A car speeds out into a desolate desert. A man named Reggie gets out with a gun, and then opens the trunk, where another man, Dan, lies bound and gagged.
Dan is taken out and a shovel is thrown at him and told to start digging his own grave. Problem is… it’s much harder to dig a big hole in the ground than the movies make it seem.
Directed by Kirk Larsen and written by Larsen and Amos Vernon, this subversively witty comedy short uses its strong foundation of excellent craft, writing and performance to portray a potential murder gone awry, to hilarious effect.
The central conceit of the humor revolves initially on playing with the rules and expectations of genre. The film starts off with an adrenaline rush with beautifully shot but ominously empty desert vistas, taut editing and a tense musical score. The cinematic build-up promises violence and thrills, building up momentum and suspense with each beat, and it obviously draws on Westerns and crime thrillers in both form and content.
But just as the pace begins to crescendo, the momentum stops as Dan complains that the ground’s too hard to dig, and the film shifts into comedy mode. At first, the shift into comedy is brief, as Reggie and the storytelling attempt to get back to the business of dispatching this future corpse. But Dan can’t help but keep tugging it back to reality, complaining the ground is too hard and that it will take too long for one person to dig a grave.
The excellent writing comes to fore and characters deepen, as the two men begin to argue and then finally talk. The narrative here starts to have a little fun, as the forward movement ambles into deep emotional territory for both characters. It’s obviously skewed a bit towards heightened parody, but it’s played by actors Henry Zebrowski and Amos Vernon with a nimble sincerity — which only makes it funnier and even rather sweet.
The sweetness can’t last too long, though, because Reggie has to get back to the work of being a hitman, and the final confrontation puts us back into thriller mode, complete with guns and fighting — though things go down in an unexpected way, once again, with a denouement that’s both loopy and yet makes perfectly logical sense in this funhouse mirror of a crime story.
Subversive, witty and self-aware, “Dig Your Own Grave” is a terrific showcase of solidly excellent craft, storytelling and performance. But its ultimate cleverness is how it punctures the almost macho conceit of the thriller, with its promise of seamlessly direct violence and force, with the realism and awkwardness of real-life logistics and people, with their insecurities, vulnerabilities, fears and anxieties. The genre — and the world — demands a certain overpowering strength and dominance from these men. But trying to live up to that imperative just isn’t possible — and perhaps is folly to begin with.