Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Soft For Digging (2001)

Virgil Manoven (Edmond Mercier), a lonely old man, lives in a hut in the woods, a cat his only company.

One morning when Virgil goes out to fetch his newspaper from the side of the road, the cat takes off into the woods. So Virgil goes after her, dressed only in his white underwear and red bathing robe. Instead of finding the cat, he stumbles upon the sight of a young man (Andrew Hewitt) strangling a child (Sarah Ingerson) to death. Panicked, Virgil flees from the place of the murder. The killer doesn't seem to follow him, but when Virgil calls the police, the ensuing search doesn't bring up any physical trace of anything having truly happened.

A few days later, when Virgil is again stumbling through the woods in his bathing robe in search of his still lost cat, he finds the little girl's grave. However, unlike most corpses, this one moves. That alone would probably be enough to cause a grown man to run, but then the girl's ghost appears, asks Virgil for help and tries to climb on his back. That really is too much for the old man, so he flees home and calls the police again.

Yet again, when the cops dig at the place Virgil leads them to, they find nothing. Obviously, they now have him pinned as a senile old crank. It wouldn't help his case if Virgil told them the truth about the ghost, or the fact that Claire, as the dead little girl is called, now talks to him through his dreams. If Virgil wants to help the ghost find peace, he'll have to do it himself, something not easy for someone who doesn't venture outside of his cave and the surrounding area anymore.

In the end, the dreams and chance lead Virgil to the truth and in terrible danger.

Soft for Digging is exactly the sort of movie that will stick in a lot of people's craw like a bone, but that is quite good if the viewer just accepts the way it goes about telling its story.

It is a very slow film (as is Virgil's life), in which nothing much happens (as in Virgil's life), and when something does happen, it is not always completely clear what it means (as is the case with Virgil's life). As should be clear by now, director J.T. Petty (who would go on to make the wonderful The Burrowers) uses everything in the powers of his meagre budget and his considerable talent to put the viewer into the shoes of his protagonist. Everything in the film seems to be designed to achieve this goal - Virgil never speaks to anyone, so we hear next to no human voice, only the sounds of the woods, Virgil never goes outside of his comfort zone, so we don't go outside of it either. Of course, there's still a difference between the audience and the protagonist in that the typical viewer will be more conscious of the barrenness of Virgil's life and of the absurdity of someone treating a patch of woods as his front-yard.

A crueller film would probably make Virgil a figure of ridicule. Soft for Digging isn't above showing the funny side of the sad state of Virgil's life (and Mercier's performance makes it clear that his character does see that side too from time to time), but it is not satisfied with treating a sad and lonely old man as someone to gawk at. While the film (or rather the world it takes place in) is cruel to him in different ways, it is designed to let the viewer feel the character's pain. There's a terrible irony in the way Virgil's final, quite heroic for a shut-in like him, acts in the film, his venture outside of the secure shell that is his lonely life, might not be ending his existence completely, but will only make the rest of his days more unhappy. It is not necessarily a nice thought, but something that more often than not happens to people as closed off from other people as Virgil here is. It could all just be an exercise in cynicism, but as it is in the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, whose style of chapter titles seems to have influenced the intertitles Petty uses, it's the cynicism of someone with too big a sense of empathy for his own comfort.

Apart from Bierce, Petty's debut reminds me of the individuality of the left-field filmmaking I always go on about excitedly, or the classic punk rock ethos. There's something uncompromising about Soft for Digging, a quality you need if you make a film people will feel uncomfortable with, be it because of its themes (old people, murdered little girls) or because you dare to be slow and possibly boring.


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