The Hole In The Ground (2019)

The Hole In The Ground first published by Sight & Sound, April 2019

Review: At the beginning of The Hole In The Ground, an upset-looking Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) is in a fun park hall of mirrors with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey), his face grotesquely distorted in the glass. This encapsulates the dynamic of what will follow, as Sarah, distracted and disturbed, repeatedly questions the identity of her young son, seeing – or imagining – a monstrous doppelgänger in his place. The film’s plot comes deeply overdetermined, with multiple explanations available for its unfolding events. Sarah may be suffering Capgras delusion, perhaps brought on by a recent head injury from which she still bears the painful scar. Or she might be manically reliving the trauma of her implicitly abusive relationship with Chris’ now missing father. Or perhaps a malevolent creature from the nearby forest really has abducted and replaced Chris.

A hole is an absence. The film’s title refers primarily to the huge craterous sinkhole, like an antlion’s pit trap, located near the backwoods cottage into which Sarah and Chris have recently moved. It also alludes to several other gaping holes dug deep into the film’s narrative structure – like the question of how Sarah came to have an ugly wound on her forehead, or what has happened to her husband. Certainly his absence haunts the film – and much as Chris partially fills the masculine gap left by his father with his favourite toy soldier, Chris himself comes to be regarded by Sarah as an empty mannequin on whom she can project and surrogate her own anxieties. 

Co-writing with Stephen Shields, first-time feature director Lee Cronin lets allusions to the parallel scenarios of other films adumbrate the various ellipses and lacunae in the plot of his own. The intense, claustrophobic relationship between mother and son conjures the maternity and madness of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). Sean Ellis’ The Brøken (2008) sets a template for equivocations between a woman’s derangement and perception of sinister doubles. Aerial shots of a family car driving into the wilderness, and some very specific musical cues in Stephen McKeon’s soundtrack, combine to evoke Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which similarly merges domestic abuse and supernatural horror. The leitmotif of (expressly female) spiders in Hole In The Ground points to Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013), another psychological doppelgänger mystery with an uncanny arachnophobic fixation. 

In all this, Cronin has the confidence never to give his own game away, instead thrillingly maintaining his film’s ambiguities and duplicities to the end. No matter how these are ultimately supplemented by the viewer, there remains the suggestion that this is not the first time that Sarah has had to pull herself and her son out of the deep hole of a suffocating domestic situation, and that her alarming experiences in the film are a fugue-like reprise of this past, viewed through a glass darkly. The Hole In The Ground ends as it begins, with mirrors, and with a reflection of a woman who, in conducting herself with such paranoid distress, might still be her own worst enemy.

Synopsis: Irish hinterlands, the present. Sarah O’Neill and her young son Chris move into a cottage near woods that surround a massive sinkhole. One night Chris goes missing, but later reappears. Batty neighbour Noreen, who years earlier had run over her own son with her car after claiming he was in impostor, insists manically to Sarah of Chris, “He’s not your son!” Later Sarah finds Noreen dead, her head buried in a hole. At the wake, Noreen’s husband Des tells Sarah that Noreen had used mirrors every day to check whether he too had become an impostor. Prescribed sedatives by her doctor, Sarah starts noticing odd behaviours in Chris, and hides a camera in his bedroom. Meanwhile Sarah’s own behaviour alarms others around her. Sarah shows Des the videotape, but he refuses to respond. After secretly feeding Chris her sedatives, Sarah confronts him, and is knocked unconscious in the ensuing tussle. Chris drags her outside and buries her head in a hole, but passes out from the sedatives. Sarah, freeing herself, locks Chris in the basement, and heads out to the sinkhole. Falling in, she wakes in an underground tunnel, where she finds the real Chris, barely alive amid human skeletons in a nest. Monsters hatch, one assuming Sarah’s form. Sarah flees with Chris and, hearing his double still trapped in the basement, burns the cottage down. In a coda, Sarah is back in university, keeping a wary eye on Chris, her apartment filled with mirrors. 

© Anton Bitel