Jon Foy's Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is a gripping on-camera case study in obsession, dogged persistence, and high-strangeness. A documentary with the structure and intrigue of a great detective story, it stretches an incredible three decades and across two continents.
Trouble is, despite its arresting visual style and fascinating assortment of characters on both sides of the investigation, the fact that the film concludes with a mere theory rather than any concrete resolution may leave some viewers feeling slightly shortchanged -- especially given that it appears, late in the film, that the lead sleuth literally came within feet of answering this perplexing riddle.
Philidelphia: 1994. Justin Duerr had recently dropped out of high school, and was squatting in the city with friends when he happened across a mysterious tile with a cryptic message embedded in the concrete of a city street. It read, "Toynbee idea. In Kubrick's 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter." At first, Duerr was simply intrigued by the fact that no one else seemed to notice the enigma that lurked right beneath their soles. In time, however, he began to notice more tiles scattered throughout the city, each bearing a different message. Fascinated, Duerr resolved to record the location and message of every occurrence in hopes of deciphering what the person who placed the tiles was attempting to say. Little did Duerr realize, he wasn't the only one who felt compelled to piece together the big picture; though an initial Internet search yielded zero results on the so-called Toynbee Tiles, in time, the website "Toynbee.net" popped up, and it began to appear as if the phenomena was spreading. Not just to other East Coast cities, but even as far away as Santiago, Chile. Also, it seemed as if whoever was placing the tiles had been doing so since the early 1980s. Eventually, Duerr connected with Steve Weinik and Colin Smith -- two other amateur investigators who had been tracking the Toynbee mystery. With only three vague leads to chase, the trio quickly shifted into detective mode and set out in search of answers as filmmaker Jon Foy followed along.
Resurrect Dead is Foy's first feature, but he's quite obviously a natural-born storyteller. In the opening scenes of the film, he continually shifts between stories of Duerr's early years as a talented but troubled young artist and his growing obsession with the plaques -- a smart structural choice that gives us an underdog to root for as Duerr dives headlong into a mission that only becomes more frustratingly elusive with each false lead and dead end. Meanwhile, as our minds work to process both the clues and meaning of the occasionally incoherent messages on the tiles, Foy keeps our eyes busy with engaging visuals. In addition to mimicking the look of a microfiche machine with edits that quickly wipe to the left as Duerr sits in the library searching for an old newspaper article, the director also maintains our undivided attention through vivid artistic renderings that breathe life into the more abstract elements of the search, along with roving camera work that seems to mimic the curious gaze of a great sleuth. The people that Duerr, Weinik, and Smith engage with throughout the course of their investigation -- on the streets of Philadelphia and at a short-wave-radio convention in particular -- are often as fascinating as the mystery itself, and by allowing us to spend time with them Foy succeeds in humanizing an enigma that can at times seem distressingly abstract. The way he draws parallels between Duerr and one of the prime suspects is downright inspired.
Likewise, Foy's stirring musical score frequently echoes the works of John Williams for such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., stirring our senses of wonder and curiosity in the face of something that often seems outside our realm of comprehension.
Still, much like one of Weinik's favorite theories about who placed the Toynbee tiles, Resurrect Dead suffers from a single, fatal flaw: in the end, all we're left with is conjecture. It seems that if anyone would ever be able to solve the case of the Toynbee Tiles, it would most certainly be Duerr, Weinik, and Smith. Their determination and observational skills are sharp and extremely focused, and together they pose questions and theories that any one of them would be unlikely to conjure up on their own. If you're looking for a puzzle punctuated by paranoia, conspiracies, and wild theories that wouldn't be out of place on a particularly absorbing episode of Coast to Coast AM, then look no further than Resurrect Dead; if you're hoping to find out who placed the tiles and exactly why, perhaps Foy's film will be the painstakingly researched launching point for your own investigation.