The mystery of adolescence has been a favorite topic for filmmakers of all stripes, ages, and nationalities. Teenagers — those walking cocktails of hormones, sexual angst, and troubled thoughts about adulthood — lend themselves naturally to darker shades of grey. It’s a credit to the intelligence of John and the Hole, a restrained but unsettling coming-of-age tale, that it takes the high road and stops a hair’s breadth short of full-blown horror. It was an official selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival — the one that was canceled after the pandemic shut down the venue — and marks the feature directorial debut of Spanish visual artist Pascual Sisto.
John (Charlie Shotwell) is the 13-year-old son of well-to-do Brad and Anna (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and the brother of teenage Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). Tall and lanky, with an unruly hank of hair that tends to fall over his sorrowful brow, he sticks to a demanding regimen of tennis with a personal instructor and a diet that involves low-fat yogurt. But he’d clearly rather be scarfing fast food and playing the sport online, in video game form, with his friend Peter (Ben O’Brien), with whom he trades profanity-laced barbs. One evening, for no apparent reason, he drugs his mom, dad, and sister and lowers them into an unfinished bunker on the far edge of their wooded property. Holding them hostage for a few days, he visits occasionally to drop off water, a flashlight, or some homemade risotto. He needs time to work through some issues, apparently.
Is John just a good kid having a hard time or a garden variety sociopath? Sisto doesn’t float any pat psychological explanation, except perhaps that John is simply rebelling against his comfortable bourgeois existence. His mother, warmly played by Ehle, seems more interested in her daughter’s affairs, and his father is even more emotionally aloof, more content to purchase his son’s happiness than foster it through loving personal contact. It’s no wonder one of John’s first acts after imprisoning his family is to withdraw his dad’s savings from the ATM and give it away for nothing in return.
The film is confidently directed in the European style of eerily composed, static long takes that create internal tension. Sisto elects to shoot in the box-like Academy ratio and executes some bravura camera moves. Early on, what appears to be an establishing shot of a wood turns out to be the POV of a drone operated by the main character, which spins out of control and comes crashing to Earth.
Cutting between John’s home-alone escapades and his family’s increasingly desperate entombment as they grow hungrier, filthier, and more inclined to accept their fate, the film eventually loses narrative steam. Once the central premise is established, no attempt is made to tighten the screws or develop the characters beyond their threadbare personalities. There’s no getting around the fact that John, who sometimes seems surprised at his own capacity for cruelty, is a boring and blank character on which to hang a 103-minute feature.
John and the Hole was written by Nicolás Giacobone — one of the four Oscar-winning screenwriters of Birdman — from his own short story, “El Pozo.” Sisto and Giacobone collaborated 17 years earlier on a short film called Océano, about a man convinced that the end of the world is nigh. About halfway into the film, Giacobone pulls a neat literary trick and introduces a single mother who begins to tell her redheaded, 8-year-old daughter the story of John and the hole. Are they dreaming the entire narrative, or are they figments of John’s perturbed imagination? The truth, like the main character himself, remains an enigma.