One thing I’ve found consistent in the handful of film festival experiences I’ve had is that by a certain point you’ve seen so much sloppiness that when a crafty movie comes along, one made with skilled deliberation and mature filmmaking, there is a danger of overrating its supreme comparative steadiness and experience. At Toronto this year, Joe Dante’s The Hole is the embodiment of that phenomenon. Its first act alone is made with such inspired knowhow of how to stage a dramatic scene, how to express and use space, and how to define in human terms genre-based characters—in short, are directed with such expressive expertise—that the relief at being in the hands of someone of obvious experienced talent was palpable, regardless of whether the film would stand as highly on its own.
The Hole suffers from a similar problem as Claire Denis’s White Material in being fundamentally rooted in its screenplay, an heavy-weighted anchor to the imagination. Still, Dante is one of our foremost spirits of imagination, and let’s count our lucky stars that he’s still getting money to make feature films (his last was 2003’s Loony Tunes: Back in Action); unfortunately with The Hole he is hampered by the overbearing literalness of the Mark L. Smith’s script. When a single mother (Teri Polo) and her two sons (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) arrive in a new town and the boys, along with their next door neighbor (Haley Bennett), discover a hole under their house that opens to an endless void, the potential for horror is beautifully evoked and modulated. Dante keeps the scale of the idea in check and focuses on the various ways the kids explore their new found fantastical feature, how at first it treads the line between creating wonder and horror, and the regular, highly suburbanized ways the boys start and stop their investigations, hide their discovery from their mom, and otherwise integrate supreme weirdness into their every-days lives. But once the titular void starts literalizing each child’s fears so that they may over come them, there’s little Dante’s directorial imagination can do to enliven a plodding series of supposedly fearful confrontations.
The final act’s failure at fantastic, nuanced imagination is especially a shame in the face of The Hole’s expert navigation of the boys’ house and the start-and-stop dynamic of them getting used to their new lives and exploring the unknown. Dante’s unassuming and nimble direction of the actors is especially notable and keeps the film winning even in the face of its flat final act. The youngest boy, played by Gamble, aside from creating in bold sketches a true younger/older brother dynamic between himself and the teenaged Massolgia, neatly gets The Hole’s tone of broadly smart humor and occasional, extreme scares. But it is Haley Bennett who is the film’s real find. The actress starts the film as the older brother’s object of attraction and quickly reveals herself to be too canny, too kind, and too understanding to be relegated to that rote genre role, instead giving an incredibly sharp and detail-oriented performance that, like with Gamble, allows the characters to express much more than the words on the page. Those words on the page are what holds back The Hole, but frankly by this point in the festival expertly directed words with not a few moments that move far beyond them with inspiration is something to be applauded.