Film Review: ‘The Dig’

An unresolved disappearance haunts protagonists but tests viewer patience in this glum, undercooked debut feature.

The Dig Review
Toronto Film Festival

There’s a whole lot of digging, but not much suspense or interest dug up in “The Dig.” This first feature for sibling directorial duo Andy and Ryan Tohill follows several shorts, and probably should’ve been another one: Stuart Drennan’s screenplay scarcely provides enough incident or psychological insight to sustain 90-odd damply atmospheric minutes. Instead, this glum mood piece simply hits the same bleak note over and over to dulling effect, despite a murder-mystery hook that goes barely exploited until the very end. It’s a challenging sit with limited rewards, and is likely to similarly provide a challenge to commercial placements.

There’s no family left to greet Ronan Callahan (Moe Dunford of “Vikings”) when he emerges from a long prison stint, and the rural community he left behind won’t be glad to see him back. He settles as best he can into the near-ruins of his late father’s farmhouse, hoping to fix it up for sale.

But there’s an intruder to be dealt with on the property. Sean McKenna (Lorcan Cranitch) has spent these last 15 years digging one hole after another on the Callahans’ land, hoping to find the corpse of the daughter he and everyone else (including the court) assumed Ronan killed in a drunken rage. Even Ronan believes he’s guilty, though he has no memory of the crime. All he knows is that he blacked out after yet another fight at the pub with his on/off girlfriend. As the bad-penny issue of a brutal home, he seems the only likely culprit.

Near-mad with undiminished grief, Sean won’t stop digging, so Ronan decides to join him, infuriating the surviving McKenna daughter, astringent Roberta (Emily Taaffe). But she as well as her pa eventually come to terms with the returned man’s toiling omnipresence. Less magnanimous are police chief Murphy (Francis Magee) as well as various angry locals who never doubted Ronan’s guilt and don’t think he’s yet paid enough of a penance.

Though well acted, these characters and their cantankerous relationships stir little involvement, as one day of fruitless excavation in the stark landscape follows another. “The Dig” plays too much as a conventional drama to work as a sort of existential purgatory; it’s not quite abstract enough on the one hand, and not plotty enough on the other. The result is grimly tedious. It doesn’t help at all that there is a big twist at the end — one that, after so much narrative minimalism, seems as silly and rote a resolution as “the butler did it.”

Shot in Northern Ireland over 18 days, the film’s making was probably a more exciting test of stamina than what we witness onscreen. The assembly is competent, but this earnest slog doesn’t provide much clue as to why the Tohills thought their undercooked material was worth the effort.

Film Review: ‘The Dig’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 10, 2018. Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (U.K.) A Northern Ireland Screen presentation in association with Yellowmoon of an Out of Orbit production in association with Wolfhound Media. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producer: Brian J. Falconer. Executive producers: Andrew Reid, Kathleen Ying McKinley.
  • Crew: Directors: Andy Tohill, Ryan Tohill. Screenplay: Stuart Drennan. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Angus Mitchell. Editor: Helen Sheridan. Music: James Everett.
  • With: Moe Dunford, Emily Taaffe, Francis Magee, Lorcan Cranitch, Katherine Devlin, Aimee Brett.