It is a dark and stormy night. You wake up among a pile of bodies in the bottom of an open pit. You have no memory of who you are or how you got here.
You have a ring of keys. You have a Zippo lighter.
You find a gun. It’s loaded. A woman throws a rope down to you.
The woman is gone. There is a house in the distance with the lights on. You hear people talking inside.
GO TO HOUSE
You are at the house. The front door is unlocked.
Open Grave is one of those “trapped people figure out a puzzle” movies that could have been a videogame, but as the puzzle progresses, it’s less about the mechanics and more about the people. In fact, the people themselves are the puzzle. Who are they? Why are they here? Did one of them live here? Do they know each other? Should they trust each other? How much does the conveniently mute character know? Why can one of them read a dead language? What will they discover in the woods?
Amnesia isn’t just a gameplay gimmick to force you to talk to all the NPCs in the starting town. It can be a solid dramatic device, providing cover for unfolding mysteries, identities, and relationships. Open Grave gets that part right. But the trick is making the reveal feel like a payoff instead of a cop out. If Open Grave doesn’t quite work at that level — I defy you not to roll your eyes at what type of movie this becomes — the finale tries for some of the same poignancy as Memento. It doesn’t get there, since this definitely isn’t Memento. But it tries admirably. And it definitively answers all its questions. There’s no time loop nonsense. This isn’t some loosey goosey afterlife or imagined reality at the moment of death. Mysteries aren’t just mysteries for mystery’s sake. Lost this ain’t.
That said, some of the mistrust and conflict is awfully contrived. In one scene, the main character is trying to get through a door chained shut with a padlock. He whacks on the padlock with a crowbar. Just whacking it, as if he’s trying to club it into submission. That’s not how crowbars and padlocks work. Open Grave takes a similarly clunky approach unlocking the mysteries of its characters. That’s not how people work. Open Grave relies on a couple too many overlooked comments the characters should be making to each other. It relies on people not asking each other certain important questions. Just because all the questions are answered doesn’t mean they’re answered well.
But it turns out you’re not here for the script. The main reason to watch this is for the director and lead actor. Spanish directer Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego knows how to spin out mysteries in remote locations. One of his earliest movies, El Rey de la Montana, is not to be missed, and it has a very different and very specific videogame element. His longtime cinematographer, Jose David Montero, has since developed an eye for finding rich light and color in rundown rural settings, and it works to great effect in Open Grave.
Although nothing Lopez-Gallego has done since El Rey de la Montana has lived up to its promise, Open Grave is the closest he’s come. His latest movie is a curiously dull modern Western called Hollow Point, in which a good cast aimlessly meanders through a crime thriller in a small desert town. It’s at least better than Lopez-Gallego’s godawful Apollo 18, a found-footage movie about how there are deadly spiders on the moon. I hope I didn’t make it sound interesting. It’s really not.
The cast in Open Grave is solid enough, but as usual, Sharlto Copley stands out. After he wakes up in the open grave, it starts raining. His wet T-shirt clings to his biceps, conveniently flexed by the way he holds the gun. The shaggy GI Joe beard and haircut suggest an action star. Steam rises from him as he steps into the house, backlit by a flash of lightning. Consider this his transition from the nebbish Wikus in District 9 and the clownish Murdoch in A-Team. This is where he turns into the bad-ass who’s going to take on Matt Damon’s shaved head in Elysium, the hardcore mentor for Henry’s hardcore rampage across Moscow, and a rugged American astronaut on his way to one of Jupiter’s moons. And although Open Grave is perfectly passable while it’s an unfolding mystery on its way to a disappointing resolution, the real missed opportunity is that it doesn’t follow Copley’s character beyond its conclusion. If only Open Grave had been an origin story!
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