John and the Hole

Written by Patrick Hao

43/100

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.

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The Lobster

Written by Michael Clawson

85/100

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is an expertly crafted and biting satire about the absurdity of modern attitudes towards single-hood and marriage. It depicts a dystopian future where single people are brought together and have 45 days to find a partner, or else be transformed into animal of their choosing. David, played by Colin Farrell, is a recent divorcee, and therefore one of the unlucky souls to be forced into the 45 day search for love. Upon arriving at a rural estate, known simply as The Resort, where singles are herded, he’s admitted as if he were a hospital patient, documenting his sexual preference, physical measurements, and, of course, the animal that he wishes to become should his quest for love be unsuccessful. His routine at The Resort involves staff-hosted and chaperoned mixers, “educational” lectures on the value of relationships, and hunts in The Woods for Loners, the band of singles that have shunned society’s romantic mandate. The rules by which the Loners operate are in dramatic opposition to the norm: mere flirtation is forbidden, and those caught canoodling are subject to violent punishment.

David’s experience ranges from hilarious to cringe-inducing and upsetting. Lanthimos exercises directorial precision and control throughout, which allows for a viewing experience that is wholly unique and unforgettable. The cinematography, which often positions characters off from center and brings attention to the cold and harsh interiors and landscapes, makes nearly every frame a sight to behold, and the string-heavy, sharply punctuated musical score eloquently enhances both the humorous and nightmarish turns of the narrative. The Lobster perfectly illustrates the ability of sound and camera-work to elevate a film’s impact.

The extent to which one will enjoy the film, however, depends on whether or not the viewer allows themselves to be enveloped by the world that Lanthimos creates. As is common in satire, many of the ideas and questions put forth by the narrative are often front and center; in other words, Lanthimos is anything but subtle in exploring what’s on his mind. Although it may be instinctive to try, analyzing its conceit while watching the movie would be exhausting because nearly every turn of events is not about audience-character connection, but rather the real-life experience that the moment reflects. The joy of seeing The Lobster results from wholeheartedly stepping into its world and forgetting our own until the credits have rolled, and only then reflecting on Lanthimos’ ideas about love and modern romance.

Michael Clawson originally posted this review on Letterboxd 06/19/16

Available on Netflix and Kanopy