A24 already has quite the track record when it comes to deeply disturbing family horror and that trend continues with their latest, The Hole in the Ground. The movie comes from director Lee Cronin, the filmmaker behind the unforgettable short, Ghost Train, which earned him a handful of accolades on the festival circuit in 2014. I still suspect that short could be ripe for a feature adaptation, but instead, Cronin now turns his attention to the story of a mother and son who move to a secluded home a short walk away from a suspicious sinkhole.
Now having seen his feature directorial debut, I might be rooting for a Ghost Train feature film even more so because of how well The Hole in the Ground takes a simple, curious, highly cinematic premise and never over-explains or bombards you with flashy set pieces but rather, sustains its 90-minute runtime by creating two well developed, engaging characters, letting you live with them, and then all slowly slip into the darkness and paranoia together.
Seána Kerslake leads as Sarah, a single mother trying to get a fresh start with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey). Soon after an unsettling encounter with a neighbor, Chris goes missing in the middle of the night, and while trying to find him, Sarah realizes that there’s a gigantic sinkhole right in their backyard. Even though Chris winds up back home, seemingly safe and sound, Sarah suspects something isn’t quite right with her son.
The Hole in the Ground features a small handful of solid supporting performances but this is Kerslake and Markey’s show, and they make a phenomenal pair. The mother-son dynamic is red hot right out the gate, which serves the experience extremely well as you can see and feel the heart of that charming connection slowly rotting away. Markey has no trouble navigating the range from sweet and adorable to eerily suspicious, greatly contributing to the unease and mystery. And The Hole in the Ground could and should be a game changer for Kerslake. She rocks a unique, commanding and levelheaded presence that instantly grabs your attention and suggests that she’s a character well worth rooting for who makes smart, reasonable decisions.
It’s a character-driven film, Cronin knows it and does everything he can to support his leads. He knows just when to leave the camera be, and in Kerslake’s case, that often results in reaction shots that are loaded with complexity that encourage the viewer to assess the situation right along with her. While eerie, the movie is also noticeably stunning, capturing both the beauty and the haunting vastness and grays of the landscape around them. Even something as simple as a scene of Sarah running through the woods with nothing but a flashlight becomes extremely disorienting and unnerving because of how Cronin captures it and also how long he choose to have you locked into it, a quality that extends to just about everything Sarah experiences thereafter as well. She’s trapped and all alone watching her son slip away, and the movie very successfully offers the viewer a similar, helpless sensation.
The Hole in the Ground is much more so about the relationship between Sarah and Chris, challenging how well she knows her child, but there is a mystery and “need-to-know” component to the experience and while the film does stick the landing, there are a few head-scratching omissions along the way. In particular, one decision-making moment and one large gap in a more action-heavy set piece come to mind. Ultimately though, the movie gets away with taking those leaps because the heart and soul of the movie is so strong.
Sarah’s a single mother, solely responsible for raising a son she loves deeply in a world where there are countless forces all around him that could impact, reshape and also threaten the child she knows so well. It’s a simple, sinister film that really digs its claws in, not because of some ultra-violent set pieces but rather because the connection between mother and son is so strong and then, in turn, so is the paranoia of Sarah losing Chris.
The Hole in the Ground will be available on DIRECTV starting on January 31st and in theaters starting on March 1st.
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