Ravaged by grief, Scottish couple John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie) go feral in the French Pyrenees after losing their son in Tom Green’s suspenseful thriller, Couple in a Hole. Leaving the technology and pressures of civilisation for the calm of the forest is hardly a new concept in cinema (Into the Wild, Antichrist, Wild), but Green’s minimalist dialogue combined with Geoff Barrow and British indie band BEAK>’s hauntingly sinister score creates an abundance of unease and mystery, preparing the viewer for new and emotively familiar ground.
While the film is grounded in realism, with restrained shots and standard compositions of the forest, the symbolism cannot be ignored. Just as their emotions both humanise and dehumanise the protagonists, fire in the film represents both life and death. Symbolic of humanity’s creativity and separation from beast, fire was taken from the Gods by Prometheus in order to save man. Furthermore, when Andre tells John that they will die in the winter, he replies that he can “make a fire”, implying this is all they need to survive. However, in Green’s film of paradoxes, we later learn that John and Karen’s son died in a fire, making it a bringer of life and death. This idea is again played with in the final scenes of the film where fire, while destructive, can also be cleansing and cathartic.
Similarly, the hole the couple live in embodies their grief, soaking in their sadness and cocooning them from the harshness of reality outside. However, this protective layer becomes dangerous as Karen’s development of acrophobia threatens a permanent life in the forest. This fear establishes the tone of the film as we see John lure her out of the hole with the promise of grubs at the beginning of the film, counting down from twenty until she can return to the darkness. This sets up the couple’s relationship, showcasing John’s patience and love for his wife, while also suggesting how regressive Karen’s emotions have made her. Karen’s extreme grief and acrophobia is viably portrayed by Dickie, whose physical fragility highlights dietary deprivation. Cinematographer Sam Care’s widescreen shots of the countryside undercut with Barrow’s score also display an eerie quality to the forest and how Karen views it, as faint breathing and low growls can be heard amongst the instrumental pieces, but so quietly that you begin to doubt it’s there, causing your uncertainty to bring about even more unease.
Pacing-wise, the first two thirds of the film are leisurely. The slow build and hard earned mystery of the couple takes precedence along with atmosphere, not explanation, according well to the silences and slowness of grief, demonstrating so well in film the tortuous and anti-social behaviours of loss. However, this is ruined by the melodrama of the final act as several characters become random and unthinking in their actions, detracting all previous development in their characters and leaving us with an unclear and somewhat incongruous ending.
It seems expected that a film with such an original take on a overplayed trope would divide viewers, gaining a score of 5.8 on imdb, but earning a certified “fresh” 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. While I was not entirely drawn in, I do imagine that some viewers will flock to the slow pacing and suspenseful tone, while others will be repelled by the thin plot and unconventional story matter. But perhaps this film will still achieve cult status thanks to its relentless and brutal portrayal of grief.