SUNDANCE 2021: ‘John and the Hole’ is a Tense Journey to Nowhere

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John and the Hole - But Why Tho?John and the Hole is an unsettling and confusing debut from director Pascual Sisto. The film stars Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga. The film, adapted from a short story, is an enigmatic psychological exercise made all the more compelling by the powerful performances in this intimately small cast.

John is thirteen and fascinated with the concept of adulthood. While exploring the woods behind his family’s home, John discovers the remnants of an incomplete bunker—just an empty, deep hole. Shortly after and without provocation, John drugs his affluent parents and older sister and drops them down into the hole. While his family waits—cold, filthy, and undernourished—for John to decide their fate, the boy tries on being a grown-up like a costume that doesn’t quite fit.

Everything in John and the Hole hinges on the mystique of John, himself.  Just when you think you recognize the trope, the film takes a turn that disorients the viewer and creates more questions than answers. As a young teen, John is quiet and awkward and seems to only have friends in his online games. Okay, we’ve seen this before. But, John also seems to have a good relationship with his parents and sister. He’s part of an average (hell, privileged) family. When John begins to experiment with drugging the family gardener another trope begins to emerge, that of the sadistic serial-killer-in-training. However, this also does not fully summarize John.

Throughout the film, John is shown to be dangerously calm. He is capable of acts that borderline on cruelty that are portrayed with the tension of not knowing what’s coming next. However, just before you can peg John as cold-blooded and calculating his vulnerability kicks in. The truth is that, despite the callousness and disregard of his actions, John is very much a scared and unsure kid. It’s the vulnerability that makes the character interesting.

As a viewer, we’re unsure what John’s motives are and that means we cannot place how we feel about his actions. Culturally, we may even be predisposed to think the best because he’s a teen. In pulling off the strange coming-of-age story that is John and the Hole, not knowing is essential to the experience.

One of the more interesting elements of John and the Hole is John’s mimicry of adulthood. In sort of a deranged take on Home AloneJohn and the Hole sees John grappling with the wide-open possibility of having the house to himself and calling all the shots. John uses his newfound freedom to invite a friend over, to drive his dad’s luxury SUV around and listen to classical music, and buy a large television for his room. To be honest, it’s anticlimactic. So much of the film is spent hinting at John’s fascination with the trappings of adulthood. To see him take his chance, seize control, and then squander the opportunity is either a brilliant illustration of John’s naivete or a total waste.

Once you get outside of the mystery of John, John and the Hole has surprisingly little to offer. The cast is fantastic and there are lots of subtly great performances to be had, but we don’t get enough of that to sustain us. Interwoven into John’s story is a side-tale of a mother abandoning her daughter, citing that the little girl is ready to make it on her own. This aside is never explained or fully understood and, therefore, is only a flash of intrigue that weighs down the central plot.

It’s difficult to pass a final judgment on John and the Hole. What is there in terms of the character and the cast is fascinating and thoughtfully put forth. The film is comprised of several interesting parts that fail to come together into a compelling whole, or do not take the audience to any place in particular. A film that is sure to be polarizing, but that I can still fully recommend.

John and the Hole premiered on January 29 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

John and the Hole
  • 5/10
    Rating - 5/10
5/10

TL;DR

It’s difficult to pass a final judgment on John and the Hole. What is there in terms of the character and the cast is fascinating and thoughtfully put forth. The film is comprised of several interesting parts that fail to come together into a compelling whole, or do not take the audience to any place in particular. A film that is sure to be polarizing, but that I can still fully recommend.