March 2021

Holes (2003)

DIRECTOR: Andrew Davis


Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson, Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Dulé Hill, Henry Winkler, Siobhan Fallon, Nathan Davis, Eartha Kitt, Scott Plank, Roma Maffia


I wasn’t expecting too much from Holes the first time I saw it, and with some reason; Disney’s live-action films aren’t generally noted for their quality (or even for being bearable). Fortunately, Holes is a surprisingly enjoyable exception, well-acted, quirky, and with a surprising amount to offer adults as well as the young readers of Louis Sachar’s much-loved book.

Mild-mannered, palindrome-named Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) is arrested one day for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a pair of stolen sneakers seem to fall from the sky and land on his head. Told by his father (Henry Winkler) and grandfather (Nathan Davis, director Andrew Davis’ father) that his misfortunes are the result of a centuries-old family curse, Stanley is hauled off to the inappropriately-named Camp Greenlake, a bizarre juvenile detention facility that seems to exist in a dimension all its own, situated smack in the middle of the desert and surrounded by thousands of holes, each five feet wide and five feet deep. “You take a bad boy, you make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, and it turns him into a good boy”, is the explanatory nugget of wisdom handed out by overseer Mr. Sir (a wonderfully weird Jon Voight, almost making his performance in Anaconda look low-key and restrained). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Mr. Sir, the camp’s counselor Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), and the mysterious, seldom-seen warden (Sigourney Weaver), have another agenda, but Stanley doesn’t openly question the strangeness, at least for a while. Instead, he concerns himself with digging his daily holes, co-existing with the other boys, and beginning to bond in particular with Zero (Khleo Thomas). Interspersed with Stanley’s story are two flashback subplots. The first gives us the tale of how the Yelnats family came to be cursed (by a pissed-off fortune teller played by Eartha Kitt), while the second tells of the doomed interracial romance between Old West school marm Katherine Barlow (Patricia Arquette) and onion picker Sam (Dulé Hill), and how Sam’s murder leads Katherine to seek revenge as the notorious outlaw Kissin’ Kate. It’s not immediately clear how all these stories are connected, but all eventually becomes clear when Stanley determines to find out what the warden and her lackeys are really up to.

Holes moves briskly, but this is a marked change of pace and genres for director Andrew Davis. Best-known for thrillers like The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder, Davis shows he’s equally comfortable with lighter, more family-friendly material. But while it’s kid-friendly, Holes doesn’t talk down to anyone. It’s not dumb, it doesn’t shy away from a few more serious issues hovering at the edges of all the wackiness, it keeps the smothering sappiness that infects some Disney films to a mercifully restrained minimum, and it’s refreshing that Stanley and Zero act like real kids, not movie constructs. As unlikely as a movie as offbeat as this might seem for a place to find a pair of believable young characters, it’s where they can be found. At the same time, one of the things that keeps Holes different and engaging is its truly quirky sense of humor. There’s all kinds of strangeness going on, such as Stanley’s father boiling sneakers in an attempt to remove their odor, Madame Zeroni’s (Eartha Kitt) instruction to Stanley’s ancestor to carry a pig up a mountain, the Yelnats’ tradition of naming their sons their last name spelled backwards, the secret of the warden’s ‘special’ nail polish, lethal yellow-spotted lizards, and pretty much everything about Mr. Sir (Voight puts a lot of detail into his role, from his bow-legged walk to his L-shaped sideburns to little throwaway touches, like when he spits in his hand to slick back his hair). There’s a few inspired bits of dialogue: Pendanski, otherwise the least memorable of the dastardly Camp Greenlake trio, comments that “it smells like puke from a mule’s been ruminating in asparagus in here”. The warden remarks that “I’m surrounded by cow turds”. In perhaps the most hilariously random line in the whole movie, Stanley’s mother (Siobhan Fallon) says “I feel sorry for the old lady who lived in the shoe…cause it must have smelled real bad”. Mr. Sir gets the most juicy bits, regularly barking threats like “I’ll put the hurt on ya, and I ain’t singin’ no bye bye Sue!”, and telling Pendanski “I ain’t on stupid pills!”.

Weaver, Voight, Arquette, and Nelson may be first-billed, but the real star of Holes is Shia LaBeouf, a film newcomer (although he had starred in and received an Emmy for the television series Even Stevens).  LaBeouf has an affable presence, and plays Stanley “straight”, in an earnest, unaffected way that makes him seem like a real kid, and he and Khleo Thomas sell their onscreen bonding.  The rest of Holes’ cast is in broader mode, none more than Jon Voight, who’s a hoot as Mr. Sir. Taking what could have been an easy paycheck in an unchallenging comedic bit, Voight goes above and beyond the call of duty, making Mr. Sir a bizarre creation on a level of delightful weirdness that one might expect from the likes of Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp, or Christopher Walken, a performance so off-the-wall that it can’t help but steal scenes whenever he appears.  Although she doesn’t show up for a while, Sigourney Weaver also gets into the scenery-chewing. We all know Weaver can play a take-charge, intimidating woman, and she uses that here; the warden is an imposing figure whose faux sweet ‘excuse me?’ strikes fear into all. More quirkiness is provided by Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Winkler, Nathan Davis, Eartha Kitt, Siobhan Fallon, and Patricia Arquette as the infamous Kissin’ Kate.

Flaws are minor. While Stanley is a believable character, the rest of the boys, with the exception of Zero, remain mostly faceless and interchangeable. An irksomely busy soundtrack is occasionally distracting, especially with lyrics that accompany the scene with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A montage of the boys at work is accompanied by lyrics such as ‘you got to go dig those holes’. The fateful kiss between Kate and Sam takes place as the lyrics heavy-handedly state ‘under my skin, I’m just like you’, and when Stanley carries Zero up a mountain near the end the soundtrack repeatedly blares ‘don’t give up, never give up’. It’s a minor quibble, but I prefer soundtracks that don’t feel the need to spell out every scene for us.

Part of the intelligence and uniqueness of Holes is the way it deftly incorporates fantasy, comedy, and occasional dashes of seriousness without the tone ever seeming uneven. The movie is family-friendly and full of inspired wackiness, but it also includes such elements as interracial romance, bigotry, murder and corruption, and occasional hints of genuine nastiness from the largely cartoonish warden and her minions. In the middle of everything, Stanley and Zero seem like real individuals and their bond has an authentic feel that forms the film’s emotional core. While the origins of the Yelnats curse is in full wacky territory, the story of Kissin’ Kate and Sam is more serious and contains the most adult themes and content in the movie. This story proves more than just colorful background material; in fact, the legend of Kissin’ Kate hangs over the entire movie. There’s nothing here too scary or disturbing for most kids, but it’s got a surprising lot to offer for adults as well. Holes is that all-too-rare Disney live-action film that appeals equally to children and their parents, and that alone is quite an accomplishment.