Like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” debuting writer-director Richard Ledes’ “A Hole in One” is an offbeat romantic drama about cranial housecleaning, this time as part of the 1950s psychiatric healthcare explosion that led to lobotomies as treatment for everything from anxiety to insomnia. But this oddball tale of a small-town gangster’s troubled girlfriend hovers uncertainly on the edge of an absurdist universe. Inconsistent exercise is never pushed far enough in any number of potentially intriguing directions, and despite stylish production values, will struggle to break beyond cable.
As the quack doctor pushing transorbital lobotomies intones, “To pursue forgetfulness is to pursue happiness.” That pursuit becomes the obsession of sweet but confused Anna (Michelle Williams), suffering from the emotional fallout of her shell-shocked brother’s death and the violent behavior of her pathologically jealous thug boyfriend Billy (Meat Loaf). The young woman’s search for clarity and peace is not helped by seeing movies like “The Snake Pit” in her downtime.
When neurologist Dr. Harold Ashton (Bill Raymond) comes to sleepy Icetown, U.S.A. during Mental Health Week in 1953 to advocate liberation through a simple outpatient surgery performed with an ice pick and mallet, Anna believes she’s found the answer. Billy appears to go along with her wish to undergo a lobotomy but secretly ropes in Tom (Tim Guinee), a mild-mannered guy on his payroll, to steer Anna away from the decision by posing as a rival doctor. Tom shows Anna the kind of sensitivity of which Billy is incapable, creating a bond that threatens the already unstable gangster.
Stitched around the concept that craziness is a relative state of mind, Ledes’ ambitious script attempts to take too many ideas on board — about radical thought, misguided medical advances, anti-Communist hysteria, ’50s naivete, media manipulation, Hiroshima and Ethel Rosenberg’s execution — making the film as thematically overburdened as it is laden with gratuitous stylistic flourishes. Perhaps the central problem is the lack of credible basis for the Billy-Anna relationship.
While the material might have been more convincing with an eccentric imagination like that of David Lynch or David Cronenberg behind it, Ledes wavers between a stilted, ’50s melodrama style, black humor and earnest realism within a fragmented structure with no emotional through-lines. The tonal uncertainty and unnatural-sounding dialogue is rough on the actors. Williams is sympathetic despite her character’s frustrating remoteness, but Meat Loaf is unable to bring either a human dimension or any real menace to Billy.
Stephen Kazmierski’s polished widescreen lensing and Bill Fleming’s period sets give the indie feature a sharp look, with Stephen Trask’s percussive score providing emotional nuance.