[Trevor] The Anxieties of Co-parenting: Identity and Transitional Loss in The Hole in the Ground (2019)

For Ander, who is growing into a lion that knows the lion who is good but not safe

Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground (2019) opens with an extreme close-up of the protagonist, Sarah (Seána Kerslake), and her glowering expression sets the tone for the slow-burn, surreal horror flick produced by A24. Similar to Jordan Peele’s Us, the first scene is at a carnival where we see Sarah’s son, Chris (James Quinn Markey), making goofy faces in front of a funhouse mirror in which his distorted image foreshadows the questions of identity to come. Atmospheric and brooding in mood, the film employs establishing shots of the Irish countryside in order to create a feeling of dread and unease. Throughout the movie, the leitmotif of doubling exemplifies a paradox all parents confront: the desire to preserve your child in a state of innocence and the desire to let them grow into mature individuals.

Lingering above the rural road, the camera flips upside down to cue us to the distorted reality that we are about to observe. Passing through the woods, which themselves act as a kind of character by fragmenting the bonds of mother and son, Sarah has to swerve to miss a lady standing in the road. Symbolically, one of her side mirrors lies in the road, broken like the way the identity of her and her son’s is about to be. Ambiguities about the son’s selfhood are further perpetuated by the fact that through the scene the audience is viewing him through the windshield. As I sat watching that boy through another screen, I could not help but think of my own son, Ander, and the anxieties I have from fathering him while being physically distant. Will there be a day when I do not recognize my own son any more?

The dilemma of parenthood surfaces here, because life is change, which means life requires me to learn to cope with change, specifically the growth and development of my son. The conflicting impulses of wanting to see your son develop while also wanting to cling to who he is in the moment are evidenced when a spider crawls into the mother and son’s new rural house. Sarah traps it in a jar and lets it go. Such an action embodies the tension I have between wanting to retain my son’s current personality and seeking to raise him towards autonomy.

Recently, I have been looking at pictures of Ander from one, two, and three years ago. Each time I pause over a photograph, my fiancée, Kerra, mentions to me how Ander always looks the same in every image. A couple of days ago, however, she said, “You know the day is coming when you will look at one of these pictures, and Ander will look completely different.” I know it.

Augmenting my attachment to Chris was the fact that he says to his mom, “Dad would kill it.” To such a statement, Sarah says, “I’m not Dad.” Her son says, “You lie. You said he’d come after us.” Such terse words prompted me to reflect on the kind of life and experience Ander will have, growing up in a situation where his dad is intentional about being in his life but is separated by geography and circumstance. As destabilizing as having to observe my son’s changes on an ordinary basis is, it is magnified by the fact that not only do I have to grieve the change, I have to lament the inability to watch this process of change. Although I FaceTime with him when he is at his mother’s, the technology is an artifice that cannot record the nuances of his gradual transformation into adulthood; thus, I have to both mourn his change and the loss of seeing those transitions.

Fostering the theme of doubling and duplicity (that word carrying the double meaning of twoness and deception here) are the ubiquitous mirrors and window frames through which Chris is viewed. Spellbinding, sharp composition, creeping dolly shots, close-ups of feet, and an eerie score perpetuates the splintering of the narrator’s world. Part Black Swan, part The Babadook, the film centers on a literal and metaphorical sinkhole, a cavity that exists in the liminal space of the woods and beneath the protagonist’s head scar, revealing transitional loss and the narrator’s unreliability. Ironically, it is in the place of crossing boundaries and passing through thresholds, the woods, where the loss of that transition occurs.

During a dinner party scene, several men are gloating about punching a guy. Toxic masculinity is on display here, and, with the vague implications of the protagonist’s own abusive past, we share in her perspective of being simultaneously traumatized and detached from her friend’s deplorable discussion. In a gender complex world where ideas of manhood are confused at best, I wonder what kind of toxic masculinity that Ander might be exposed to. Where will he be able to exercise his maleness and have it directed? Who will influence it? Being a divorced dad and having to co-parent is an opaque task. My time with my son, like Sarah and Chris’s identity, is divided.

I want to be there to tell Ander that manhood is inhabiting your emotions; it is in being socially courageous and emotionally mature.

Before long, Chris wanders off into the woods. As mentioned earlier, the woods acts as its own character, as forests have traditionally been places of enchantment and symbolic of crossing boundaries from one world to the next. Understanding the purgatorial nature of the woods, we are not surprised then when the son returns and acts different. Some of the characteristics he has that contrasts with his previous personality are that he likes cheese and bugs, behaves with aggression, forges friendships at school, and decides to act in the talent show. What makes these subtle adjustments so effective is that, depending on perspective, they could be seen as ordinary developments of growing up or, taken collectively, as a sign that Chris has been replaced by a doppelganger. We know the suspicions Sarah is starting to ruminate over as she says to a friend, “Ever look at your son and not recognize them?”

Cronin accentuates the theme of doubling by replicating a scene from earlier: Sarah drives up to the woman in the road again. By now, we have learned from the dinner party scene that the lady is Noreen and that she allegedly went insane some time ago when she started claiming her son James was no longer her son but an evil alternate. Our protagonist is not so sure though as she recalls the bizarre, massive hole that she stumbled across while searching for Chris in the woods. Thus, Sarah is less dismissive of Noreen when the old woman blocks the road this time and is psychologically unfastened when the elderly lady slams her head into the window until it bleeds and shouts, “He’s not your son!”

the hole in the ground 2

Deconstructing identity, The Hole in the Ground caused me to question what constitutes our personhood. Are we only the sum of our likes and dislikes, a culmination of the habits, loves, routines, and temperament that we present to others? If so, how much of identity is perception and how much of it has an ontological basis? Is identity simply a construct through which we interpret and make sense of the world? What happens when our attributes begin to shift?

