While exploring the deep woods around his family’s chic suburban home, John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers a hole. The remnants of an incomplete bunker, the hole is about 30 feet deep and seems to intrigue John. His family — played by Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, and Taissa Farmiga — discover the hole themselves when they wake up one morning to find themselves in it with no explanation. It does not take them long to realize that it was John who put them in there. Why he did so, though, will take a lot longer to figure out.
Initially set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, John and the Hole had its world premiere at Sundance 2021, where it quickly garnered headlines as one of the festival’s most anticipated films. The high-concept story spoke for itself, as did the title that, admittedly, elicits more than a few giggles. The marketing has certainly been keen to play up the film as a more traditional horror, which isn’t a surprise given how many Sundance horrors have gone on to become mega-hits in recent years. Really, such things don’t fully grasp at what really makes John and the Hole work, and what causes it to stumble.
Pascual Sisto, a visual artist making his feature directorial debut here, casts his clinical eye towards a portrait of tumultuous adolescence that is more allegorical than literal. John is clearly a smart kid — he’s introduced to us solving a mathematical equation in class while being unable to explain how he came to that conclusion — but the film resists trying to offer clear-cut answers for the very strange thing he does to his family. People keep telling him ‘you know this’ but he doesn’t seem sure of himself, even at his most dangerous. Charlie Shotwell, perhaps best known for Captain Fantastic, is simultaneously expressive and blank-faced, inquisitive in the way that kids are, yet calculating in a way they aren’t. A lot of the time, he seems quietly shocked that his plan is even working, especially given that he’s barely able to drag his parents’ drugged bodies from their bedroom. He’s a little kid trying to play grow-up in an unexpectedly literal way. While in the hole, his mother remembers a time when John asked what it was like to be an adult. Her response: ‘A kid with more responsibilities.’ It’s a mantle he chooses to adopt with an undeniable sense of thoroughness.
For the family, their claustrophobic trappings transform them almost instantly. Brad, the understanding ‘cool’ dad, tries to discipline his son from 30 feet below before slumping in defeat. Mother Anna tries to reason with her son, clinging to the notion that perhaps it wasn’t his idea to send them into the hole. For older sister Laurie, there’s almost a sense of inevitability. She seems curiously unsurprised that John would do this. It’s Brad who sinks into defeated resentment the quickest. When John sends his drone to the hole to watch them at night, Brad growls ‘leave us alone’ like a lion guarding his den.
As his family scrambles to escape and figure out why they’re in this predicament, John goes full Home Alone. He drives the family car (all while calming piano music plays), he orders take-out and then tries his hand at home cooking, and he invites friends over for an unsupervised sleepover. He even buys a big TV to play his favorite tennis video game on. It’s almost hilariously innocent, only made less so by the context. The work of Michael Haneke comes to mind in these moments (a director who would probably have a ball with this setup, albeit in a far more nihilistic manner than Sisto ever aims for). Sadly, Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga don’t get a massive amount to do here, although all three are of course excellent at conveying sheer resentment and exhaustion with a muddy-faced glance.
Moments of seeming tranquillity are quickly turned on their head, such as a serene overhead shot of the woods that spins out of control, revealing the camera to be a drone piloted by John. Sisto’s artistic background reveals its keen eye in brief moments of detail that balance the mundane with the sinister: a pulsing basket of tennis balls in a machine firing them rhythmically at John; John playing his grand piano in an eerily empty house; an ant crawling across an abandoned chicken nugget.
Embedded in this story is a semi-connected tale of another child growing up too soon. A girl named Lily, who is 12 but looks way younger, is being abandoned by her mother. She’s got money to care for herself for a year — if she doesn’t misuse it, as she’s reminded — then her life is her own. It’s a prospect that terrifies her, and understandably so. For Lily, a new life akin to John, is horrifying. But this is the future coming for all kids. Sooner or later, you have to flee the nest and be an adult, pay the bills, cook your dinner, and pretend that you’re fully prepared for this kind of solitary independence. Are any of us? Hell, I was painfully unready for it when I turned 18 and headed to university.
The allegorical nature of this narrative is crucial to keep in mind when watching John and the Hole, especially as it moves towards its climax. The effectiveness of the ending will depend heavily on such expectations. This isn’t a horror movie or even a thriller, so don’t brace yourself for scares. Sisto is aiming more for exploring a series of ideas than a sturdy narrative, all of which may make for an unsatisfying viewing experience for some. It doesn’t go as far as it could have, especially when you consider the Haneke influences, but its examination of the mundane cruelties of adulthood lingers long after the lights go out.
John and the Hole opens in select theaters and on VOD on August 6.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of IFC Films