By this point, I think I’ve seen three different cuts of Paul Schattel’s Sinkhole. I’ve been assured that this latest version, which shows this Thursday at the Fine Arts, is the absolutely final one. And I hope that’s true, because Schattel has now fine-tuned the film to its best possible form.
Sinkhole is, as it was in every version, a remarkable accomplishment of low-budget local filmmaking. Only now, it’s smoother, slicker and meaner. It’s still the story of a disgraced former school teacher, Jason (Bryan Marshall), whose descent into a nightmarish world of corruption and drug dealing begins when he discovers a body at the dump where he ekes out an existence.
And it’s still a deliberately unpleasant tale that asks you to observe it without specifically trying to evoke your sympathy. Schattel cites Stanley Kubrick as an influence in his production notes, and there is a kind of Kubrickian objectivity to the film. But Sinkhole‘s theme and story more remind me of the work of David Lynch, while evoking the specters of early John Boorman and Nicolas Roeg in its stylistic approach.
This is particularly true in the often unusual editing patterns Schattel uses to economically convey more than one piece of information at a time. As he explains in his production notes, there’s little that’s “fancy” in the film’s editing, in that most scenes are joined together with simple, straight cuts. However, those cuts do not always work in a strictly linear manner.
The story line involving corruption lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface of a small town is similar to the sort of thing we find on a more fanciful, or possibly more organic, level in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. And, for that matter, Schattel has an approach to photographing the rural South that strikes a chord with David Gordon Green’s approach.
But Schattel’s take on this is far more an insider’s view than that of Lynch, whose Blue Velvet is more set in the South than it is of the South. That’s a very strong distinction. Similarly, Schattel eschews the lyrical approach of finding beauty beneath the grunge of his setting, and therefore arrives with a film that is wholly his own, despite its obvious influences.
The world of Schattel’s film is quietly ominous (a mood aided by Jason Smith’s effective musical score), filled with deep, inexplicable undercurrents, and as ambiguous as its lead character. The movie’s protanoist is obviously much more educated than is suggested by anything he’s doing, and his protestations of innocence over his affair with a high school student are more complex than a simple explanation would allow.
There’s also a casually nonjudgmental quality to the way the characters are observed. Supporting players like the stoned-out Poppy (J.R. Hooper) are often far from admirable or even appealing (“Even I wouldn’t live there, and I haven’t changed my underwear since Wednesday”). Yet they are simply allowed to be, without any editorializing.
That quality is an impressive accomplishment in its own right. Though it’s deliberately not “showy,” Sinkhole is nonetheless very much a filmmaker’s film. The acting may be a little uneven at times, and bits of the film are somewhat ragged, but this movie succeeds far more than it doesn’t, and also provides a rare chance to see a genuinely creative local talent attain artistic maturity.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke