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By Nguyen Le · January 5, 2014
It’s a nightmare, indeed: waking up with no memory and then trying to climb out of a pool of decomposing bodies. Such a warm introduction from Open Grave, an indie thriller that is a few steps short of goodness.
What a brilliant introduction. Instead of lingering on the gore like Hollywood would have, there’s just a really effective combination of sounds, limited lighting and claustrophobic photography. All it takes is just a couple of minutes to thrust viewers into the shoes of Jonah (Sharlto Copley) and his journey with five other strangers to find out who is responsible for the grotesque titular location. Sure, the premise is far from new, but it remains strong enough to grab one’s attention. However, unlike the Bourne series or Identity, an example closer to the genre, there are bumps that erode the film’s enjoyment factor.
The first offender goes to the light-on-character writing. Besides Jonah, the lead role, the strangers only have a name and talent that, once known, will be the end of it to them. Development is little or, in the case of one character, nil. The sane is as paper-thin as the crazed – the film’s dash of horror – and with that the plot becomes the movie’s only substance-wise saving grace. Fortunately, brothers Chris and Eddie Borey have a firm grasp on providing compelling scenarios and appropriate story beats that keep the film’s intrigue wheel spinning. Nevertheless, for a feature film debut, this is a commendable effort.
With characters like these, performances to bring them to life are negatively affected. Joseph Morgan (Klaus in The Vampire Diaries), Max Wrottesley (Andrei in The Cosmonaut) and Erin Richards (Molly in Breaking In) are only passable, verging close to unforgettable. Faring better is Thomas Krestchmann (Cross in Wanted) as the “leader” of the strangers named Lukas, who brings tangible presence and intensity whenever he’s on screen. Although a scene-stealer after his lead role in District 9 and as fan-favorite Murdock in The A-Team, in this film Sharlto Copley loses that title to Krestchmann due to a very apparent struggle nailing the American accent. Other than that, Copley again is a joy to watch because of his seamless switching between emotions – from scared to tough, confused then devastated.
The highest acting credit however goes to Josie Ho (sister of the Hong Kong patient in Contagion) as the mute Brown Eyes. Assuming an incredibly expressive set of eyes, Josie carries out her character’s emotions very well and supplies even more layers of interest on top of what the writers have provided – the one who knows what’s going on. Throughout the film, Brown Eyes may remind viewers of Rinko Kikuchi’s brilliant performance in Babel in which one doesn’t need to talk a single word to be captivating. Unfortunately, the movie’s focus isn’t on her and she’s absent for most of the film’s latter half.
After a disappointing English-language debut (despite a fascinating set-up pre-release) called Apollo 18, Open Grave shows director Gonzalo Lopéz-Gallego deserves a second chance. He never loses sight of what the movie is about, a mystery thriller with horror bits, even though it’s incredibly easy to exploit the latter and create another derivative ‘running away from crazy people’ flick. By putting the ‘human’ in front of the ‘infection’, the film has some depth, more like (but far from equal to) 28 Days Later than World War Z.
Together with Gallego’s regular cinematographer José David Montero, disturbing images do disturb since they are shown at the right distances and long enough to rack up the tension. Although beautiful, Montero gives the forest backdrop (filmed in Hungary) something to fear. Speaking of tension, besides Gallego and Montero, it is kept consistent throughout thanks to Juan Navazo’s original score that emphasizes atmosphere and never overbearing like Mark Isham’s work in The Crazies remake.
Then there’s the ending, which will definitely cause an uproar if viewers don’t roll along with the situation and have been paying close attention to the film. For this part, it’s recommended that viewers align their point of view with the characters’, or expect a barrage of questions regarding plot logic and frustrations about storytelling to flood in afterwards.
It has its moments, definitely, but rough edges at the core prevent Open Grave from being truly good. As a demonstration of a director’s improvement? Check this one out. As a showcase of the genre or this type of plot device? There are better choices.