Director: Lee Cronin
Writer: Lee Cronin, Stephen Shields
Producer: John Keville, Conor Barry
Stars: Seana Kerslake, James Cosmo, Kati Outinen, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall, James Quinn Markey
After discovering a strangely entrancing hole in nearby woods, a struggling single mother starts to suspect her son may be an imposter.
The next time you need “it takes a village” evidence of how many entities are required to put a movie together, just cite “The Hole in the Ground’s” opening credits. The film includes a comical number of cards tagging various production companies, financiers, distributors, and probably random passersby.
“Savage Productions presents, in association with Bord Scannan Na Heireann/The Irish Film Board, in association with Bankside Films, with the support of Wallimage (Wallonia) and Voo and Be TV, in association with BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance, in association with Head Gear Films and Metrol Technology, in association with The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, with support from The Finnish Film Foundation, in co-production with Wrong Men and Made… a Lee Cronin film.”
Backing up before that, “The Hole in the Ground” actually opens with an A24 logo. Film fans familiar with their particular pedigree know what that means. Audiences are in for a slow-burn thriller that’s more slow than burn, and is guaranteed to polarize people into two competing camps: those whose loud snores act as alarms regularly poking them awake, and those who hail the exploration of atmosphere as an artistic achievement.
Struggling single mother Sarah just moved to a remote house near a forest. She’s leaving behind her abusive ex, but she’s bringing their young son Chris as a companion.
Sarah and Chris’ relationship receives the usual endearing introduction. The duo goes for cotton candy at a carnival. Chris amusingly asks if he can call a disliked classmate “anus face” since “it’s a science word.” And the two of them make funny faces at each other so we can consider them “cute.”
Then a frustrated fight sends the boy running toward the trees in a tizzy. Sarah follows, ending up on the brink of a massive sinkhole the size of a supermarket. Sarah stands entranced until Chris finally returns from the woods, if indeed it really is Sarah’s son who came back.
Sarah discovers that a weird woman she nearly ran over is a local loon named Noreen. Rumor has it Noreen murdered her own son after repeatedly claiming he was an imposter. It’s the stuff urban legends are made of, although Sarah starts wondering if Noreen’s nutty notions might be related to the hole in the ground when she sees Chris suddenly behaving strangely.
“The Hole in the Ground” borrows more than a few themes from “The Babadook” (review here), first evidenced by how Sarah pensively glowers at her son when he isn’t looking because of the put-upon path Chris compelled her to take simply by being born. Both of them reconcile with change and cope with grief in ways that knowingly and unknowingly affect their complicated mother-son bond. Whatever monster may lurk in the woods doubles as a manifestation of the rust weakening their link, threatening to physically alter Chris while unraveling Sarah’s mind.
Seana Kerslake and James Quinn Markey work wonderfully together while playing tug of war at the movie’s emotional core. James Cosmo’s role as the raving madwoman’s haggard husband might have been tertiary at best or inessential at worst with any other actor. Cosmo has popped up in several horror films here and there, including “Estranged” (review here) and “Dark Signal” (review here), and he is never less than entirely exceptional. His gothic gravitas has the instant effect of telling a viewer to sit up straight and pay attention like a fearfully respected teacher walking in on a classroom full of unruly students.
Co-writer/director Lee Cronin glues together his simple setup with a great deal of gloom. “The Hole in the Ground” essentially acts as a mood piece built on the backs of commonplace conventions for creating quiet chills, e.g. plenty of slow zooms, creeping dolly movements, wide establishing shots of shadowy country roads underneath overcast skies, close-ups of feet cautiously walking down dark hallways, and flickering strobe lights when action amps up.
“The Hole in the Ground” basically becomes damned because it does and damned because it doesn’t. The “does” is its exceptional ability to effectively imitate familiar formulas. The “doesn’t” is its dearth of innovation.
“The Hole in the Ground” authentically exemplifies a well-made maddening psychological mystery mixed with a creepy kid thriller. It’s consistently eerie. It’s excellently acted. Under ordinary circumstances, those boons would be worth an unequivocal recommendation.
At issue is the incredibly crowded space of similar films that “The Hole in the Ground” crams itself into. Horror has so many of these maddening psychological mysteries and creepy kid thrillers that a doomsday bunker could be stocked for centuries without risking a repeat.
Cronin’s commendable craftsmanship is evident. His iron grip on manufacturing macabre mood would be well suited for something in “The Conjuring” universe or a more originally evil story. No one’s talents are necessarily in vain here. In reductively simple terms, “The Hole in the Ground” is, inarguably in a technical sense, a “good” movie. Given the acquired taste of its patient pace and déjà vu storytelling however, the film simply has its work cut out for it in finding an audience willing to champion its distinctly dour tone.
Review Score: 65