I saw Pascual Sisto’s film John and the Hole as part of the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021 two days ago as I write this. It was a hard movie to wrap my mind around at the time so I gave myself some extra days to process before writing this review. I’ve reflected on it, I’ve attempted to glean its ambiguous meanings, and I’ve replayed it all in my mind. But now I think I just have to face facts: this is a supremely weird movie and I’m not sure what that means.
The program notes from Sundance call it a “harrowing psychological thriller and a potent coming-of-age fable,” which is fair enough. It deals with the ennui of adolescence, especially that of kids from well-off families, and the mix of freedom and monotony that comes with adulthood. But it does so so ambiguously, and so unsettlingly, that it comes across much more than a near-horror movie or absurdist skewering of class.
John (Charlie Shotwell) lives with his family in a big huge house in the woods. He’s 15 and is in his head way too much. His parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) put pressure on him to be good at tennis, for which he practices almost nonstop. His older sister (Taissa Farmiga) gets mad at him when he’s annoying. Nothing too out of the ordinary, no cruelty as far as we can tell. But even so, John begins asking weird questions about adulthood. He goes into the woods and finds a deep concrete pit, an unfinished bunker for a rich person, his father explains.
And so it is that John drugs each member of his family and chucks them down the pit. How he gets them down there specifically we never get to see. (It seems too far for them to fall without breaking something.) But they wake up and are at first relieved to see John hovering at the top of the hole. But he just drops food and water and walks away. While his family go mad at the bottom of a pit, underfed, dehydrated, and covered in filth, John has the run of the house, the car, the ATM card, and whatever life he wants.
But this isn’t enough; John gets lonely very quickly, and he’s had to lie to many people about a sick relative keeping his family away. He invites his friend to come stay the weekend. Up to this point, we’ve seen John and this friend play a tennis video game online, talking smack to each other. It’s the most John ever talks to anyone. When the kid arrives, he and John do weird, weird stuff like try to drown each other without dying. But now that John has done this horrible thing to his family, can he just let them out?
The overall sense you get from watching John and the Hole is unease. Screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone (who won an Oscar for 2014’s Birdman) tells this story like John is a sociopath, but it never quite gets as dark as it could. It hovers on the precipice between horror and absurdity throughout. But it’s just the situations that might make the audience nervously chuckle; it feels like a Yorgos Lanthimos movie without the surrealist dialogue.
There are also a few cutaways to a seemingly unrelated narrative involving a mother (Georgia Lyman) and her 12-year-old daughter (Samantha LeBretton). In a move that made me grab my head in bafflement, they talk about the mother leaving and the daughter living on her own. Because “it’s time” apparently. And also they maybe know about John and the Hole as a kind of fairy tale? It’s really baffling and never explained. I thought the first time it happened that there was an error with the virtual screening experience and it started playing a totally different movie. But no.
So, I dunno. John and the Hole is the kind of movie that might make some viewers angry, and it might absolutely hit home for some others. I just thought it was weird as hell and that might be the point, or I might just be thick. The world may never know.
3-ish out of 5?
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