**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Shia LaBeouf
screenplay by Louis Sachar, based on his novel
directed by Andrew Davis
by Walter Chaw A certain level of grotesquerie in a children's entertainment is essential, but at some point grotesquerie just becomes grotesque. Holes, adapted by Louis Sachar from his award-winning children's novel, is a cheerless little melodrama, dusty and marooned in the middle of nowhere with what is essentially a pint-sized version of the time-tripping buffoonery of The Hours. Its tale of destiny and stroking the sins of the fathers rattles along its rails like a rusted-out mine cart, going to where it's going with a lot of noise and broken-down drama but without anything like surprise.
Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) is from a cursed line: his father (Henry Winkler) is a failed inventor, and his great-grandfather (Allan Kolman) was robbed and left for dead by legendary outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette). Stanley IV is sent to the ironically-named desert-based juvenile detention unit Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn't commit and asked to dig holes by the camp's motley trio of administrators (Warden (Sigourney Weaver), Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), and Counsellor Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson)), the wards at Camp Green Lake unwitting participants in the search for Kissin' Kate's buried treasure. Holes follows Kissin' Kate's story (an interracial romance with Dule Hill), the story of a progenitor Yelnats who has a run-in with mysterious fortune teller Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt), and Stanley IV's trials at dust camp with illiterate urchin with a heart of gold Zero (Khleo Thomas). Needless to say, all the storylines are tied up in a grotesque little package keen on poetic justice and serendipity.
The first and greatest problem of Holes is that half of its cast is playing at coming-of-age drama and the other half is playing at circus freakery. Voight's Mr. Sir is Midwest hickism in all its terrifying glory, the actor finding himself on the other side of the Deliverance divide with Nelson's horrific hilljack take on counselling and counsellors. Trumping them both is Weaver's Warden, angular and appalling, painting her fingernails with rattlesnake venom before mutilating Mr. Sir in a fit of rage. The veteran actors convey an off-kilter madness that's unpredictable (and deeply unsettling for that capriciousness), and so while the terror of the children in their charge is not surprising, there's so little sense of the kids' strength that Holes feels a lot like a film about legacies of abuse interrupted by fits of accidental emancipation.
Kissin' Kate's tale is a doomed romance that ends with an auto-envenomation suicide; the early Yelnats/Madame Zeroni is a gothic Old Country fairy tale that ends with a double-abandonment and curse; and the Stanley IV tale ends, essentially, with a bizarre mother/son reunion at a bus station. Holes has no cohesion--it's as chaotic and arbitrary as it wishes to be tidy and fated. Even the individual storylines have a fractured feeling to them--one part whimsy, one part repugnant--that lends the piece as a whole a disjointed, unsettled feeling. Holes looks good in its blasted browns and yellows, and it's difficult to really find fault with any of the performances--which, after all, don't really take themselves all that seriously. Rather, the failure of the film (and The Hours suffers from this as well) is embedded in its inability to manufacture a compelling reason that an archetypical tale (this one of loyalty, The Hours of wanderlust) needs to be historicized to lend it resonance. Archetype is a-historical.
Worse, the idea that simply honouring the essential requires some sort of reward of providence stinks of the basest pandering instinct. If Holes were genuinely interested in teaching its morality, it wouldn't need a tearful reunion (see also: Schindler's List). Rather, the picture strikes me as something meant to be rip-roarin' hellzapoppin' Robb White kind of tween adventure romp (complete with desert trek and fortunate oasis), in addition to something that is meant to be an essay on the karmic payment plan writ small. The Achilles Heel of Holes is that karma doesn't play small and attempts to shoehorn it into too tiny, too nifty a parcel becomes something insufficient, discordant, and indeed grotesque. Originally published: April 18, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Disney releases Holes on DVD in separate widescreen and fullscreen editions. This review refers to the former, which contains the film in a THX-certified 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of occasionally startling clarity and consistently beautiful colouring. Contrast is more precise than average; I find myself increasingly complacent when it comes to assessing image quality, but the Holes disc serves as a nice reminder of why the DVD format was so quickly embraced. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is perhaps not aggressive enough to be noticed like the video, but it must be said that, aside from some obnoxious tunes, the soundmix is the most subtle and impressive thing about Holes proper. There are two film-length commentary tracks, the first a group yakker geared towards adolescents that includes actors Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Jake M. Smith, and Max Kasch behaving restlessly, the second--more adult in nature--featuring director Andrew Davis and novelist Louis Sachar, who alternate between trainspotting digital effects and story contributions specific to Sachar's screenplay adaptation. It's actually a lot more intriguing than it sounds.
A section of Bonus Features nobly attempts to be demographically all-inclusive, but like the movie itself, its aim seems blind rather than magnanimous. "The Boys of D-Tent" (11 mins.) finds producer Teresa Tucker-Davies taking pride in the fact that all the kid stars of the film were "hand-picked" (as opposed to...?) and more clowning around from the child cast, as in the "Shout Out" epilogue to the piece. Still, some of the audition footage may be of curiosity value to fans of the film's stars. For a documentary as reverential of Sachar as "Digging the First Hole" (9 mins.), you'd think they'd spell his name correctly on screen (he's billed in a by-line as "Sacher"); as an abstract of Sachar's commentary with Davis, this featurette has its charms, though when Davis--a dead ringer for "Mork & Mindy"'s Conrad Janis--calls himself "a visual director," you can't help but feel lied to by the erstwhile cinematographer of Angel and Mansion of the Doomed. Of the six "deleted scenes," one worth restoring opens with a speech from Tim Blake Nelson in which he condemns the use of shower tokens as gambling chips. A 2-minute gag reel that relies most heavily on outtakes from these very supplementals (!), a lame song, "Dig It," rapped by the "D-Tent Boys," a "register your DVD" option, and trailers for The Lion King, Brother Bear, George of the Jungle 2, Finding Nemo, The Santa Clause 2, and Freaky Friday round out the platter.
117 minutes; PG; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; CC; Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Disney