“The Dig” marks a first for me: This is the first time I have seen a trailer that is so bad, I just had to see the movie. For the most part that trailer is a pretty standard Oscar-bait, movie trailer right up until the end, where a defiant, heroic, and purposeful Ralph Fiennes says “…you point the spot, and I’LL DIG”, which might be my favorite line to come out of trailer, since the all-time high of Sam Jackson in the best trailer released ever for “Spiral: From the book of Saw”. I can’t wait to finally see Spiral, but I can see – and have seen – “The Dig” and…it’s weird, which is not what I expected. Honestly, there were two ways that movie could go in my mind; either it was a bog-standard Oscar-bait movie that is too self-serious and safe to be interesting, or it would be flaming garbage can of a disaster and it would be fun to dissect or just make fun of. So, weird is a nice surprise and worth exploring, but I wouldn’t really recommend actually seeing the movie, because despite a lot of interesting decisions, the end product is a mostly safe and boring movie.
As the title implies, “The Dig” is about digging; specifically, it is the story of Basil Brown (portrayed by the always excellent Ralph Fiennes), archeologist and excavator, contracted by Edith Pretty (portrayed by the always excellent Carey Mulligan) to start an excavation in her land, which the local museum won’t take on because World War II is on the horizon and they have other stuff going on. The movie is deceivingly straight-forward; Basil Brown is the scrappy, DIY-hero, who has had to make a lot of sacrifices and not being taken seriously by the snobby, condescending museum, until Mrs. Pretty gives him the chance and backing to write his (and her) name in the history books. It has a bittersweet ending, it explores many themes inherent in this type of drama – like what our legacy is, if our physical forms will wither away with time – and it’s all written well and acted with exceptional skill by the top-notch cast; it’s also, like many of these dramas, quite boring at times and very glorifying of its characters.
That is what was expected though, so where’s the weird stuff I hear you ask; decisions. Most of the creative decisions in this movie are, to say the least, interesting; this is my Rorschach test for people’s tastes. Not to say if we disagree our tastes don’t align, but our understanding of each other’s tastes in movies will deepen. I think this movie is overall boring and well-acted, but the editing decisions, in particular, fascinate me and I’ll probably rewatch the movie just to make up my mind if it was purely a stylistic choice or tight and unfinished shoots that led to those decisions. Let’s take for example the way the dialogue is presented in the movie: Most of the time it is “off _”; sometimes it is off context, meaning that we hear dialogue that we don’t know the context of yet; sometimes it is off putting, like scenes where the characters emote and react to dialogue that is in voice over, as if they are telepathically communicating; sometimes, it is off time, meaning that we hear the conversation that is about to happen or has happened, and we see the reaction or preceding moments. So, here’s the test: after watching the movie and seeing how they decided to treat dialogue, do you think it was due to a rushed schedule or a stylistic choice? Sure, in some scenes there’s clear intent, but other scenes were borderline comical with how off-color these decisions were.
Another good one of those is the sound design decisions made for important scenes; a lot of the times, they simply mute the sound, like you are watching the space scenes in Interstellar. However, this is not bombs going off in the distance or seeing someone die, etc.; this is someone gathering dirt and finding a piece of something, which in movie tradition means they find a billion other pieces as well. What’s especially weird about this one is that it is basically one scene that comes off as weird, as other scenes that mute the sound have stakes for the characters, but this one precedes a tired cliché and comes after some good uses of that technique.
As if that’s not enough of a mish-mash of weird decisions, the director clearly had grand ambitions with the role the camera plays; sometimes it is creepily close to characters, other times it is backed up enough to create framing positions for characters; then, sometimes, it is full of beautiful wide shots. I never felt there was consistency in this department and the always changing role of the camera was distracting in a way that was certainly not intended. That’s a shame too, because the characters, writing, and delivery from the cast was surprisingly decent; as I said, it does glorify characters, but they also feel grounded and believable, especially with the way the looming doom of war is handled. So, all these choices in some part feel like decisions made to pull off a stylistic choice that didn’t work as intended or was a bad match for this movie. To counteract that though, there are a lot of hints and nudges the movie makes that lead nowhere, which could hint at troubled production. For example, there is a sudden appearance from a certain someone in Basil’s life, at a time where the movie starts implying a ‘connection’ between the two leads; at that point, the way it was set up, it would imply Basil’s having some trouble, but they just drop it there. The other character shows up a couple of times after that and she becomes as cliched as possible from that point on; that either feels like a huge portion of that side story was left in the cutting room floor or was abandoned halfway through.
So, is “The Dig” worth watching? Sure. Is it good? I would say no, overall, there are too many boring moments and the characters are not worth it on their own to power through the movie for, even if the cast is brilliant. But, if you are interested in seeing a movie that makes decisions that can be interpreted as signs of a troubled production or stylistic, bold choices, then that is an area that “The Dig” excels at; what I consider to be the best way to experience this movie is for you and a buddy to see it and then discuss it to see which side each of you falls on. Is Ralph Fiennes and Cary Mulligan the newest mutants of X-Men? I don’t know, but I fall on the side of this being a poorly executed, stylistic choice, possibly used to cover some production issues. So, I guess I could say that I don’t dig “The Dig”.