teenaged protagonist starts poking around her family tree and finds it rotten to the root.
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Midwestern teenager Jacqueline "Jake" Mather (Samantha Isler) adored her older brother Sean (Ben Schneider), a handsome daredevil who was never too cool to hang around with his little sister. And then everything changed in a moment: Sean and Jake went out to swim in a local quarry, even though Jake was daunted by the long dive off a high cliff. Sean held her hand, but she pulled back at the last minute and Sean never emerged from the water.

His death cast a pall over the family—Jake, her parents (Rachel Drummond and Ryan Kitley) and her grandfather, Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine), already haunted by his own deeply buried ghosts—that has never lifted. The scar on Jake's forehead—she fell and cut her head while running for help—is like a stigmata, an ever-present reminder of the ever-missing Sean; even his funeral was damaging, a ritual with no body to be consigned to the ground.

And then, one ordinary school day, Jake is approached by three strangers, whose odd clothing vaguely suggests that they've stepped out of an earlier era. Their obvious leader, Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), tells Jake that there's a way to bring Sean back, but the catch—such offers always come with one—is that someone else will have to die.

In synopsis, director Hunter Adams’ story sounds lurid and more than a little preposterous, but the telling is meticulously grounded in its place and time, respectively suburban Illinois and a thoroughly authentic 1977, which shouldn't be a big deal but is: Most 21st-century movies set in the ’70s have at least a touch of the cartoonish about them, as though they'd been costume- and art-directed via outlandish fashion magazine spreads rather than through photographs and film—there's plenty of both around—of what ordinary people were actually wearing and carrying and sitting on.

For all its spooky and violent goings-on, Dig Two Graves is more drama than horror, it hauntings firmly rooted in things people did or witnessed or allowed to be done, and it's anchored by a pair of subtle, beautifully modulated performances by Levine and Isler, who garnered strong reviews for her work in last year’s Captain Fantastic, no mean feat given that Viggo Mortensen is a natural-born scene-stealer and that she's one of six young actors competing for screen time. Genre enthusiasts who like their movies blood-drenched and loud would do well to look elsewhere for thrills, but those who prefer more subtle and character-driven chills will not be disappointed.

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