GORE IN THE STORE
WHAT’S BURIED IN THE BACKYARD? ***
Directed by Michael P. Blevins.
Starring Ford Austin, Rachel Alig, Ken Hudson Campbell, Clint Jung, Richard Riehle, Tom Fitzpatrick.
USA 2021 96 mins Certificate: 15.
Out now from Bulldog Film Distribution.
Prolific character actor Ford Austin takes a relatively rare leading role – though he did play Jeffrey Dahmer in DAHMER VS GACY in this small-scale, character-driven black comedy also known as DIGGING FOR DEATH. Although arriving within the uneasy period of a fragile world economy hit by a pandemic for which few governments were prepared, writer-director Michael P. Blevins presents a desperate, compelling scenario reminiscent of thrillers made in the wake of the 2008 financial crash that irrevocably fractured millions of lives.
Austin makes for a convincingly unremarkable, middle-aged Everyman. He is destined to be another in a line of credible shmucks – with whom most of us will share character traits and economic concerns – who, via the machinations of the script, will make a series of terrible decisions born of good old human weakness. We root for him as his mundane existence escalates into Coen Brothers-influenced murder and mayhem.
He is a divorced programmer whose apparently rash choice to move into an expensive, spacious house is questioned by his concerned daughter (Rachel Alig). The affordability of the new digs hinges entirely on a project manager promotion teased by his boss but by no means guaranteed. Austin has staked the mortgage on this possible corporate boost, while also keen to fund the medication Alig needs for her illness. Early portents include the crucial warning “If you don’t get a new septic tank, everything goes to shit” – the kind of life advice / pun probably adorning a mug somewhere.
The movie pivots entirely around Austin’s performance as his Ordinary Joe discovers a corpse in the new garden accompanied by bundles of $100 bills adding up to over $3 million. There’s some workplace satire at the office overseen by passive aggressive Clint Jung – and an overriding portrait of a protagonist who, freed of the shackles of marriage and responsibility and indulging his “own slice of Heaven”, fails to come up with anything more mature and imaginative to do in his free time other than shoot the shit with his colleague over a remote-control boat. The glorious bundles of life-changing cash are, of course, the turning point for the plot and his sanity: losing sleep as he frets about the disorientating windfall – and doubting the on-site cadaver’s state of death via jump-scare nightmares.
Blevins’ picture is a taut, tightly plotted Capitalist nightmare in which the dream of the Average Man inevitably twists into a paranoid nightmare. The key line of dialogue that helps to signal Austin’s doom is “I know you’re here to take my money”. There are echoes of other 21st century blackly comic thrillers with similar leading men (none have come close to Pat Healy in E.L. Katz’s marvellous CHEAP THRILLS from 2013), along with visual nods to Clouzot’s endlessly influential DIABOLIQUE (1955) as Blevins relishes splendidly creepy bits of business involving an apparent walking corpse (an unnerving Tom Fitzpatrick) caught on CCTV and possibly intent on ruining an empathetic bid to just be financially comfortable.
The escalation to (relatively discreet) power tool abuse succeeds thanks to the central transition from Ordinary Dude, blinded by the mighty dollar, to grinning maniac. A climactic motivational speech brings a note of genuine pathos that prevents the picture from slipping into the mere flippancy of lesser movies built around similar concepts. Blevins also composed the evocative original score.