'The Hole in the Ground': Film Review | Sundance 2019

There's a hole, but it's not that deep.

A young single mother (Seana Kerslake) becomes increasingly convinced her young son is a changeling in this Ireland-set genre work from first-time feature director Lee Cronin.

Irish writer-director Lee Cronin makes his feature debut after several horror-themed shorts with the spooky, suspenseful The Hole in the Ground, an Ireland-Belgium-Finland co-production acquired by A24, which will release it first on DIRECTV at the end of January and then theatrically in March. The focus here on a stressed single mother (Seana Kerslake) coping with a difficult elementary-school-aged son (James Quinn Markey) will evoke comparisons for many with The Babadook, and while this is more generically conventional than Jennifer Kent's breakout thriller, it still taps potently into parental anxieties and primal fears. Thoughtful technical credits, especially the varied, layered score by Stephen McKeon, add an extra layer of polish.

Mother Sarah (Kerslake) and her 7- or 8-year-old son Chris (Markey) are first seen from a high aerial point of view (a drone-assisted shot that for a change feels like a justifiable use of the newfangled, much overexposed technology since it calls back to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) driving their battered SUV through a thick forest.

When the camera cuts to the car interior, they chat about a bully at Chris' school and how he misses his absent dad. It's implied that Sarah recently separated from or divorced Chris' father, and they've moved to this rural part of Ireland in search of a fresh start. Suddenly, a distracted Sarah has to swerve to avoid hitting a deranged-looking figure in a hooded sweater standing in the middle of the road: Noreen (Aki Kaurismaki-muse Kati Outinen), a mad elderly woman whom the locals call Walkie Talkie because of her habit of wandering around muttering to herself. Noreen barely acknowledges Sarah's presence, but before they drive away she manages to bang on the car, shouting something about how Chris is "not him!"

Later, back at their farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Chris continues to be difficult about food and expresses a morbid fear of spiders. Sarah is patient but clearly suffering from fraying nerves. One night, she wakes to find Chris not in his bed and she ventures into the forest in search of him, discovering along the way a massive sink hole. Chris startles her by appearing suddenly at the edge behind her and they go home.

Thereafter, Sarah grows increasingly convinced that something about Chris has changed, expressing her anxieties to her employer/friend Louise (Simone Kirby), who reassures her that kids are like that, lovely babies one day and then little monsters before you know it. And so, like The Babadook and other films about maternal guilt, Hole not so subtly nurtures a subtext about how parents sometimes struggle to accept children as they grow or can feel utterly estranged from a small person they've known all their life. There's also a timely nod towards the many kinds of family secrets that the older generations in Ireland colluded to keep hidden, expressed in scenes with the always welcome character actor James Cosmo. 

Cronin, lenser Tom Comerford and editor Colin Campbell collaborate deftly via disorienting cuts and color palette shifts to lay trails suggesting Sarah may be going crazy or is affected by her new medication and therefore just imagining things. Similarly, production design underscores the themes well, although the woodland scene printed on the fabric of one armchair is perhaps a little too on the nose. But that Henry James-ian, Turn of the Screw-style psychological ambiguity is abandoned by the last half hour, which then devolves into a straight-up creature feature that's much less engaging. Nevertheless, props are due to Kerslake for her intense, wounded performance and fine direction that gets the best out of wee Markey, a kid who has a haunted look pretty much from the off.

Production companies: Bankside Films, Savage Productions, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Wrong Men North
Distributor: A24

Cast: Seana Kerslake, James Cosmo, Kati Outinen, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall, James Quinn Markey
Director: Lee Cronin
Screenwriters: Lee Cronin, Stephen Shields
Producers: John Keville, Conor Barry
Executive producers: Lesley McKimm, Macdara Kelleher, Patrick O'Neill, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Stephen Kelliher, Hilary Davis, Tim Hegarty, Tara Finegan
Co-producers: Benoit Roland, Ulla Simonen
Director of photography: Tom Comerford
Production designer: Conor Dennison
Costume designer: Saija Siekkinen
Editor: Colin Campbell
Music: Stephen McKeon
Casting: Louise Kiely, Thyrza Ging
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)

Rated R, 90 minutes