At first glance, the concept for Pascual Sisto’s debut feature John and the Hole is delightfully devious: a young 13-year-old boy named John (Charlie Shotwell) decides one day to drug his family — father Brad (Michael C. Hall), mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle), and sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) — and dump them in an unfinished bunker dozens of feet deep just outside the grounds of their palatial home. He occasionally drops in to give them bottles of water, chicken nuggets, and blankets, but otherwise doesn’t speak to them. What does he want with them? What did they do wrong? And what is he going to do when he’s on his own?
Those opening scenes, and the game performances from its central cast, promise some visually arresting psychodrama wrapped in an exquisitely-filmed box. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s early promise gives way to a slow, methodical drama as murky and unformed as the darkly comic fable around which the main story is framed.
Adapted by Birdman scribe Nicolás Giacobone from his novel El Pozo, John and the Hole brims with the kind of high-concept, creepily comic energy you expect from European directors like Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but can’t quite manage the intellectual heft of either. There’s an air of unreality that permeates the proceedings, from Shotwell’s wide-eyed, disaffected performance to the handwaved logic required to imagine not just the lanky, slight John’s ability to drag his family members into a hole unscathed, much less evade suspicion from police and family friends alike about his family’s whereabouts. It’s Home Alone meets We Need to Talk About Kevin.
At its best, it explores a kind of childlike frustration with the imminent pressures of growing up: much as you can glean from John’s stone-faced curiosity (captured in stifling, claustrophobic closeups by Paul Özgür’s crisp, foreboding 4:3 cinematography), he’s a boy at once impatient to and terrified of growing up, wanting the money and freedom of adulthood without the responsibility. Immediately, he embraces the perks of not being told no, from driving around town in his dad’s giant SUV to blowing stacks of his dad’s considerable cash on endless fast food and big-screen TVs. But there’s also dissatisfaction there, a nagging feeling that he can’t keep time at bay forever. He’s curious about death, as evidenced by a “drowning game” he plays with an unsuspecting friend in his backyard pool. Adults heap expectation on him, from teachers to coaches, often just off screen; he doesn’t know how to absorb it, or what it means.
As intriguing as the concept is, though, Giacobone’s script and Sisto’s direction struggle to offer its attendant concerns much weight. Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga do the best they can with underwritten work as the family struggles with the physical and emotional discomforts of their plight; the best bits come off as grimly comic while the rest feels like filler. In many ways, Giacobone feels stuck right in that hole with them, scratching his head about what to do with them now that he’s got them out of the way so he can explore the dissonance between childhood and adulthood.
We don’t see the title card until a cool half hour into John and the Hole, after Sisto has already cut away to a young girl (Samanthan LeBretton) and her mother (Georgia Lyman), who’s telling her the story we’re watching now. Don’t expect a clear connection between the two tales, apart from a pitch-black vignette featuring the two that says more about the messy cruelty of growing up than the A-story attempts in the other 100 minutes. All it ends up telling you is that the audience has to put in more interpretive heavy lifting than the screenplay demands, which is a major frustration for a concept so gruesomely intriguing.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Paul Özgür and Sundance Institute.