Written by Patrick Hao
John and the Hole is the tantalizing debut feature of Spanish filmmaker Pascual Sisto and one of the most divisive films out of this year’s Sundance. Filmed with a cold resolve bordering on absurdism, the film is an examination of young affluent angst and how that can easily verge into sociopathy. Based on Argentine writer Nicolás Giacobone’s short story – who also wrote the screenplay – John and the Hole follows a 13-year-old boy (Charlie Shotwell) who, without prompting, drugs his father (Michael C. Hall), mother (Jennifer Ehle), and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and places them into the inescapable titular hole (really a bunker).
The tension of the film comes from trying to understand John’s decision to trap his family in a hole. He comes from a nuclear family, who lives in a sleek million-dollar home. His parents are loving, albeit slightly cold. Is it affluent malaise? The boredom of wealth? Or is John simply a sociopath? Sisto is unwilling to provide a clear answer to that question, which can be admirable.
What is clear is Sisto’s fascination with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. John spends his newfound independence with kid-like pragmatism. John practices his imitation of his family to divert any unwanted attention, learns how to drive, buys fried chicken, plays video games, goes to his regularly scheduled tennis lesson, and invites his friend over for a pool party. All while, Shotwell plays out these fantasies with a steely blank expression.
Sisto’s background as an installation artist is evident from his framing. It is entirely conceivable that individual shots of the film could be standalone in a gallery. The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio to both heighten the claustrophobia of the hole and force the viewer to confront John face-to-face. The camera is often static and indifferent to what is happening on screen creating a sense of tension. However, that tension is not because what is happening in the film is suspenseful, but because you are often left wondering could a filmmaker ever be more detached from a film.
Many critics have drawn comparisons of this film’s style to that of Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Ruben Östlund. While the style of John and the Hole may recall those filmmakers, it never becomes quite as successful and satisfying. Haneke (Funny Games and Amour) make tragedies that become comedies. Lanthimos (Dogtooth and The Lobster) and Östlund (Force Majeure and The Square) make outright comedies that become tragedies. Sisto, in his ambiguity and opaqueness, does neither nor does he create a worthy variation.
Sisto is not even antagonistic towards the audience the way those other filmmakers can be. The film seems to have no conviction at all in why it makes the choices that it makes. A meta-textual element is added into the film that I struggle to even decide if I should include in this review because of how detached it is from the rest of the story. It hints at being added dimension to the allegory at play, but just comes off as wasted time. Ultimately, all this leads to an ending that feels neither cathartic nor angering. It just happens.
John in the Hole seems like the type of film that could tap into the milieu of the darkness within young male teens and Sisto certainly has a style that could make it work. However, the film is too hollow to cling onto anything. It is the classic first film problem: overly stylized with ideas but no substance. It seems weird to say that about someone in their mid-40’s with years of visual arts experience. But you must start somewhere.
John and the Hole Trailer
John and the Hole is now available in select theaters and to rent and purchase on VOD.