by Ken Bakely
Lee Cronin, who makes his feature directorial debut with The Hole in the Ground, is an unambiguously talented visual filmmaker. With cinematographer Tom Comerfield, he generates an eerie, dissociating environment from the start, and composes shots that linger. There are moments with color contrasts so steep that the film occasionally seems like it’s in black-and-white. There’s a set of sweeping drone shots in the first scene, in which a car driving down a winding country road is captured from so many disorienting angles that we’re sufficiently unsettled before the movie’s title appears onscreen. There’s also meticulous attention to the smallest details of characters’ motions and movements, making it that much more disturbing when the supernatural horrors of the plot come into play, as the sensation of lost control at the mercy of malicious forces becomes that much more corporeal. You could take these moments in isolation and present them as a sizzle reel, and your prospective viewers would be clamoring to see the entire movie. But the script that binds these haunting snippets is never as confident or thoughtfully assembled as Cronin’s imagery.
The plot concerns Sarah (Seána Kerslake), a woman who has escaped an abusive relationship and settled in an isolated rural house with her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). Overwhelmed by the stress of her situation, Sarah has been having disturbing visions and nightmares, which often feature the cavernous sinkhole in the woods near her home, and the disappearance or otherwise endangerment of her son. They intensify in frequency and severity, and eventually, it begins to seem that it’s not all a figment of her imagination. After vanishing one night before returning as quickly a few hours later, Chris’s behavior becomes erratic and aggressive. One of their neighbors, a mysterious and sickly older woman (Kati Outinen), begins to cryptically warn Sarah that the boy in her home is not actually her son. From here, The Hole in the Ground increases the stakes at a glum episodic rate – a series of bizarre events build until a frenetic climax filled with all sorts of creatures and strange surroundings – and while the cast prove themselves as capable interpreters of this material, one can’t help but feel that there’s nothing actually going on to drive the plot forward. There’s no consistent plot rhythm or momentum. That creates a different kind of disorientation that’s neither intentional like the film’s aesthetic vibes, nor actually welcome.
It’s easy to assume that Cronin wants the story to serve as an analogue for, among other things, how parent-child relationships can quickly change as the child grows, and how the lingering traumas of our past haunt our perceptions of the present. But when critical plot elements are underplayed, these are all just ideas scattered about. Cronin, alongside co-writer Stephen Shields, has a tendency to place everything entirely in the moment, leaving little room for careful building of character backgrounds and even less room for a gradual building of plot points. The transition into the third act and climax plays like a switch has been arbitrarily pulled, instead of the product of a natural progression. Indeed, The Hole in the Ground’s habit to ignore everything else for the sake of packing as much into each individual shot as possible eventually exposes itself as something of a Catch-22 – losing narrative complexity for the sake of a complete dedication to composing the creepiest images or most hair-raising frights at any given second. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. A stronger script that provided additional context and played into the story’s thematic elements, instead of simply referencing them, could have made this movie something truly spectacular, and Cronin’s skills as a filmmaker magnified exponentially further.
As it is, The Hole in the Ground is still fascinating, and the considerable levels of talent on display both in front of and behind the camera go a long way way in helping keep the writing’s shortcomings from ever being too distracting. We’re struck by the sheer volume of terrors that Sarah has gone through, and captivated by her existential desperation to regain any autonomy over her own destiny. Her journey is compelling and chilling in equal measure, and Kerslake’s acting is wrenchingly intense. There are splashes of genuine inspiration all throughout this movie, whether they be in the notes of a performance or how engrossing the film’s look and feel really is. If the movie were devoted to proving its value as a slew of scenes ranging from disconcerting to frightening, such expectations would have been easier to meet. But a movie about this subject matter, without any underlying subtext, would also be far less interesting from the get-go. While Cronin recognizes this, he’s never quite able to fit every puzzle piece together, and so the picture has a few missing components that keep us from seeing what the full image represents.