Something my 2000s childhood consisted of was watching the movies Holes over and over again on VHS. The movie was a phenomenon; I still remember the excitement of seeing it in theaters, listening to the soundtrack, and taking an online quiz telling me what my Camp Green Lake nickname was. As I grew, my peers and I started to have diverging tastes in media, but everyone loved Holes. It was something we all connected on.
Re-watching it now, it still holds up. Not only is it insanely re-watchable, but it is also incredibly enjoyable. I can’t help but reach the credits sequence with a smile on my face. Something I also notice when I watch it now, so many years later, is how insanely smart it is. When it first premiered, film critics were surprised by how sophisticated Holes was, especially compared to other adult films that came out during the same time. Holes covers big themes that are difficult to comprehend, such as racism, sexism, misogyny, and classism. It also has 2 subplots in addition to the main plot of Shia LaBeouf digging holes in the desert after getting in trouble for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the case of stolen shoes.
Another thing I realize from re-watching Holes is how this film is undoubtedly a Western. Whenever I bring up this point, it is followed by a lot of doubt and criticism; I think that’s because the Western genre comes with a lot of implicit bias. Either people think the genre is simply a stereotype, so it has to be a film about cowboys that use racial slurs in order to fit into the genre, or people think that Holes is not elite or deep enough of a film to be classified into the Western film canon. But I think this 2003 classic exists somewhere in the middle of these two poles. It is very informed and influenced by its Western predecessors but it also redefines and revives this genre for an audience that might not have ever seen a Western film before.
If you still don’t believe me when I say that Holes is a Western, let me break it down for you even more, and explain my reasoning behind this statement in 4 key points.
1. Location is Everything
This might be obvious but the number one qualification of this genre is for the film in question to take place in the west. The American Film Institute defines the Western film as not only taking place in the west, but embodying the spirit of the west, and specifically discussing the endeavor of migrating and colonizing this new frontier; Holes does exactly that.
The story takes place in Camp Green Lake, a remote Texan camp where bad teen boys are sent to dig holes as a way to build character. The desert locale is at the forefront of this film, constantly reminding the audience of the harshness of this camp. But the camp itself is not the thing that is harsh, it’s nature. The land is the biggest threat of this film, and campers are often faced with problems of dehydration, exhaustion, isolation, and the dangerous fauna of the desert (the yellow spotted lizards).
2. The Kissin’ Kate Barlow B Plot
A lot of what makes Holes a Western lies in its B plot, which is the subplot of Kate Barlow, a school teacher who lived in Green Lake back in the 19th century when there was actually a lake there. Hollywood writer Frank Gruber wrote that the entire Western genre can be broken down into 7 key plots. Although he did note that Westerns often have several sub-genres in addition to these key plots, the Kate Barlow B plot of Holes fits Gruber’s Western plot number 4 to a T, and this is “A Revenge Story”, in addition to his other Western plot of “An Outlaw Story.”
Kate Barlow, played by the amazing Patricia Arquette, may be the real star of this film because her story is so gut wrenching and deep. As I said before, Kate is a school teacher. She leads a simple life as an unmarried women (which is taboo for the time), mainly caring for the children she teaches and teaching adult classes at night. She is pursued by a wealthy man who comes onto her very strongly, yet she remains uninterested. Kate is actually in love with Sam, an African-American onion seller in Green Lake. This interracial coupling creates tension in the small town and Walker, the wealthy man who has been pursuing Kate, kills Sam out of jealousy spite. The killing of her only love leads Kate to adopting her alter outlaw ego, Kissin’ Kate Barlow, who leaves a large red kiss mark on everyone she kills. Along with killing, she also is involved in robbing schemes, meaning she has amassed a large stolen treasure, making her the most sought after and hunted criminal in the land.
Kate’s story is straight out of a Western film. She is transformed by the death of a loved one, fueled by revenge, and becomes a hardened and cruel gunslinger as a result. Her anti-hero nature matches the moral ambiguity displayed by the most iconic cowboy protagonists, from Clint Eastwood to John Wayne. Therefore, the B plot of Holes and the character of Kissin’ Kate Barlow are clear representations of classic tropes in the Western genre.
