You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Hole in the Ground’

Lee Cronin
Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey
Release Date:
Mar 1, 2019

1 hour 30 minutes

Try as we might to dissuade vulnerable young parents in the movies from relocating their families to rambling, deserted homes in the countryside, preferably on the edge of a dark, looming forest, sometimes they simply have to learn for themselves. Happily, Lee Cronin’s “The Hole in the Ground” is largely in on the joke, putting the agonized single mom at its center through a veritable spin cycle of familiar horror dilemmas and distractions — a haunted child, a creaking house, a ghostly neighbor, even a mysterious, beckoning sinkhole — and seeing how she comes out of the wash. Thanks to the resourceful Seána Kerslake in the lead, she fares rather well, and so does Cronin: The Irishman’s trim, jumpy debut feature rewrites no genre rules, but abounds in bristly calling-card atmospherics.

Already acquired for the U.S. by A24 — and set for a March 1 release, following a pre-theatrical run on DirecTV — “The Hole in the Ground” is less subversive than we’ve come to expect from the indie distributor’s genre fare. Compared to Ari Aster’s penetrating family nightmare “Hereditary,” which likewise debuted in a buzzy Midnight slot at Sundance last year, Cronin’s film is more of a straight-up spookhouse ride: jolting in the moment, but less likely to linger in the bones long after viewing. That’s fine when Cronin (already talked up in horror circles for his 2016 short “Ghost Train”) is having this much fun showing off his bulging, reference-packed bag of tricks, starting early with a swooping hat-tip to “The Shining” and only getting more brazen from there. Only in the film’s muddy-in-all-senses finale — which leaves a few too many dots unjoined, even by forgiving genre standards — does its grip on proceedings slip a notch.

The opening shot finds young mother Sarah (Kerslake) and her sensitive, grade school-age son Chris (James Quinn Markey) regarding each other’s distorted reflections in a hall of mirrors; if this doesn’t immediately clue viewers into the funhouse spirit of things to come, they’ll find out soon enough. Escaping an abusive relationship, Sarah moves with Chris to a remote corner of rural Ireland, buying a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of a folksy village. If the eerie confrontation they have with an enigmatic crone (Aki Kaurismäki leading lady Kati Outinen, inventively cast in a frosty cameo) en route to their new home is any indication, they might be better off seeking other lodgings, but on we go. Before long, things are going bump in the dark, stormy night and Chris unaccountably disappears one evening into the adjacent forest — where, as it happens, a sinkhole the approximate size of a shopping mall has opened in the clearing, and no one except Sarah seems to know about it.

Chris may return safely from the wilderness, but Sarah swiftly suspects that he’s not, so to speak, out of the woods. Somehow altered in ways only a devoted parent would notice, he makes Stepford-polite gestures of affection that don’t quite ring true — though talented newcomer Markey plays the changes subtly enough to make us wonder if Sarah isn’t simply losing the plot. (Previously seen in TV’s “Vikings,” the actor has something of the young Haley Joel Osment about him; by the time one car-interior shot mimics the framing of a key “Sixth Sense” scene, that hardly seems an accident of casting.) But as his behavior grows more unpredictable, and as Sarah uncovers some disquietingly tragic local history, perhaps frayed maternal instinct is all she has to count on.

This kind of loopy premise devolves very easily into all-out silliness without the right actor to conjure up some semblance of emotional reality as the tumbledown terror piles up, and Cronin has that in the wonderfully expressive, open-featured Kerslake. The rising star, so beguiling in 2016’s underseen “A Date for Mad Mary,” has the kind of tender-tough credibility that makes you anxiously root for a horror protagonist even as you groan at all their unwitting rookie errors. (It’s the difference, if you will, between making audiences yell, “Don’t go in there!” and “Don’t go in there, you moron!”) She and Markey, meanwhile, have the kind of gentle, natural adult-child rapport that family-in-peril B-thrillers all too often lack — “The Hole in the Ground” holds onto human details like these even when its plotting slides into the odd sinkhole of its own.

Cronin, for his part, conducts the chaos with wired aplomb, as he and cinematographer Tom Comerford crank up the autumn-chill atmosphere in ever-darkening woodsy tones. Composer Stephen McKeon and production designer Conor Dennison make their own essential contributions to the overriding spirit of classy schlock, flirting playfully with genre cliché as their director tacitly namechecks everything from “Goodnight Mommy” to “The Blair Witch Project.” When one scene even finds Sarah wallpapering a room in those signature Overlook Hotel hexagons, it’s hard not to laugh out loud: At a time when the obnoxious term “elevated horror” keeps making the festival rounds, Cronin’s nifty debut is happy to meet the genre at its level.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Hole in the Ground'

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Jan. 14, 2019. (In Sundance Film Festival — Midnight.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Ireland) An A24 (in U.S.) release of a Savage Prods. presentation in association with Irish Film Board, Bankside Films, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in co-production with Wrong Men, Made. Producers: John Keville, Conor Barry. Executive producers: Hilary Davis, Tara Finegan, Tim Hegarty, Phil Hunt, Macdara Kelleher, Stephen Kelliher, Lesley McKimm, Patrick O'Neill, Compton Ross. Co-producers: Benoît Roland, Ulla Simonen.

Crew: Director: Lee Cronin. Screenplay: Cronin, Stephen Shields. Camera (color, widescreen): Tom Comerford. Editor: Colin Campbell. Music: Stephen McKeon.

With: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, James Cosmo, Kati Outinen, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall.

More Film

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

  • WGA Writers Contract Talks

    Talent Agents, WGA Achieve Progress in Second Round of Talks

    Hollywood talent agents and the Writers Guild of America have achieved some progress at their second negotiating session over agency regulations, according to sources close to the talks. The two sides met Tuesday, two weeks after their first meeting resulted in both sides criticizing each other, followed by the WGA holding a trio of spirited [...]

  • Aaron Paul

    Film News Roundup: Aaron Paul Honored by Sun Valley Film Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, Aaron Paul is honored, Bruce Berman is re-upped at Village Roadshow, and Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher get a book deal. FESTIVAL HONORS More Reviews Berlin Film Review: 'Flesh Out' Berlin Film Review: 'Marighella' The Sun Valley Film Festival has selected Idaho native and three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul as [...]

  • Olivia Munn]EMILY'S List Pre-Oscars Brunch, Inside,

    Olivia Munn Says Brett Ratner Called Her Before His 'Howard Stern' Apology

    Olivia Munn is setting the record straight about standing up to “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner, whom she alleges sexually harassed her over a decade ago. During a panel discussion at the Emily’s List pre-Oscars brunch at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills Tuesday morning, Munn revealed that Ratner called her in 2011 after he denied [...]

  • Flesh Out review

    Berlin Film Review: 'Flesh Out'

    Ignore the awful English-language title: “Flesh Out” is an emotionally rich, sensitively made film about a young woman in Mauritania forced to gain weight in order to conform to traditional concepts of well-rounded beauty before her impending marriage. Strikingly registering the sensations of a protagonist living between the dutiful traditions of her class and the [...]

  • Marighella review

    Berlin Film Review: 'Marighella'

    Does Brazil need a film that openly advocates armed confrontation against its far-right government? That’s the first question that needs to be asked when discussing “Marighella,” actor Wagner Moura’s directorial debut focused on the final year in the life of left-wing insurrectionist Carlos Marighella during Brazil’s ruthless military dictatorship. For whatever one might think of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content