A South Philadelphia neighborhood, the British historian/philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a one-act play by David Mamet all turn up as important elements in the investigation conducted during Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles. It can, at times, feel like a DIY version of The Da Vinci Code. Instead of an oddly coiffed Tom Hanks, Jon Foy’s documentary has for its hero Justin Duerr, a Philly-based artist and grown-up punk who becomes entranced by a series of mysterious tiles that for years have turned up embedded in the pavement of his home town and other cities ranging from Pittsburgh to Santiago de Chile. “Toynbee idea in Kubrick’s 2001: Resurrect dead on planet Jupiter,” reads a typical one, an enigmatic declaration that Duerr and the two fellow obsessives he teams up with attempt to unpack as they look for the figure behind this strange work of guerilla art.
It’s a ride worth more for its journey than its destination. Resurrect Dead does offer a convincing but anticlimactic “solution” to the Toynbee tiles, but the elements along the way are what make it an engaging film. Duerr and his fellow amateur gumshoes scour the Internet, the library’s microfiche selection, and local bars, and turn up countless bits of intriguing lyricism—a man named Railroad Joe who came from a family of tombstone carvers, a giant piece of glass that was delivered to South America for use in one of the world’s largest telescopes, the secret pirate-radio area of a shortwave-radio convention. Foy’s giddy score and facility with filtering creative graphics and archival imagery into his own footage adds to the film’s sense of being an urban fairytale in which fascinating characters and secret histories lie hidden under every sidewalk shard.
Seemingly realizing that its mystery isn’t substantial enough to sustain the film on its own, Resurrect Dead turns its focus at times to Duerr, shuffling in interviews about him with his brother, his magnificently mustachioed friend, and his ex. A wiry, energetic figure, Duerr is interesting in his own right, but the film doesn’t delve deep enough into his life to make him, or his years-long Toynbee fondness, seem worthy of the screen time they’re given. It feels as though the film was hoping for a little more madness in the driven but entirely grounded Duerr, and a little less in the man he ends up believing is behind the tiles, one who puts the outsider in “outsider artist.”