Adam Clarke knows Down to the Dirt could have been better.
Newfoundlanders are in a rather odd position when it comes to local film.
Whenever a new short or feature comes along, the public response tends to be overwhelmingly positive. We love nothing more than bigging-up local artists.
We want to encourage our creative community, after all.
But when these films play outside of our province, only to be near-unanimously trashed by critics, it’s easy to believe that the world just doesn’t appreciate what we’re up to.
Are we being too easy on our own?
It’s true The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood wouldn’t garner a huge following, but anyone with a taste for intelligent surrealist comedy would love it. Trouble is, out of the handful of films produced here, precious few have been anywhere near the quality of Faustus, Secret Nation, or, most recently, Jordan Canning’s “House” series.
It must be admitted that the majority have leaned more to the Anchor Zone end of the quality-meter.
Unfortunately, the adaptation of Joel Hynes’ duly acclaimed novel, Down To The Dirt, is no different, despite the high caliber of talent involved.
Our story is a simple one: possible arsonist, sometime poet, and full-time alcoholic, Keith Kavanagh (played by Hynes) runs away to get lost in the city of St. John’s with a young girl named Natasha (Mylène Savoie). When things inevitably turn sour between them, Natasha runs off to the exotic getaway of Halifax. Not long after, Keith follows along, and soon learns important Life Lessons(TM) about growing up, being a man, and not giving speed to Carleton Banks.
Okay, that last bit was from an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But the reference is appropriate because, in a way, this film feels a little like a sitcom Very Special Episode. Between the drug abuse, daddy issues, abortions, and monologues about what it’s like to be a man, Down to the Dirt is content to spin its wheels and offer little nuance or insight on these well-worn tropes.
The script is almost exclusively to blame for Dirt‘s problems. One big misstep was the decision to make Keith Kavanagh a thirty-something guy. In the book, Kavanagh is nineteen and ages a few years throughout the story. If he’s young, it’s no surprise that he’s naïve, that he’s so thoughtless, and that he needs to mature. Lots of young people make stupid mistakes at that age, and the character would be a lot more sympathetic on screen.
Kavanagh’s age is far from the film’s only flaw, unfortunately, and replacing Hynes with a younger lead would only further highlight just how illogical the characterization is throughout the film. Why do Natasha and Keith fall in love? Why does Natasha immediately abandon her dreams of acting when she enters St. John’s only to pick them up again when she heads to Halifax? Why does a pimp (Hard Core Logo‘s Hugh Dillon) insist on beating up Kavanagh as a means of teaching him respect and the true origin of bagpipes? The answer to all of these questions is “because the script says so.”
With a screenplay this awkward, a well-cast ensemble could at least distract the audience from its shortcomings. Only three actors rise to the challenge: Robert Joy, Jody Richardson, and the aforementioned Hugh Dillon. Joy makes his routine dialogue sound effortlessly natural, and Richardson makes a compelling scumbag, but Dillon deserves the lion’s share of the praise for exuding such menace that you almost forget his part makes no damn sense whatsoever. Conversely, the talented Sherry White—who co-wrote the film—gives a career nadir performance as a hooker. The rest of the cast simply fails to make an impression, adrift amongst the repetitious melodrama of the script.
With so much talent involved with the film, it’s hard to believe the end result would be so dull. Down to the Dirt is a poorly-executed film made by people who can do so much better.