John and the Hole Leaves a Lot to Question in This Detached Thriller
Josh Bell
Charlie Shotwell in John and the Hole
Charlie Shotwell in John and the Hole
John and the Hole's titular character (Charlie Shotwell) is a weird kid. John's introduced to viewers as standing in front of a classroom, stumbling over the solution to a math problem like it's an alien language. At dinner with his average family -- comprised of a mother, father, and sister -- John seems incapable of holding a normal conversation. His affluent suburban parents barely pay attention to him. Maybe John is neurodivergent? Or maybe he's just misunderstood? Director Pascual Sisto brings a detached, clinical style to John and the Hole, but it's still easy to assume that John is meant to have the audience's sympathies.
John isn't abused or neglected, and his aloof, casually cruel actions make it clear that he's a sociopath, albeit in a strangely naïve way. Seemingly without provocation, one night John drugs his family and drags them to the woods behind his house, where former neighbors were building an underground bunker. It was abandoned before being finished, so it's just a rough concrete hole, and John places his parents and sister down there so that he can have a kid's idea of adult freedom -- eating whatever he wants, playing video games, driving the family car.
Shotwell and Sisto keep John somewhat inscrutable, and the movie follows a similar tone, which can be as off-putting as John himself. He never seems angry at his family, and for most of the movie, he doesn't even speak to them as their pleas from the bottom of the hole become increasingly desperate. When they first wake up in the hole, they're disoriented. While they may not quite understand John, they're immediately concerned for his safety, assuming someone has attacked the family and possibly harmed him. John's sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) first realizes that he's the perpetrator, not the victim, and his mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) tries to show him sympathy even as he's potentially leaving his family to starve to death.
Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall and Taissa Farmiga in John and the Hole
Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall and Taissa Farmiga in John and the Hole
John's father Brad (Michael C. Hall) doesn't have the same amount of patience, and his interactions with John before he's put into the hole always come across as phony. He constantly calls John "buddy" and gives him the surprise gift of a drone. But, he's not around to help John with the new toy. Even so, these are minor parental infractions, and Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone seem determined to depict John's family as benignly neglectful at worst. He's not getting revenge on them for mistreatment. He's just selfish.
That being said, John is unpredictable and his emotional instability keeps the movie fascinating to watch. There's almost no on-screen violence, but there's a constant sense of danger. John seems to hold little regard for the feelings or safety of other people. He talks to his only friend Peter (Ben O'Brien) on a gaming headset almost mechanically trash-talking each other as a sort of playacting of what he's supposed to say. When John invites Peter to visit for the weekend, it seems just as likely that John will casually murder Peter as that they'll have a fun time eating ice cream and playing video games.
Charlie Shotwell in John and the Hole
Charlie Shotwell in John and the Hole
That kind of matter-of-fact depiction of amorality can be off-putting, and John and the Hole is certainly not for everyone. Sisto and Giacobone aren't quite as misanthropic as someone like Michael Haneke, but John and the Hole comes close to Haneke's brand of sadism. The film dares the audience to confront the cold indifference of John and everyone else in his world.
John and the Hole isn't exactly realistic, but it does address the question of how John can hold his family hostage for so long without anyone wondering where they are. Like Home Alone's Kevin McCallister, John uses some flimsy excuses and shaky voice impressions on the phone to convince adults that everything is fine. The adults mostly believe him because no one has any reason to think that this mild-mannered kid is somehow dangerous.
The filmmakers throw in an odd framing story that pops up too infrequently to mean anything. The film has trouble wrapping up the movie in a way that's both conclusive and ambiguous, in keeping with the off-kilter tone. But overall John and the Hole has a powerfully unsettling effect, thanks to the crisp visual style -- using the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio -- and Shotwell's eerie performance. It's bizarre and inexplicable, much like John's behavior, and it makes a lasting impact.
John and the Hole debuts Friday, Aug. 6 in select theaters and on VOD.