A man wanders into the woods in search of his cat and witnesses a murder
Soft For Digging is an example of an extremely good idea that proves to be difficult to end satisfactorily. The premise is basic but effective, the simplicity is to be admired, but unfortunately J.T. Petty who wrote, edited, produced and directed the piece didn’t quite come up with a final act that matched everything that had gone before.
Virgil (Edmond Mercier) is an old man of indeterminate age living out his years in an isolated cabin deep in the woods. Each day’s routine is very much the same as he wakes, puts coffee on to percolate, fetches his paper from the end of the lane and makes breakfast. Each day he wears virtually the same clothes, each day he eats virtually the same meal. Virgil’s life is a simple and lonely existence with little outside interference or interaction until one day when a dark shadow enters his world. While pursuing his errant cat Virgil witnesses what appears to be the murder of a young girl in the woods. Startled and alarmed he runs back to his cabin and immediately contacts the authorities, all the while afraid he has been seen by the killer. After an exhaustive search from the police and local volunteers no evidence is discovered and Virgil must return to his dull existence. Only then does he begin to suffer nightmares and visions, apparently from the dead child that urge him to investigate the supposed crime himself.
The first two acts of Soft For Digging are examples of extreme restraint and subtlety. Virgil’s life is clearly and expertly defined by the lack of action or meaningful events that occur around him. Everything is precisely shown with little or no fuss. The film shows him preparing for Christmas in scenes that are both heart-warming and deeply sad, as all the while you know he will be alone. All this is done without the use of dialogue relying solely in Virgil’s expressions and the imagery shown around him. More than anything else this the film’s great strength and also its weakness. There is so little dialogue at all that when it does eventually come it takes something away from the atmosphere that has been created. The audience becomes so accustomed, so in sync with the silence broken only by a very basic piano track that any dialogue at all almost seems to break the spell that Petty has spent so long creating. While there are things that possibly couldn’t be explained any other way, when the characters speak I almost sighed with disappointment.
The story itself is almost secondary to the lead performance, although when the nature of the events are finally revealed they do come as something of a surprise. Mercier plays his role with genuine restrained emotion that superbly conveys the isolation and inherent sadness of the character. He clings on to the memory of what he saw with a fervour that contrasts with his ordered and serene lifestyle, and ultimately leads him into danger. The strength of this performance however brings into clear view the weakness of the supporting cast who offer little to the story and appear shallow and unconvincing when required to perform. While the necessity for some exposition is certain this is never delivered with any sincerity or gravity and falls a little flat.
In the end Soft For Digging is impressive for two thirds of its running time. It is an exploration into the desolation, and desperation, that can affect anyone but when you would expect a more profound and impactful finale it fails to deliver. Worth watching for the strength of performance and the softness of the direction but unfortunately is ultimately somewhat disappointing.