Films that lean into slim narrative foundations can find themselves on dicey grounds: You could deliver a film that reverberates with visual wonder and ambiguity, or you could run in the hole of being dull and feeling empty. John and the Hole, which is (clearly) based on Nicolás Giacobone’s (who also wrote the film’s script) very short story of the same title, finds itself in the middle of such a predicament. The chilly feature debut of installation artist Pascual Sisto, the film unfolds in such sparsity that it does feel like elaboration could be used. Yet, at the same time, the rather austere movie comes across like an ominous and solipsistic variation on the Home Alone narrative, as a tale of a thirteen-year-old boy who holds his rich family captive in an unfinished bunker in the woods behind their home.
The titular John (a quite good Charlie Shotwell) is an offbeat introvert who seems to possess all the signifiers for being a psychopath in the making. He’s often quiet and stone-faced, occasionally throwing out peculiar questions to his verbose father Brad (Michael C. Hall) and spaced-out mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle), who both more often pay more attention to John’s older teen sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). Spending his time at tennis practice or sitting in his room playing video games, John feels like an afterthought in his family, but eerie impressions are unmissable. And it’s one night that John decides to drug his family and pluck them in the aforementioned bunker. At first, John seems keen on taking charge of his new domain, inexplicably figuring out how to drive himself into town and inviting a friend over so they can live like kings. But the danger of the outside world slowly encroaches on his existence, while his family grows increasingly disheveled in their cavernous surroundings.
While John is certainly the enigma at the movie’s center, some of the best scenes involve the people most impacted by his scheme; some morbid fascination grows as the family trys to put the pieces together, or if there are tangible pieces at all. Still, it’s Shotwell’s performance that’s the movie’s strongest attribute. Gazing dispassionately at his family and roaming slowly around the vacant mansion at his disposal, he’s the engine of a movie that draws on his soft-spoken demeanor to cast a persistent spell of unease. Which is seen especially in his series of disturbing confrontations with the outside world, like the quasi-erotic encounter he has with his mother’s friend, which grows persistently sinister and off-kilter.
Aesthetically, this dreary, slow-burn movie will bring to mind that of Yorgos Lanthimos and Michael Haneke, both who have in their careers played with deconstructing safe spaces through the violence and chaos that sneaks in. And John and the Hole plays such a game, if often still being a little too blatant. (It also includes a baffling storyline which involves a different set of characters entirely, which feels pretty shoehorned when all is said and done.) With Paul Ozgur’s boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio cinematography, the movie is also often visual impressive, tapping into a lingering paranoia and a painterly sophistication with its notions of domesticity gone awry.
Asking his mother “What is it like to be an adult?”, the overall arc of John’s journey isn’t exactly one with much surprise, but movie’s strengths lie in how uncertain it is when, or how, John’s scheme will collapse. And while the shortcomings to John and the Hole are there, the movie shows enough thematic sophistication and indicates strong potential for Sisto behind the camera to make it noteworthy. Up to this point, his installation work has focused on the gapes between reality and one’s subjective perspective. And John and the Hole continues such a trend, by allowing a child’s view to take charge, at least until it becomes unsustainable. There are plenty of “creepy kid” movies throughout cinema, some robust, some more thin, but few actually work as a coming-of-age story like John and the Hole. Icy and occasionally haunting, John and the Hole may be skeletal to a fault, but it’s often enough that its restraint directorially can have some captivation.
John and the Hole premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.