“Sinkhole” is a welcome addition to that most agreeable and fascinating of genres: the Paranoid Thriller. It’s one of my favorite genres and auteur Paul Schattel does well by it, instilling his film with a vaguely surrealist, Lynchian sensibility. It’s small-town America. There’s a dead girl. (Or is it a dead guy?) There’s a shady dude in a suit who seems to be connected with… well, something really big and bad. There’s also drugs and corrupt politicians and illicit affairs and yes, even a weirdo cowboy type. It’s the next town over from Twin Peaks, you know, the one where those folks would never be caught dead in.
In its unique way, “Sinkhole” carves out its own little corner of the Paranoid Thriller rental shelf. It’s more somber and a bit grimier than most and for lack of a better name, let’s call it Rural Noir. At the heart of this tale is Jason Griffin (Bryan Marshall), an ex-high school English teacher who’s fallen on some hard times. After being accused of having sexual relations with a student, Jason was fired from his job and kicked out by his wife Priscilla (Kelly O’Neal). He’s since resigned himself to a drab and miserable existence as a bulldozer operator at the local landfill, where the meager living he makes suits him just fine. In his spare time, Jason whiles away the hours in his humble trailer home thinking of his daughter and the life that might have been. Or he pines for the 16-year-old girl he may have had a relationship with. (Okay, did have a relationship with.) It’s readily apparent that the quiet, reserved Jason is more complex than we initially thought.
The oddities begin mounting when Jason and coworker Billy G. uncover a dead woman’s body in the landfill. Jason naturally notifies the authorities, who quickly come and take care of things, all right. Soon, news reports of a dead guy, not a woman, start circulating and Billy G. mysteriously splits town. Then said shady dude in a suit shows up. His name’s Bob Smith (Patrick Green) and his cryptic message to Jason consists of “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Errrrr, right. He then goes on to promise Jason that “we’ll get you a better job, you do good work.” Jason’s naturally creeped out at first, but eventually gives in to the temptation of a better life. Not long after meeting with a corrupt local politician, Jason is paid a surprise visit by that weirdo cowboy type. His name’s Alphonse (Robin Spriggs) and he has come to take our man J. to Charlotte. You see, he’s Jason’s new partner, and the area’s number one supplier of crystal meth. (You can see where all this is headed, I mean the film is called “Sinkhole” after all.) Jason quickly finds himself trapped in a twisted criminal underworld from which escape is not an option.
Slowly and surely, writer/director Schattel weaves a tangled web of mystery and dread. The first two thirds of his film really succeed in lulling you into the monotony of Jason’s existence before applying slow, steady pressure to the jugular. In this way, “Sinkhole” gets under the skin in a big way. Let’s face it, this stuff’s been done before. But Schattel brings a freshness and unique perspective to the table, so much so that I was never quite sure which direction he was headed until the very end. If his script and direction lose some of their well-engineered tension by that point, it’s probably for the weight of his conceits overwhelming his inexperience as a filmmaker. The cast is certainly not to blame for the film’s somewhat disappointing denouement. Rather, they account for many of its strengths. As the existentially despairing Jason, Bryan Marshall gives a poignant, understated performance. The actor’s got this great blankness about him that perfectly suits his character’s emotional opacity. You just want to grab this guy and shake the muddiness out of his head, but at the same time you kind of feel for him. Two other standouts are Robin Spriggs as the smooth operator Alfonse and J.R. Hooper as Jason’s druggie bud Poppy. These two actors, along with the rest of the cast, help make “Sinkhole” the (mostly) effective Paranoid Thriller Schattel clearly envisioned.