Review: “John and the Hole”

John and the Hole” may be billed as a psychological thriller, but it is above all else a fable. The film’s title card isn’t revealed until half an hour into the movie, by which time we’ve met 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) and his family, but have also just been introduced to a unique framing device. A little girl named Lily (Samantha LeBretton) is being read a story by her mother. The name of the story is “John and the Hole.” Throughout the film, we cut back to Lily, who, like John, is having similar problems wrestling with impending adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with it.

However, fables by definition contain a moral. I’m not so sure that “John and the Hole” entirely succeeds at conveying one, or pushing this portrait of a boy facing independence to its full potential. Director Pascual Sisto’s feature film debut, written by Nicolás Giacobone based on his short story El Pozo, opens with John discovering a deep, square bunker in the woods surrounding his seemingly affluent family’s home. We watch him have dinner with his family, parents Brad and Anna (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). He and Laurie engage in the usual sibling squabbles but it’s apparent that his parents love John and show affection for him often. So when one night John drugs his entire family and traps them in the bunker, it’s an action that seems to come out of nowhere. With them out of the way, John is free to do whatever he wants.

Charlie Shotwell as John in “John and the Hole”

But this isn’t a Kevin McAllister/ “Home Alone” sort of situation, as much as it may sound like a twisted version of it. Outside of driving the family car around town and withdrawing insane amounts of cash from his parents’ bank account, John doesn’t really do anything too crazy once he’s on his own. He isn’t trying to live a 13-year-old’s best life, sliding down banisters and gorging himself on candy. Rather, he’s trying to be an adult. But it’s clear too that John doesn’t really know what he’s doing, as he frequently asks others he encounters how to do something, or what he should do in a certain situation. He’s in limbo, neither a child nor an adult, and not entirely sure which one he wants to be either. One minute he’s playing video games, the next he’s trying to pay off everyone from the gardener to his coach. Shotwell conveys this alternately confident and hesitant boy with an icy cold undercurrent that makes several of his scenes, including the ones where he looks in on his family in the hole and tries to assure one of his mom’s suspicious friends that his parents aren’t around because of a family emergency, chilling. John is almost a bit too cold though, and that lack of any discernible emotion makes it hard to either dislike him or emphasize with him. The audience is able to project more of their own interpretations as to what he is going through on to him as he is a bit of a blank slate, and Sisto and Giacobone have stated that John is “trying to feel things” and that he possibly “suffers from affluenza—the affliction in which people who seemingly have everything in life are unable to feel much of anything.” I can see the truth in that, but it doesn’t make for the most engaging piece of cinema to have a lead character who is so hard to crack.

Michael C. Hall, Taissa Farmiga, and Jennifer Ehle in “John and the Hole”

Sisto flips between these scenes focusing on John and scenes with his family in the hole, whose seemingly perfect life has been shaken up by this incident. They are desperate to escape, yes, but their isolation also forces them to become introspective about their lives and their son, as they question what could have prompted him to do this. These scenes aren’t as interesting as the ones focusing on John, and perhaps aren’t even entirely necessary. Much the same as the viewer is likely doing, they are also projecting their own feelings and opinions on to John. Like John the character, the tone of the overall movie is cold and precise; it isn’t funny, even in a dark sort of way, or tense, or emotionally resonant. Even the aforementioned framing device is more confounding than insightful.

And in the end, we are right back where we started: the family having a quiet dinner together. There is no moral and no lesson learned, at least nothing concrete. We can assume that after everything they’ve been through, the relationship between the parents and John will change, but the ending is not indicative of that. In fact, the cyclical nature of the conclusion—ending up back at the beginning—suggests that everyone will revert back to their previous behavior. The parents, who want the best for their kids, will pretend that this disturbing little incident never happened, as much for their own peace of mind as for that of their kids’. And John, continually stifled, will find another outlet through which to act out—only this time, the outcome may be even more dire. Maybe the real takeaway here is a cautionary tale for parents who stifle their children until they are barely their own person. I just wish that Sisto and Giacobone’s story committed to a stronger message.

“John and the Hole” will be released in select theaters and on demand on August 6. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated R.

Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.

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