Photo: Area23a

Set mostly in 1977, with recurring flashbacks to events that took place three decades earlier, Dig Two Graves goes refreshingly light on the period signifiers. Writer-director Hunter Adams, making his feature debut, shot the film in the Little Egypt region of southern Illinois, which is semi-rural enough (at least as depicted here) to seem a decade or so behind what were then the times. A few characters sport feathered hair or porn-star mustaches, but this isn’t a story “about” the ’70s; Adams appears to have chosen this particular era primarily to avoid the trappings of modern technology, a move that’s becoming increasingly common as we all get more and more glued to our smartphones. It paid off, in this case: The movie looks superb, especially for its minuscule budget. While Adams is clearly a very promising director, however, his screenwriting chops aren’t so advanced. This is one clunky amalgam of mystery and guilt.

The first two scenes, set 30 years apart at the same cliff edge overlooking a lake, establish the parallel narratives. In 1947, a sheriff and his deputy toss a pair of corpses over the cliff into the water, for reasons that won’t be revealed until the film’s final minutes. In 1977, teenager Jake Mather (Samantha Isler, who played one of the kids in Captain Fantastic) agrees to leap off the same cliff with her older brother (Ben Schneider), but chickens out at the last second, letting him jump alone. He never surfaces, and his body is never found. Jake is so devastated by his loss that she’s prepared to listen when three mysterious men, led by a fellow in an anachronistic stovepipe hat who calls himself Wyeth (Danny Goldring), claim that they can bring her brother back from the dead… provided she’s willing to offer someone to take his place. How this relates to the dead bodies from 1947—and to Jake’s grandfather, Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine)—only gradually becomes clear, though the film inevitably builds to some furious dual-decade cross-cutting.

Levine, who’s been a sterling utility player since breaking out as Jame Gumb in The Silence Of The Lambs, rarely gets to play roles this large, and Sheriff Waterhouse gives him the opportunity to mix some loving solicitude (toward Jake) into his usual frightening irascibility. Isler, however, can’t quite sell Dig Two Graves’ implausible dramatic fulcrum, which requires us to believe that this young woman might potentially murder an innocent classmate in the hope of reanimating her dead brother. The movie shows Jake gazing awestruck at a fairground magician early on, but that’s just not sufficient; she seems far too intelligent and grounded to consider something so patently ludicrous. There are some weird omissions, too: A character who isn’t on screen at a moment when he clearly should be (barring some explanation for his absence, which isn’t forthcoming), and a big confrontation between Jake and the sheriff that just gets skipped over.

Frustrating though Dig Two Graves generally is from a storytelling standpoint, it’s consistently a visual pleasure. The Little Egypt locations are stunners, beautifully shot by Swiss-born director of photography Eric Maddison; there’s a fairy-tale vibe when Jake and her brother walk through the woods to the cliff, for example, which lends Wyeth’s almost literal snake-oil routine a little more credibility later on. Even in more mundane settings, Adams shows a knack for arresting compositions: A shot of Jake waiting to be picked up by her father after school has her perfectly centered in front of a symmetrical building, but slightly off-center between two sections of fencing, with two kids on swings moving in and out of frame on the left behind her, in an alternating rhythm. It’s all of six seconds long, but it makes an impression. That’s more than a lot of Sundance filmmakers manage in 90 minutes. If potential is your thing, here’s a possible ground floor.

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