Whatever 'Open Grave' has going for it, the use of one key character cheaply undermines it all
Open Grave Tribeca Film
Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego
Screenplay: Eddie Borey and Chris Borey
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Erin Richards, Thomas Kretschmann, Josie Ho, Joseph Morgan and Max Wrottesley
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
It's always fun to discover the creative lengths filmmakers will go to cheat their way through an idea. Look, I know it must be tough for a screenwriter to suddenly notice the one thing that makes his entire premise unsupportable. And in a way, I've gotta respect the perseverance of someone who just continues to plow forward with the premise anyway, logic and fairness be damned. But hoo-boy, the "solutions" that result can be magnificently dumb.
For your consideration, the writers of Open Grave, Eddie and Chris Borey, have a plot cheat for the ages. I mean, they probably violently high-fived each other and did a round of shots after they came up with this one. It's that good. You've really got to see it to believe it. Rarely do you find a movie whose events, in their entirety, rest on the creation of one arbitrary character detail, but that's what we have here. Bravo, Boreys. Bravo.
Without this particular plot cheat, nothing that happens in this movie would have happened. Nothing.
I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just give it to you in a nut graph: Six people wake up in a house in the middle of the woods, without any memory of who they are or how they got there. One of the characters is mute. I repeat: One of the characters is mute. And there's more: The mute character does not understand English. In a house full of English speakers, she happens to be be the one exception, and a mute for good measure, and (apparently) one who has no other ways to communicate anything to anybody.
Do you see how these facts might be of great convenience to a lazy screenwriter (or two)? Do you see how one might use it as an enormous cheat? Sure you do. And still: That's not even the half of it. Wait till you get to the end. Wait till you see just how big of a cheap trick that character really is.
Credited only as Brown Eyes and played (effectively, I must add) by Josie Ho, she is one giant band-aid for the screenplay - and yet, at the same time, strangely irrelevant. The film sees her as tremendously important, and what we discover about her explains and contextualizes a lot about what's going on - but it also prevents her from actually having much of an impact. It's a poorly conceived character all around, designed to deepen the mysteries at the center of Open Grave but instead serving as a lame storytelling device, not to mention a bad attempt at dramatic irony.
Director Gonzalo López-Gallego also demonstrates a lack of patience in utilizing Brown Eyes, depicting her as childlike and helpless - to the point that, for a time, I actually thought she was supposed to be mentally deficient in some way as well. Apparently not. No, she just can't think of any other ways to get her very important points across, beyond the occasional concerned face or ambiguous hand gesture. She has apparently never been introduced to the joys of Charades. (Side note: Charades is a terrible game and no one should be subjected to it.)
Aside from that, Open Grave is a pretty intriguing idea that quickly loses traction. It begins, beguilingly enough, in an open grave, as a man (Sharlto Copley) wakes up atop an enormous pile of dead bodies, his body crackling and popping as if something is trying to break out of his skin like a freshly spawned xenomorph. He calls for help, and the aforementioned mute woman tosses him a rope. He finds his way into a nearby house and into the company of a group of similarly disheveled and bewildered strangers, none of whom can remember their own name, much less anything about their lives or how they came to this place. The modus operandi, needless to say, is to trust no one.
They soon discover that, in one way or another, they've been involved in some sort of scientific experiment - though how or why remains a mystery. Any one of them could be a perpetrator rather than a victim.
While the opening 20 minutes set the stage nicely, the film can't sustain its mystery for very long. Memories start to fade back in, piece by piece, crystallizing some details of their plight and muddying others. But it soon becomes a redundant exercise as the characters figure out how to piece their fractured memories together. When everything has finally been unraveled, all we're left with is an "answer" that cheaply undermines its own question.