This is not the kind of film I’d normally go looking for, but when I saw that it starred South African up-and-comer Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium, Maleficent), I had to give it a spin. It’s framed like a gritty “what is real?” reality like the Cilian Murphy thriller Retreat or Dominic Monaghan’s The Day where we don’t know who we should believe, or if the characteristics of the small world we’re exposed to are symptomatic of all of society or not. It’s terrifyingly entertaining and it all begins with Copley’s John Doe waking up in an open grave of countless bodies.
Copley’s John wakes up, gets assisted by a fellow ‘survivor,’ and breaks into a group of five, including a mute woman, a German who speaks French, and three Americans. Reasonably quickly, the group fragments again and sets off to find out the truth about their present conditions, finding various structures around the grounds that show a variety of sophistication and simplicity. Each of them begins to have their own sense of memory return (or is it hallucination?), while their overall experiences tend to reduce their sense of trust and community.
By a third of the way in, our band of subjects have encountered three other different types of ‘survivors’: a woman chained up in a barn (she’s slightly more sane than those held in the barn of The Walking Dead’s second season), a man wrapped in barbed wire who calls for help but uses his state to trap one of the five, and finally, a young boy with a Doberman. What are we dealing with here? Is it an alien movie? A zombie movie? A virus/disaster film? Director Gonzalo López-Gallego keeps us guessing for a good part of the film, in a way that allows plenty of genres to be hinted at in the exposition. But it all comes back to Copley’s depiction and acting skills, in one of the best casting decisions I’ve recognized lately.
Regardless of what the film ends up being, it’s an intriguing study of what it means to be morally responsible, soulfully human. How are we responsible for our actions, whether we remember them or not? When do the rules of life and community suspended or turned aside? What does a community have to do to survive? How do we make rules after the end of the world as we know it?
Open Grave won’t be everyone’s cup of tea: it’s more horror-based than some will appreciate, but it offers an entertaining couple of hours, and some questions about who we are when everything else is stripped away.