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Couple in a Hole. 2016. Directed & Written by Tom Geens.
Starring Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jérôme Kircher, & Corinna Masiero. 011 Productions/Chicken Factory/A Private View.
Unrated. 105 minutes.
There are certain films that never originated from a stage play, yet feel as if they were made for live theatre. Couple in a Hole is very much like a play, involving a limited few characters and, apart from the wilderness at large, there are only a few scenes in different locations other than the hole in question. The characters are rich and very real, as are the visuals. But on top of the stage-like aura this movie is refreshing, as it both offers an intriguing story while also giving us the heart and soul of theatre performance.
For only his second feature, writer-director Tom Geens crafts an impeccably thrilling bit of cinema out of such a small, personal-type of concept. Aided by the two central performances of Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie, brave ones at that, Couple in a Hole transcends its immediately avant garde style screenplay and story to become an engaging, exciting, and at times disturbingly crazy work.
A major part of the film’s appeal is that the story doesn’t come out in expository dialogue, over and over. We’re given slow trickles of information that start building a foundation, until the backstory of the characters, why they’re out in the woods, it all comes together later in the film. And it isn’t only the couple, but the man who hopes to help them. Everything is wildly interesting from the start because of the premise itself. Once things start to flesh out there is a massive weight that starts bearing down on the viewer. When you piece together the intentions of the characters, as you see where the story is headed (or where it’s moved from), the plot becomes even better. At first I imagined the film would take a much different turn. Honestly, I expected something much more strange. However, at the core of Geens’ odd premise it is all about humanity, about people, the choices we make, how we live with ourselves, so on.
There’s absolutely a heavy thriller element the further towards the end we get. It shifts from a lot of drama to a morbid excitement, as we’re watching how things progress from one moment to the next in rapid succession. The finale is just heartbreaking in so many ways, once everything’s revealed and that last few events come down. I feel the worst for John, even above Karen. The entire thing was unexpected. And I enjoy how Geens gives us time to let everything sink in before that finale, so that the weight becomes even more tremendous.
Dig the score of the film so much. There are so many pieces which add the perfect element to the scenes. Especially after things kick up a notch in certain sequences, then the music matches the pacing perfectly. Plus, there’s an organic quality about the score, a sort that feels almost completely at home. It’s a strange mix, though it works. Geoff Barrow makes an indie rock sort of sound feel so sensible throughout a film that’s set completely in the woods, about two people literally living in a hole in the earth. Word is the soundtrack is getting a proper release, too. So I’m definitely looking forward to getting a copy, it’s that damn good.
And the look of the film overall, its atmosphere, everything helps set the tone. There’s a realism at play that helps offset the near foolishness of what the characters are attempting to do, in the way that they’re attempting to. Out in the forest, cinematographer Sam Care just lets us lap up the vast beauty of the green forest. Not only the big sprawling visuals are wonderful, but all the raw energy in the lead characters he manages to bring out through the lens with Geens directing them is so perfect. This film has a wonderful feel and a massive part of that is because of the way it looks.
Couple in a Hole is a difficult film, it’s unconventional. So that means a lot of people might dismiss it too quickly. Admittedly, starting out I saw myself ready to walk. But I didn’t. Because the further the whole realist vibe drew me in, the more its story was able to grow on me. The characters are unforgettable. I know Paul Higgins mainly from The Thick of It, so to see him playing this character is a treat. He really digs in. Even more than his performance, Kate Dickie lays it all on the line. Karen is the character who is most affected; John goes off and makes a new friend while she wallows in that hole, to the point it’s mostly wife in a hole, not a couple in there. She gives a very visceral, physical performance that resonated with me. Much as I pitied John most in the end, Karen is the most impressive character in terms of the writing. She is complex, full of depth, always keeping the viewer guessing. Both Dickie and Higgins work well together as a couple and their chemistry helps the film immensely. If anything, watch these two put on a clinic in acting. I look forward to more films written and directed by Tom Geens, as this one is innovative, quirky, yet doesn’t get lost in its own originality by staying grounded with a beautifully tragic story of love, loss, spoiled redemption, and ultimately how couples cope with grief together.