A bit more of a genre-bent revenge drama than outright horror, Dig Two Graves makes a minimal budget look splendid with beautifully shot, stripped-down woodland revenge saga and a sprinkling of gypsy magic. Director Hunter Adams and cinematographer Eric Madison capture the rugged beauty of southern Illinois’ fertile woodlands, and Adams clearly has a knack with actors, but the story occasionally fails to keep pace with the film’s lush visuals, thick ambiance, and rich performances.
The story follows the parallel and intertwining narratives of two generations in a backwoods Illinois town where police corruption, gypsy magic, and the desperation of grief churn up one tragedy after the next. In 1947, Sheriff Proctor (Danny Goldring) and his deputy, Waterhouse (Ted Levine), toss two dead bodies off a cliff into the local lake. Immediately plagued with remorse, Waterhouse pulls a gun and demands that Proctor relinquish his badge, telling him in no uncertain terms “You are no longer sheriff of this town.” It’s the birth of one of many grudges that will poison their lives for decades to come.
Thirty years later, in 1977, Waterhouse’s teenage grandchildren, Sean (Ben Schneider) and Jake (Samantha Isler), dare each other to jump off that same cliff, unaware of the water’s dark history. Jake bails at the last second, leaving her brother to plummet into the depths alone, and when he never resurfaces, Jake is despondent and wracked with guilt over his death. That’s when she meets three moonshiner gypsies, who show her a convincing magic trick and offer her a trade: her brother’s resurrection in exchange for the murder of an innocent schoolmate. Jake is horrified at first, but before too long, her grief drives her to consider her dreadful options.
For a story that’s so heavily saturated in mourning and emotion, Dig Two Graves steers entirely clear of sentimentality. Instead, the film grows from that sticks-and-mud-in-your-guts grieving process that makes you so desperate for relief, and how that desperation drives decent people down dark paths of vengeance and supernatural bargaining. The more genre-oriented elements are kept to a minimum; there’s really no gore or overt scares to speak of, with only flashes of mystical misdeeds to highlight the grounded nature of death and vengeance.
Littered with the corpses of hunted animals; stuffed, strung, skinned, and splayed, Dig Two Graves is a story carved out of flesh, blood, and bone. The film’s greatest horrors are born out of violent actions of men and their haunted pasts, rather than the lures of the devil. But at the same time, Adams creates an ambiance of woodland eerieness that feels like you could stumble into the crossfires of an ancient ritual at any turn.
Beautifully shot and hauntingly atmospheric though it may be, the film is built on the performances from Isler and Levine. Their character’s arcs and their hearty performances give Dig Two Graves a pulse. As Jake, Isler is vulnerable but steely, almost aloof, and commanding well beyond her years. Her conflict and resolve carry much of the film’s intrigue, and the young actress communicates easily with minimal dialogue. But Levine is on another level, with some of the best work of his career. As her grandfather, he balances the complex elements of his character with mastery: the gruff, no-frills, calloused hands and chapped face of the rural American working man, along with his tender, fiercely protective paternal instinct and the weight he carries from being haunted by his moral burden. Levine allows him to be complicated and torn up with the ravages of time. He is the hero and the villain, or more accurately, he is ultimately neither, just a man who is a little better and a little worse than average. Dig Two Graves shines when it digs into the highs and lows of both, and the honest, heartbreaking moments where they meet.
That morality play is the crux of the film’s story. It asks the question of what makes people good and evil, and how much of each we all carry inside us. It ask’s what the is the price we pay for being both. While the pacing and narrative command stagger at times, veering from slow-burn into stagnant on occasion, the central themes and the climactic payoff are ultimately strong enough to right the ship. If you’re familiar with the Confucious adage from which Dig Two Graves borrows its title, you should have a good sense of how this multi-generational revenge saga will play out. Even so, the film delivers plenty of twists and moments of character nuance to make the destination worth the journey.
Dig Two Graves is now playing OnDemand and in select theaters.