3. Survival of the Fittest
The theme of survival runs through the metaphorical veins of the Western genre. At its core, Western film is about enduring the unendurable. The baron desert evokes a strong feeling of despair and isolation, making it an unimaginable place to live, yet within the context of 19th century territorial expansion, people were destined to live there. Popular film critic Roger Ebert actually praised the movie Holes, especially noting its great cinematography for its use of wide shots and portrayal of a limitless desert.
With such a dangerous locale, the characterization and plot seem to gravitate towards the theme of survival. All Western movies seem to ask the same question: How will our protagonist survive? Or even, does this protagonist have what it takes to survive? This question is consistently asked in Holes, and when Stanley Yelnats and Hector Zeroni run away from their containment at Camp Green Lake, we can’t help but wonder if they will make it in the wilderness.
In addition, everyone else in the movie seems to be asking the same question. Although, Stanley and Hector’s survival is really more a result of breaking a curse and good luck, rather than actual survival instinct. Therefore, Stanley and Hector may be the protagonists in this film, but they are certainly not Western protagonists. That role is filled by Kate Barlow.
4. History Informs the Present
The entirety of the movie Holes is about how the past often connects with the present in many ways, and this stress on history is something that fuels the Western genre. These films that take place in an era before the modern technology of film was even invented are all about the struggle that this new frontier caused in history, and we use this classic conflict to illustrate problems in modern life. Westerns are a reminder that we have more in common with the past than we might think.
The protagonist, Stanley Yelnats VI, is introduced to us with his past. We might not know a lot about Stanley, but we do know the curse of his “no-good-dirty-rotten pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.” In Latvia, this great-great-grandfather did not complete the request of a local fortune teller, who in return, has cursed this family for all of eternity. This means that every person in this family blames their faults on a curse, and their mishaps act as a constant reminder of the past, and its influence on the present.
Camp Green Lake itself has a rich history which is interwoven into this film with flashbacks of outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Later in the movie, we find out that the actually reason this camp was founded was a ploy to get more people to dig for the treasure that Kate Barlow amassed before her brutal death by yellow spotted lizards. This whole film is then informed by this Western lore. We might think that the tale of Stanley Yelnats is the the focal point of the film, but this is a reminder that this whole movie would not exist without Kate Barlow.
In other words, this whole movie would not exist without the Western genre influence.
How Holes Reconstructs the Western Genre
Because the Western genre is so rooted in history, its ideals often feel traditional as well. Most Westerns have male leads and are about the struggle between men in this new frontier. This hyper-masculine genre tends to completely ignore female counterparts and usually dismisses them into supporting characters or love interests. Kate Barlow is then a re-imagining of this genre. Barlow is scorned and patronized for her femininity, but it is female charm that ends up making her so deadly.
It’s also important to note how Holes approaches the topic of race. The Western genre often depicts struggles with race, usually by discussing the conflicts between white cowboys and Native Americans over western land. The topic of racism is introduced in Holes with the interracial couple of Kate and Sam, and the racism that led to the death of Sam is mentioned and apparent, when we would expect it to be dismissed in the classic Western. Therefore, Holes really presents a re-interpretation of the Western genre, that is much more up to date and progressive.
Holes still has a big influence today. It is currently being read and taught to students in a lot of American schools, and people my age still flock to the movie with a sense of nostalgia. Its influence and portrayal of the Western genre is also very pertinent, and because of these basic qualifications that I outline, this is likely the first Western film many people have seen. The concept of film genres is not widely known due to film not being the most accessible medium. People don’t have the opportunity to see films from multiple genres, nor do they have the resources to truly understand the history of that genre. So Holes, being a Western film, provides a lot of insights into the world of genre never seen before by its audience.
Like the rain falling at Camp Green Lake, Holes offers a new beginning for the Western genre and is the vehicle for its revival in the eyes of the youth viewers.