Ronan Callahan (Moe Dunford) returns home after serving 15 years for the murder of his girlfriend.

Ronan wants a fresh start, but the crime still haunts him as his victim’s father, Sean McKenna (Lorcan Cranitch), works day and night to locate and exhume his daughter’s body from a bog on Ronan’s land.

Frustration and a peculiar sense of obligation leads Ronan to pick up a shovel too. There’s a shot at murky redemption for Ronan as he joins Sean in Andy and Ryan Tohill’s overcast thriller, The Dig.

Moe Dunford is often named as one of the current Irish cinema’s hardest-working actors. His IMDB page reads as a list of every significant Irish release from 2014 onwards, alongside many standout performances in a number of less significant pictures as well.

Dunford may be a fixture of Irish productions at this point in time, but he’s never worked harder than as the literally and frequently beaten-down ex-con Ronan Callahan.

Under the Tohill brothers’ direction, Dunford suffers for his art as he is, among other things: knocked out with a shovel, left to drown in a well, beaten unconscious, pistol-whipped, thrown in a shallow grave, and generally put through a gauntlet of gruelling physical and emotional strife.

Ronan Callahan is not a sympathetic man. But I couldn’t help but feel for Dunford, the actor, and for his skull as it’s knocked about like a tennis ball on a string. It would seem as though true redemption is an impossibility for Ronan. Nevertheless, a penance is paid in blood and broken bones.

What we’re looking at with The Dig is a mosaic of broken lives. Ronan returns to his abandoned family home, it’s barely habitable; the flowing sewage and broken windows serve as an ongoing punishment for his crime.

Sean digs from dawn until dusk, sleeping in a corrugated iron shanty house on the bog, a map on the wall showing his efforts over the last 15 years marked out in faded primary colours. Going by the unfilled space on the map, there’s another 15 years of digging to do.

Sean’s daughter Roberta (Emily Taaffe) is tied to her father and burdened by unrelenting grief. She looks on with a burning bewilderment at Ronan and Sean’s uneasy cooperation, wanting nothing more than an end to the digging.

A local police detective, Murphy (a surly Francis Magee), is caught in the middle of it all. His allegiances are hard to pin down. He plays hot and cold with Ronan and is supportive of the McKenna family. Perhaps he just wants peace for them, and for himself.

Angus Mitchell’s cinematography is grey and sunless. At times the picture is almost black and white, the film and its characters have lost all colour in their lives.

All of the principals give spirited performances. These characters wear an expression that sits somewhere between heartbreak and anger at all times.

They don’t know whether to bawl or brawl, though there is plenty of both in the film. The Tohills love to hang on these beaten-down faces – 99 percent of their feature is gloom.

Screenwriter Stuart Drennan resists the temptation to lighten the mood at all. There are no jokes, no respite.

We are seeing humanity at a primal emotional level. Nothing comes easily or naturally for characters who have forgotten how to be human.

Every action in The Dig is shot through with anger. Exchanges are tense standoffs and even the film’s rare tender moments are delivered through gritted teeth. They are stuck with their pain, and so are we.

But in inviting the audience to follow the action so closely, aspects of The Dig’s plotting come up short. I’m no Sam Spade, but one of the film’s major revelations was crystal clear before the first act was over.

Not all questions need answering. In this film, which deals in mental and physical anguish, emerges a wrong-headed impulse to tie everything up with a neat bow.

As much as the actors sell the story, I wasn’t buying it, there’s a point toward the end of the film that almost undoes all of Drennan and the Tohills’ good work. It’s a sucker punch of Movieland cheesiness that’s unnecessary to finish up the story.

But these last-act shenanigans don’t erase the preceding reels that impressed so much.

The Dig is a good film lessened by some ropey plotting, but the strength and depth of its performances make up for some throwaway mystery-novel drama and ensure that it remains an intriguing work of downbeat entertainment.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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