May 12, 2003 -- “Holes” is a first-rate family film that is all about karma, the spiritual idea that evil deeds bring about negative consequences that haunt the evil doers and even their descendants. Based on the popular book of the same name by Louis Sachar, the screenplay for this film was adapted from the book by Sachar himself (who also plays Mr. Collingwood in the film). It is an excellent screenplay which makes effective use of flashbacks to put the modern day story into its historical context.
The film's hero is a gangly teenager named Stanley Yelnats (played by Shia LaBeouf). He has the bad luck to be sentenced to Camp Green Lake, an oppressive reform camp, for a crime he did not commit. He is an unlucky kid from an unlucky family. His father, played by Henry Winkler, has been trying for years to find a formula to solve the problem of foot odor, but, of course, he has had no luck. The Yelnats family traces its bad luck to a curse placed on the family generations ago in Latvia by one Madame Zeroni (played by Eartha Kitt in one of the flashbacks). The curse came about because of a broken agreement between Madam Zeroni and a Yelnats ancestor.
Camp Green Lake is located on the floor of a desolate dry lake. Warden Walker (Sigourney Weaver of “Tadpole”) runs the camp with an iron fist. Her idea is simple, but exhausting. The boys in the camp have to dig one hole per day to “build character.” The hole has to be five feet deep and five feet across. It is hot and dry and there is only one place to get water at the camp. Boys who try to run away quickly perish from thirst. The boys' quarters is a dreary barracks similar to a prisoner of war hut. Water for showers and clean clothes are strictly rationed. Yelnats quickly falls into the routine of the camp. He is wary of bullies high in the boys' pecking order, and the petty work boss, known as Mr. Sir (Jon Voight of "Ali"). Of course, that isn't his real name, but most people in the camp, including the boys, don't use their real names. Yelnats does make a friend in the camp, a young boy known as Zero, who seldom speaks.
There is talk of a legend in the camp, the legend of “Kissin' Kate” Barlow (played by Patricia Arquette in several flashback scenes), an outlaw who terrorized the area during the time of the Old West. The legend was that she had stashed a fortune somewhere in the area of the reform camp. Kate Barlow had been a school teacher until a terrible injustice catapulted her into a life of robbery and murder. The bad karma of that injustice still haunts the area of the reform camp after more than 100 years. The legend is that it hasn't rained at the lake since the tragic incident that set off Kissin' Kate's reign of terror.
All of these plot elements are interrelated in a series of events which finally brings closure to these longstanding karmic issues. Although this is a tale of karma, it could just as easily have been told as a Christian tale, or a spiritual tale of some other religion. It is, essentially, a spiritual journey that spans generations. It turns out that the boys are not the only prisoners at Camp Green Lake. Even the warden and the cruel Mr. Sir are prisoners, as are the entire Yelnats family. They are all trapped by the invisible bars forged from events which happened over 100 years ago.
The characters, including camp counselor Mr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson of "O Brother Where Art Thou?") are very well developed in the film. Los Angeles Laker player and actor Rick Fox also has an effective minor role in the film, as a famous athlete, of course. Even the flashback characters are vivid and compelling, enough so to warrant their own film. The use of location photography by Bob Carlson and Stephen St. John gives the film a distinct openness (locations included Cuddeback Dry Lake and Red Rock Canyon west of Death Valley, the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Vasquez Rocks and Lake Casitas). The great expanse of the dry lake bed and the thousands of holes dug in it dominates the film, giving it a dusty realism.
The sets of most films are claustrophobic. They are tightly confined and dark. This one is mostly open and very brightly lit, but no less oppressive in its lack of freedom for the characters in the film. The production design by Maher Ahmad ("US Marshals") and art direction by Andrew Max Cahn ("Rush Hour 2") also effectively establish this open, but oppressive theme. The Old West flashback scenes are also well designed. About the only thing that did not ring true in the design of the film was the mythical Texas yellow spotted lizards. They looked phony and silly. When you've got real rattlesnakes and sidewinders and scorpions, who needs lizards that aren't all that threatening? The lizards in the film are really bearded lizards and they're harmless. They are made to appear somewhat threatening by the use of makeup and special effects. Director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive"), however, does a good job of tying all the loose story ends together, while maintaining a good pace. This is one of the best films of the year so far. It rates a B+.
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