DIRECTED BY: Pascual Sisto CAST: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle
With a title like John and the Hole, one would assume it to be a film that evokes curiosity, nervousness, orperhaps even excitement. However, director Pascual Sisto approaches his feature length debut with an objective observationalism and a plodding, nearly pretentious pace. But that’s not to say the movie isn’t interesting.It follows a 13-year-old boy as he drugs his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and places them in a 20-foot hole in the ground. The premise instantly sparks comparisons to Home Alone or the lesser-known House Arrest. But where the two ‘90s films feature child leads who experience catalysts which pave the way to their newfound freedoms, the titular John (Charlie Shotwell) does not.
John keeps to himself, using stupidity and aloofness in order to gain an advantage with others. He asks weird questions—many of which he already knows the answers to. His self-curated situation further elaborates that he’s an unappreciative hedonist void of emotion. It takes a talented actor to carry a film as a detestable protagonist and Shotwell nails the unpredictability and unreadability of the title character, always keeping us bought into the realism of the story. The typical viewer will undoubtedly be turned off from the villain protagonist here. After all, John is a spoiled brat, to say the least.
Coming from a very wealthy home in uburban New England, any onlooker would wonder what on Earth he could be longing for. He has two caring parents and a loving sister who puts up with his absurdities. ach night the four of them sit down for dinner—together. And yet John still traps them at the bottom of the old emergency bunker for days on end.
Simply put, he’s a psychopath. Just as John has no motive, his family also has no lesson to be taught—punished for crimes they haven’t committed, apologizing only because they assume they must’ve done something bad. While they are innocent, the director makes sure to show us how these well-off people handle a situation like this, only ever worrying so much about their wellbeing, as if they’ve been groomed to know that nothing bad will ever truly happen to them.
Just as John has no motive, his family also has no lesson to be taught—punished for CRIMES they haven’t COMMITTED, apologizing only because they assume they must’ve done something bad.
The relatively healthy household only makes the inciting incident all the more uncalled for. Much like with Joe Spinell’s serial killer in 1980’s Maniac, Sisto never tells us how to feel about his lead. However, more concerned with what his film is saying rather than providing suspense, the director has John carry on more meditatively than Spinell, who gives us much more shocking situations.
Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone seem almost resilient to provide any plot points that would add tension to the overall story. Interesting developments unfold, but never beyond mere character study. At one point John’s mother’s coworker (Tamara Hickey) stops by and starts to catch on to his lies since John lacks the social skills to properly pull off this crime. But still this never goes anywhere either. Fortunately the very exercise of observing John living with his own peculiarities is enough to sustain our interest as we clamor to see what happens next—even if the result is a little anticlimactic.
There are also a series of cutaways about a seemingly-unrelated story of a little girl which first pose the idea of the film as an allegory—the plot holes caused by the extreme circumstances only solidifying it. The girl, Lily (Samantha LeBretton), exists in perhaps a tangential universe as John. Or maybe it’s the same—we never find out, but the theories online are wild. Lily’s situation is different from John’s, yet similar. Coming from a lower class, single-parent home, she’s informed by her mother that she will be left to fend for herself from now on. For John, he abandons his parents and chooses adulthood. For Lily, she’s forced into it. It’s here Sisto implies that affluent children are allowed more time to grow up, yet perhaps have more of a desire to do so.
On occasion, Sisto deals with John as a sane, sympathetic protagonist, and this is the only time the director ever truly falters—even though this is kind of a big deal. The entire movie hinges on John being psychotic, so when the filmmaker attempts to breathe traditional humanity into him, it undermines everything he’s established beforehand. The ending needs to match something with thedarkness of Maniac, but instead it reaches for something epiphanic. Despite the muddled themes, there’s still a lot to think about with John and the Hole as long as you don’t view the film as being rooted in reality. The only question is, will people care enough to think about it long after it’s over?