GEMS OF 2011: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

During the first four days of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, I was given free passes to screenings that each started prior to 9:00 am. Imagine my disappointment when the first three films were so forgettable that I cannot even recall their names now. On the fourth day, I set out to attend a film ironically titled Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

I only bothered waking up for a screening that was probably doomed because I had seen those strange little tiles littered through New York City when I was young. I could not help but wonder what they were. I parked in the very back of the theater, hoping to catch up on some sleep if the movie spiraled down a bad path. About thirty minutes in, I had not taken a sip of my coffee. My eyelids were not heavy as concrete. I was so thoroughly engaged in this wild story on-screen that all my prior reservations did not even occur to me anymore. By the time our hero, Justin Duerr, begins piecing together a strange twist involving David Mamet and creepy late-night radio calls, I knew I was seeing one of the very best documentaries I would ever see.

Resurrect Dead follows Justin Duerr, a young man who struggles to keep his life straight after a drug-inflicted past, as he becomes more and more obsessed with finding the person behind mysterious tiles popping up all over the world. The tiles commonly read:
TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE ‘2001’
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER
As the film unfolds, we meet a strange cast of characters including an array of other obsessed investigators. Justin puts together clues and finds unique meanings that all eventually lead him to one strange man. The ending is frustrating and heartbreaking but very fitting.

Resurrect Dead does not have a simple task. How do you make a documentary with sci-fi elements? Further, how do you make a documentary about tiles put down by a character who refuses to leave the house, much less speak to anyone involved with the film? Director Jon Foy’s approach is to follow characters that are so fascinated by the subject that they devote their lives to getting to the bottom of it. In Justin Duerr, Foy found the perfect blend of friendly insanity and sympathetic human vulnerability. If he were not so passionate, you would feel bad for someone like Justin. Only you cannot help but realize, it is people like Justin who have, throughout time, investigated subjects that give new light to world. Of course, the Toynbee Tiles are a relatively trivial subject, yet they are fascinating enough to remember for years. Life is made up of this wonderment and it is just as human for us to care about these silly things as the complex characters who investigate them. Along with a compelling lead, Foy is blessed with a skill for haunting mystery.  The storytelling is so well put together that all “documentary” elements – in that classic stuffy sense – are blurred immediately. The non-fiction form has come so far that this little project, self-financed by a house cleaner, can meld everything from mystery to horror to very visceral emotion. Of Narrative vs. Documentary, Herzog said, “It’s all the same to me.” There may be no better example of this than Resurrect Dead.

No film affected me as much during Sundance. No film has affected me as much all year, in fact. I get a wonderful feeling when a movie that is not trying to frighten me with cheap tricks sends multiple chills through my body. I can count the amount of movies that do this on one hand. Add Resurrect Dead to that list.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is currently available for rent or purchase on iTunes. It is well worth the investment.

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