Editor’s note: spoilers
Lee Cronin has just been tapped to direct the new Evil Dead movie. It takes under two minutes of The Hole in the Ground to realize why. As the camera follows a car down a long rural Irish road and then flips 180 degrees, Cronin and cinematographer Tom Comerfeld are making two things clear: the world isn’t what we thought it was, and we should be holding on much, much tighter.
Seána Kerslake plays Sarah O’Neill, a single mum living on the edge of a forest with her son, Chris (played by James Quinn Markey). Their location is their lives, and the story’s location, on the topography of fiction: out past the lights, on the edge of the Wood so old you can still hear the capital W. It’s also clearly where they need to be, THIS close to trauma but not sliding into it, with recovery as their act of resistance. They’re cheerful, defiant, rebuilding from a trauma that Cronin and Stephen Shields’ script trusts us to fill in. Kerslake and Markey both portray trauma with the nuance and compassion it demands, They also have great chemistry and are instantly believable as a family unit.
Which is the knife the movie sinks deep into your ribs without you ever knowing.
Pay close attention to the opening five minutes. This is a ridiculously tidy piece of cinema. It tells you what it’s going to do and then goes and does it. It’s true outside the narrative as well as in, with Kati Outinen having a small but memorable part of one of Sarah’s relatives, Noreen Brady. Noreen is horrified, traumatized, and wanders the countryside. She meets Sarah twice, both times change their lives forever. And both times the movie ramps up the gnawing unease further. One of these women is at the end of their story, the other is at the start.
The cozy acceptance of Noreen’s wanderings, the refusal to look horror in the eye, the hole in the ground. Sarah doesn’t live in a community she lives in a pack, terrified to move too quickly in case the predator at the edge of town sees them. When it sees Chris, it takes him and Sarah finds herself faced with a heart-wrenching choice: lean in to the idea her son has been stolen, or pretend it hasn’t happened. The second is out of the question, the first leads her down the same path as Noreen.
In the hands of lesser creators, this choice would lead to the sort of jump-scare fairground ride that clogs every streaming service. Fun, but rarely more. Hole in the Ground is different, and those differences stem from a choice, Sarah’s choice not to be a victim but an eyes-open participant.
Kerslake’s easygoing compassion and intelligence gives Sarah a real sense of pragmatic intelligence, which she brings to bear on Chris’ situation. In short order she discovers — or maybe decides — that something otherworldly has happened. And the movie pulls another ace from its sleeve: the lengths to which people will refuse to accept what is right before them. A denial the thing wearing Chris’ face weaponizes.
Just as it likes catching and eating spiders, it likes toying with Sarah, showing her how little help she has. This is especially true of Des, Noreen’s husband who gives Sarah vital information but can’t quite bring himself to believe the evidence in front of him. Des’ haven is his gentle nature. It’s his prison, too, and something else is holding the key. The sequence where Sarah confronts Des, played by the always reliable James Cosmo, is electric. The one you’ll remember is a terrified Sarah, sat alone in the crowd, watching a school performance which is suddenly Chris snarling the words to her in an empty hall. The movie shines in moments like that, sharp and chilling. The mask slipping or being moved. A thing with the face of a polite little boy hiding behind the reality that no one believes women.
And all of this done with minimal gore. There’s a little blood but a lot more silence and noise deployed in a way which never feels preformative. The edge of the Woods becomes the movie’s genre. Sarah pushing out past the edge of her comfort zone — her genre — to find her son before it’s too late and he’s trapped forever in the loamy soil somewhere between the edge of the film and the end of the world.
You can tell I REALLY liked this, right? Good.
The Hole in the Ground has the courage of its characters’ convictions and never lets them go. The ending is an elegant subversion of the ‘OR IS IT?!’ moment I always dread in horror movies, turned sideways and into something richer, stranger and more nuanced. Whether the ending is happy or not remains to be seen. But that’s what Sarah wants, and the movie ends as it begins, with her in the driving seat, for better or worse.
The Hole in the Ground is fantastic and streaming on Amazon Prime now.
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