Ander has an understated humor, a physically affectionate personality, a fierce imagination, a love for Star Wars, and, recently, a growing affinity for Spider-Man and Transformers. When he begins to gravitate towards new passions, how will our relationship change? Perhaps these ostensible changes are not significant and someone would claim that his comedy, his compassion, and his creativity are more intrinsic and fundamental to identity. But they are no less constant and are equally subject to the dynamic unfolding of our lives.

Coming upon Noreen and finding her dead with her head buried in the dirt, Sarah’s psyche starts fracturing at an accelerated rate. The juxtaposition of imagery here is profound. Noreen is dead, which is the ultimate stasis, and the dirt is emblematic of nature which is itself in a constant state of change. The sense in which we are born dying means that change is not Edenic but post-Fall; it is a function of sin or the effects of Sin. Contrary to the pagan notion that change and death are a natural part of life, the Biblical narrative begins with the perpetuity of Adam and Eve in the Garden where they were created and placed to rule and reign forever. It is telling that our first parents were not made as children but were brought into the world as fully mature adults. The end of the redemptive story is when that constancy is regained in a new heaven and new earth.

Sarah’s resistance to change though is not coming from a place of wholeness but one of brokenness and futility. She does not accept the paradox of living in this world that is in transition, a world that is experiencing the present evil age but also the encroaching age to come. At Noreen’s funeral, Sarah speaks with the widower who explains that his late wife kept mirrors all around the house, because she believed mirrors told the truth in that they revealed distortions in the replacement that showed he was not her actual son. In a simple exchange between Sarah and the bereaved, the protagonist sees a photo of the man’s son, James, and says, “Your son is cute.” The widower says, “He was.” Those words ring with poignancy and pain: James will always be a boy never to grow into a man.

Determined to discover if her own son is a copy, Sarah looks through a keyhole and sees him eat a spider. The act indicates that the mother is at once afraid of her boy becoming a man while also wanting him to grow past boyhood, since the alternative is death. But if the change is complete, will that not also mean her boy is gone? All of the hesitancy of seeing her son change is manifested in her conviction that he is a copy of himself, some nefarious changeling. Thus, she puts a digital camera in his room to document his behavior and prove he is a doppelganger. Sharp cuts and fast editing suggest that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator as the shot moves from Chris combing his hair to singing in the school play. In a Lynchean, dream-like sequence, Sarah runs in extreme slow-motion through the halls of the school and when we return to a more realistic scene, she tells her friend from earlier, “He is not my son.”

Deteriorating more, the protagonist, in a moment of artful subversion by Cronin, is the one who has to be parented by the false son. We see Chris slink into bed with his mother and soothe her. There is little delay in the boy moving from nurturing to violent as then Chris tries to bury Sarah’s head in the ground but does not succeed in killing the mother. There is a struggle and during it the boy puts his hands in Sarah’s head scar, pushing his hands into her head as if to hint that he is, if only on a symbolic level, a projection of her fears of parenting. Sarah retaliates and overcomes the clone by putting him into the basement, which carries figurative and Freudian import.

The mother’s work is unfinished though as she continues to believe that her real son is alive. Returning to the sinkhole that is the size of a vast canyon, we are seeing a pit that is more metaphorical than literal. She must descend into the underground in order to find her son and in doing so confronts faceless beings. One of them transforms and turns out to be herself. How many of the doppelgangers are there? How malleable and pliable is identity? The unreliability of our constructs of self is exposed in the emotional climax. Having her son back, Sarah’s brings closure on this move to the country, which in itself was a transitional moment, by burning down the house.

In the epilogue, time has passed and we see that, like Noreen before her, Sarah has mirrors everywhere. Such evidence gives credence to audiences who want to interpret her character as an unreliable narrator and as psychologically disturbed. Whatever conclusion we come to, what we do see is a mother who is still unsettled. She pulls out a camera and takes a picture of her boy only to see a distortion.

Allowing the film to marinate with me, I have only thought more of the thoughts and feelings it engendered in me with regards to Ander. To a certain extent, even without physical separation, transition loss is inevitable. Even seeing someone on an everyday basis does not preclude the reality that we cannot observe every change as it is happening. As it is, sometimes when we are so close to an individual, we fail to recognize and embrace the growth in them as if our physical proximity impedes our vision like when you hold an object too close to your face and cannot make out the details. Nevertheless, the longing to be with Ander as well as my other children is real, and the loss is where I must practice acceptance. Taking another perspective, I am able to celebrate his changes in a distinct way, because I will notice them more when I have not seen him in two weeks than if I had seen him everyday.

The great news is that the changeless one became an infant and then a child and subjected himself to change. His death on the cross resulted in our union with him and gave us an identity that is not mere construct. He descended into the hole in the ground for us and was buried though death could not be a stasis for him. His resurrection signaled the crossing of the ultimate threshold as nature’s curse is being lifted, and the day is approaching when the world will be subject to change and decay no more.

Until then, I accept the many variations and alterations in my son’s life and look to the day when he will be in finished form because of the one who said, “It is finished.”

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