The Hollow is a film made in a seemingly forgotten tradition of American movies: the straightforward murder mysteries of the 80's and 90's (a la Witness) that featured vivid settings with even stronger accents, a twisty-but-still-easily-digestible plot setup, charismatic actors, layers of tension, and a distinct beginning and end. I love the experimental and emotionally ambiguous as much as any film lover, but I find it just as vital to preserve more straightforward genre fair, especially when they are as precisely made and effective as The Hollow.
The film is centered around a murder in the Deep South that brings together two deeply troubled men. There is Vaughn, a wasted FBI agent played by James Callis of Battlestar Galactica fame, and Ray, a dirty cop played by writer/director Miles Doleac. The two men, anchoring the film in a pair of rock solid performances, both conspire (in their own equally conflicted ways) to take down Big John Dawson (William Forsythe). While Dawson is your typical Southern gentlemen/big bad, but Forsythe sinks his teeth into the role in such a way you will not want to turn away.
The same can be said for the film as a whole. In a lesser team's hands, The Hollow could have a been boilerplate mess; but Doleac, whose last film was a quieter character drama (The Historian), takes the reigns of this genre piece and makes it his own. Yes, elements of The Hollow can feel derivative, but, in the end, commitment and enthusiasm and attention to detail produces entertaining movies. This is a film that has commitment in spades.
Not only is this review a cheer for those of you who took the time to see the directorial debut of Miles Doleac's The Historian, but it is also a rebuke for those of you who - like me - waited until the last minute or did not see it at all. Why I waited so long, I can not say. Maybe I was not impressed by the trailer. Maybe I doubted the merit of a local production. You can quote me when I say that I was in the wrong.
If anything, the soapy trailer misled viewers. More times than not, Doleac's reflection on academia and the art of moving on knocked me for a spin. Doleac is obviously well versed in these kind of stories. When the narrative threatened to initiate autopilot, the director/writer/actor tilted the wheel ever so slightly, offering a fresh look at old ground.
So what is this movie about, exactly? I could go on and on about Ben Rhodes (Doleac), a Latin professor left wounded by life, and his various entanglements concerning teacher- student relations, teacher-teacher relations, marital issues, grumpy department chairs with ailing parents, and the laziness of students. However, all of these various plot elements point to a much simpler summary: this is a story about a troubled man learning to let go, to move on. Do not let the abundance of characters haze this defining point. This is Ben's story and Doleac remembers that more times than not.
Even though it is a small-scale, local film, The Historian sinks its teeth into a particular career - here, it is academia - better than most big-budget dramas. I was personally familiar with just about every one of the film's locations, having grown up in Hattiesburg, but I never once doubted the authenticity of this world. It feels lived in. We see the ins and outs, the politics, the egos, and all the dirty laundry that comes with the deal. Most people take this degree of world-building for granted; but no matter how convincing the actors are, if you do not buy their world as believable, nothing works. Doleac succeeds in blending this lived-in world with three-dimensional characters.
As to be expected in a movie of this scale, some of the performances are better than others. Unsurprisingly, the characters that stick the longest are those performed by the veterans in the cast. William Sadler (best known by me personally as the Grim Reaper in the Bill & Ted sequel) makes the increasingly unlikable Hadley human up to the last frame. Northern Exposure's John Cullum plays Hadley's fading father arrestingly. Which leaves Doleac, who, though stretched thin with his directing and writing duties, never seems to forget that above all is character.
Now that I have spoken a bit about the actual story, let me indulge in what I liked most about this movie. The fact that a director in south Mississippi would make a movie that included a bit of (gasp) nudity and an even greater bit of language left me rather impressed, if I am being honest. Now, do not get me wrong. I am not saying that because I am a big fan of cursing and naked bodies. It impresses me that someone of such high standing in a community so grounded in its ways has the artistic nerve to tell a story the way they felt it should be told. I am a staunch believer in artistic honesty. A story can only be told one way and compromising that way is both dishonest and discrediting.
Wrapping it up with a return to the actual story, some of the resolutions clicked with me more so than others - as did the subplots in general. Doleac proves with The Historian that you do not need millions of dollars and A-list stars to make a movie that stays true to character and strives to say something about our human condition.