Film Review: Hollow in the Land

Entertaining indie thriller centered on a small town in British Columbia’s hinterlands where everyone works at the pulp mill.
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Writer-director Scooter Corkle’s Hollow in the Land begins with a handheld camera tracking a teenage boy on his way to a brawl. When a sheriff’s car pulls up to the abandoned lot where the boy pummels several other angry young men, the viewer’s first thought is: Who would have heard and then reported a half-dozen grunting guys in this isolated spot? The absence of ambient sound and the backdrop of snow-capped mountains spell hinterlands, not a mountain village. Unseen forces are apparently at work, fueled by the sort of long-simmering quarrels of those who know each other too well, and who, despite an expanse of sky and land, live in “hollows.”

This skillfully plotted debut feature takes unpredictable turns, and its feminine hero, who works at the local pulp mill, is tough and engaging. With outstanding cinematography (Norm Li) and picture editing (Aynsley Baldwin)—and despite loud, discordant sound effects (there is no score to speak of)—Hollow in the Land is an edge-of-the-seat thriller. The on-location shoot was in the writer-director’s hometown of Castlegar, British Columbia. Even the pulp mill opened its doors to the cast and crew. Minimizing the beauty of the place, Corkle places his characters in the cramped, dimly lit interiors of trailers and cheap housing, achieving the grainy authenticity that characterizes the film.

The sheriff (Michael Rogers) who emerges from his car in the opening scene heads straight for the boy the camera tracked, and treats him more roughly than seems necessary. We later learn that he is Braydon Miller (Jared Abrahamson), a high-school student without a father. The elder Miller is in jail for killing the son of the town’s mill owner. Today is the anniversary of that boy’s death. Braydon’s sister, Alison (Dianna Agron), gets a call from Daryl (Shawn Ashmore), a police officer and a childhood friend, who tells her she can collect her brother at the police station. It is not the first time Alison has gotten that call.

Alison, who is the film’s protagonist, gets one scene to illustrate the relationship she shares with her brother before he disappears. She has been saving to get out of town, and Braydon rightly feels he will be abandoned after he graduates from high school. The argument they have, shortly after Alison brings Braydon home from the police station, is obviously a longstanding one. Brief scenes follow of Braydon and his friends; like the one with Alison, they are just enough to establish the relationships needed to understand the plot, mostly because Corkle has a talent for directing actors. The cast is good, with the exception of the sheriff, who is sinister to the point of caricature. Minor faults in the other performances are the result of Corkle’s lack of character development.

The same day Braydon is released from custody, his girlfriend’s father, Earl, is murdered. Braydon is having sex with Sophie (Sarah Dugdale) when Earl arrives unexpectedly; the scene ends with a punch and someone falling to the ground. Given Braydon’s history and the Miller family’s reputation, it seems likely that the teenager would decide to run; Alison does not realize he is gone until the next morning when Daryl and the sheriff arrive to report the circumstances of Earl’s death. In the meantime, we learn that Alison has a female lover whose daughter is Sophie; Charlene (Rachelle Lefevre), apparently divorced from Earl, does not have custody of Sophie.

It is not long before other bodies are discovered, and Alison is under suspicion for the death of a drug dealer. In her race to find Braydon before the police do—she becomes convinced that he is hiding—Alison uncovers secrets that put her in danger. She is aided by Daryl, and by a very frightened girl who tells her what she needs to know about Earl’s murder. Then, an older woman rescues her in the forest. That fairy godmother makes sure the fearless Alison is armed in equal measure to her enemies.

To some extent, Hollow in the Land represents a confederacy of women who rescue a child from the sins of his father by never questioning his innocence. It feels like a plot drawn from life, and since this is, after all, the writer-director’s home ground, viewers are left to wonder about the movie’s metaphorical bog, of the town’s deep-seated inhumanity that never seems to resolve itself. Corkle’s saccharine denouement denies it, the only aspect of his film that does not have the ring of truth.

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