By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Diggers,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
Given how silly his other project at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival was, it’s a bit of a surprise to see how mature and downright serious Ken Marino’s “Diggers” can be. Marino’s “The Ten,” in which he served as a co-star/producer/writer, is a collection of absurdist vignettes inspired by The Ten Commandments, and, tonally speaking, it’s not all that far removed from the sketch comedy show that Marino and his collaborators (including director David Wain) cut their teeth on. “Diggers,” in contrast, is a melancholy piece of nostalgia with a couple of laughs sprinkled in to leaven the drama.
By chance, or perhaps not by chance at all, Paul Rudd stars in both movies. In this one, he plays Hunt, a Long Island clam digger like his father before him. When his old man dies, Hunt gets the opportunity to reevaluate what he wants out of his life. Hunt’s story intertwines with those of three of his buddies, most importantly Frankie (Marino) who has a wife and a bunch of kids he’s struggling to feed. Now that a big corporate fishing interest called South Shell controls the waters of the Long Island Sound, it takes little fishermen like Frankie or Hunt three days to make what used to be a day’s pay, and times are getting tough. Even if they want to uphold a longstanding family tradition, it isn’t economically feasible anymore.
Both Hunt and Frankie are cornered by their respective familial responsibility: now that his dad’s passed away, Hunt should be able to finally move away from Long Island, but he still needs to look after his sister (Maura Tierney) and his father’s old boat; Frankie hates South Shell and everything it represents, but he’s forced to consider applying for a job there when he can’t support his large family on his miniscule income. He needs to save every penny, literally: one scene shows the whole family sitting around the kitchen table, rolling pennies.
For a movie about a bunch of hard-drinking buddies, “Diggers” is unusually sensitive to the women in their lives, no doubt due to the presence of director Katherine Dieckmann. Tierney is good, as is Lauren Ambrose as Hunt’s love interest from the big city, but best of all is Sarah Paulson (who’s great on the seemingly cancelled “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) as Frankie’s put-upon wife. The pair has an impressively lived-in onscreen relationship, one that oscillates with eerie accuracy between arguments and intimacy. Though Rudd’s the lead, Marino gave himself the meatiest role, as Frankie has both the funniest lines and the biggest emotional moments. In both ways, he completely steals the picture. Marino was always one of the most talented comedians from “The State” repertory company, but here he proves himself a fine actor to boot: the scene where Paulson and Marino discuss a shocking bit of news could not have been played better by either participant.
The ending is a bit too “Good Will Hunting” for my tastes, although a climactic, celebratory middle finger is a nice touch. According to Marino, “Diggers” is an autobiographical story (his father and grandfather were clam diggers on Long Island) and the picture is steeped in atmospheric authenticity, physically and emotionally. Having seen the movie, I feel like I’d visited the time and place it portrays. Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. But, hey, neither would Hunt.
“Zoo” begins by invoking the imagery of the American West: glorious vistas, the open road, lush natural beauty. But this is a decidedly unusual horse opera. Here the animals aren’t mere conveyances they’re the objects of their cowboys’ lust as well.
This restrained sorta-doc is based on a lurid real life scandal. In July of 2005, a businessman was dropped off at a hospital in the Pacific Northwest with a perforated colon. Ultimately, his death was attributed to an ill-fated lovemaking session with an Arabian stallion. During their investigation into his death, police found videotapes of the man (referred to in the film as “Mr. Hands”) performing acts of bestiality, and he wasn’t alone: in fact, Mr. Hands was part of a group of zoophiles who met to socialize with each other and the animals. Because bestiality wasn’t illegal in Washington at the time, no one was ever charged.
Director Robinson Devor (“Police Beat”) approaches the material as a poet rather than an investigator. Instead of trying to pump up the seamy details, he lets the surviving participants try to explain themselves and matches their stories up to dialogue-free reenactments. Two of the zoophiles, “H” and “The Happy Horseman,” appear only as disembodied voices, their physical appearances in the recreations provided by actors, while a third, named “Coyote,” appears as himself.
Devor’s restagings involve a few half-seen graphic details scattered around a host of abstract imagery and spacey, droning music. His pacing is slow and even, and the methodical march towards Mr. Hands’ death has the feel of a nightmare you’re aware of but can’t wake from. The actors are shot from behind or with their faces obscured by shadows. The overall mood is mysterious and ethereal; the tone is somber and thoughtful. There are no jokes at the zoophiles’ expense. It ultimately looks like the most lyrical episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” ever filmed. All that’s missing is Robert Stack’s voice.
Despite its palpable sense of atmosphere, Devor’s film has its flaws. With so few real names, and with so little visual information to go by, it’s easy to mix up the various participants and their roles in the Mr. Hands affair (a fact that, given Devor’s rather meticulous visual style, may be intended). Devor’s hands-off approach certainly yielded access to interview subjects who would otherwise have been hesitant to divulge the more intimate facets of their sexual preferences, but it also kept the film light on revelations. Much as we might want him to, Devor doesn’t probe men’s personal lives or this particular incident too deeply. As a result, “Zoo” feels mysterious but not especially curious.
Like another recent picture, Mike White’s fictional “Year of the Dog,” “Zoo” is about people who love their animals to a fault. Both filmmakers show a great deal of empathy towards their subjects though it would arguably be easier to treat them as objects of derision or scorn instead of misunderstood humanity. Still, “Zoo” is a short movie (at about 80 minutes), and I walked away from it feeling like I didn’t entirely understand these men and their motives. One of the animal rights workers says that investigating Mr. Hands’ case let her approach an understanding of these people without actually achieving one. Perhaps that’s exactly where Devor wanted to take us as well.