'John and the Hole' Marks a Tense, Vacant Feature Debut

Pascual Sisto shows directorial prowess with his first feature, but what is it all about?

Sundance 2021: John And The Hole
Sundance Institute

Never has a movie been so forthcoming as to what it is about without ever revealing what it is actually about.

It is, of course, about John and the Hole. John (Charlie Shotwell) is a spindly boy in late-middle/early-high school with a staple white suburban swoosh of straight dirty blonde hair that hangs dramatically over his right eye. He doesn’t talk much from what we see, except to ask his parents the occasional investigative life question, as children do, or mutter some fuck yous with all the muted excitement of a teenager beating his friend in a game online. But he’s not afraid to talk either. He’s quiet and comfortable with his family and they’re quiet and comfortable with him. That is until they meet the titular hole.

Brad (Michael C. Hall), Anna (Jennifer Ehle), Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), and John are the 2021 version of the picture-perfect nuclear family living out the American Dream: father, mother, daughter, and son undisturbed by the outside world in their modern mini-mansion on their own plot of land, far enough from others for cries to fade before they find ears. John’s parents, like his sister, aren’t fleshed out characters so much as they are stand-ins for any generic wealthy American family. They’re vanilla in a way that seems requested, restrained so as to not let John’s even more restrained performance be overshadowed.

After John discovers an abandoned bunker deep in the ground on their property, he decides, seemingly out of nowhere, to drug the other three members of his family and leave them down there, bringing them food and water occasionally while he has the place to himself. What does John do, you ask? Probably what a lot of people would do at that age: wander without restraint, drink from the carton, eat fast food for every meal, drive a parent’s car, play video games, leave trash on the floor — you know, Home Alone antics. His life hardly changes, but he has a new autonomy.

However, John is the type who seems to live primarily in his own head, emitting radioactive levels of sociopathy in his cold, calculating looks alone. He’s the kind of kid who soaks his wounds in chlorine and uses the family’s working-class gardener like a lab rat. He’s bound to do something crazy until, to oversimplify in lieu of spoiling anything, he doesn’t.

And so, we’ve already come full circle: what is John’s hole experiment really about? It’s not impenetrable. It’s simply, and not so simply at all, a matter of interpretation. One can imagine several angles. As a coming-of-age story, perhaps it’s about the odd ways in which we learn the world and become ourselves, or it’s meant to be a portrait of privileged youth in its detached, manicured nature. Maybe it’s honing in on the idea that the threat against safety comes from within in a situation where the world is kept out, like a look at the souring effect of domesticity. Or it could be an investigation of autonomy, etc. But if you were to ask me, I’d say it’s empty minimalism and formalism masquerading as depth. Where there should be something to grab onto, there is nothing: a hole (and, of course, John).

Yet, for as underwhelming as the whole hole situation ends up being, it’s hard to imagine first-time director and acclaimed visual artist Pascual Sisto not getting a second film financed soon, if not immediately. Sisto molds what is quite literally a story about nothing happening into a genuinely taut thriller. His direction is superb, keeping even the most frustrated viewers on the edge of their seat until the very end. It doesn’t matter if it’s just another shot of John playing video games or eating Popeyes, Paul Ozgur’s gorgeous, clean cinematography combined with Sisto’s deft eye and sense of control make for some fine optics. Sisto proves his mastery in the realm of visual art extends in multiple directions.

There is a strange, underlying sense of intrigue in the subtle oddities of Birdman screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone’s screenplay, as well, like in the way John’s parents talk to him as if he’s four years old despite him clearly being a teen, or in the vile feeling that it evokes when John parrots his parents’ voices, a practice in mimicry that he hopes will allow him to briefly field phone calls.

In the sense that everything at work here is wrapped in an enigma – I haven’t even touched on the debatably intersecting, unrelated plotline – it might be worth investigating what role John and the Hole plays in feeding into the demeaning yet longstanding tradition of vilifying the mentally ill. But it didn’t play that way to me. Whether or not John is on the spectrum remains unseen and is far from a given. As much as one might characterize his actions through that lens, it is just as plausible that he is the bunker-discovering equivalent of a bratty rich kid pyro who, out of sheer boredom and lack of life experience, wants to set things on fire to be entertained by the flames.

Beware of comparisons to Yorgos Lanthimos, a director with a distinctive style defined by bizarro comedy and utter madness, which are in no way, shape, or form present here. The only overlap is in visual formality, and even then, it’s sparse. Unlike a Lanthimos film, John and the Hole inches its way toward the finish, which is to its credit in the way it constructs mood and to its detriment in the way the narrative unfolds. On the bright side, a polarizing work is always preferred to a mediocre one.

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A New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, Luke is an arts enthusiast who received his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.