John and the Hole more resembles an attention-getting audition piece than a film the public will be inclined to pay to see. First-time feature director Pascual Sisto, primarily known for his work as a visual artist in galleries internationally, displays a precise, icy command over this disturbing story of a privileged 13-year-old boy who sticks his parents and sister in a deep pit from which they have no way to emerge. But while Sisto displays a resolutely firm grip on his remorseless tale, which was an official selection for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival that never happened, what he and his screenwriter (Birdman co-writer Nicolas Giacobone) have wrought is a thoroughgoing downer about a pubescent misfit guided by cruel curiosity rather than a conscience. Much like the title character, this is a film of icy calculation.
The film had its premiere last week in the U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup at the Sundance Film Festival.
The John in question, played by Charlie Shotwell, is a dour, direct lad with abundant light-brown hair whose parents’ home is a cold glassy creation all but enveloped by lush woods. His parents insistently call him “Buddy,” in the questionable modern way of ingratiating a kid to make him feel like he’s his parents’ pal and equal rather than a child whose parents are in charge. Random activities are indulged in: John flies a drone through the forest, to a messy end; plays a bit of tennis and then a video game with another kid; and drags the body of the gardener, who has seemingly passed out or worse, downstairs. The dialogue is blunt and sparse; after a full half-hour of being fed a squirrel’s serving of narrative and personal information, one can be forgiven for wondering where, if anywhere, this thing is going.
The answer, just as the titles promises, is into a hole. At precisely the 30-minute mark, the film’s title belatedly flashes upon the screen, whereupon dad Brad (Michael C. Hall), mom Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and older daughter Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) find themselves at the bottom of a very deep pit in the woods, one with metal sides. Brad’s first question, naturally enough, is “Where are we?” while his second question, as a concerned father, is “Where’s John?” The answer to that is, on the phone, telling the gardener not to come to the house anymore. Even though he’s far too young for a driver’s license, the boy then drives to nearest cash machine and takes out a wad of bills.
The only predictable action and dialogue in the entire film are the unbelieving and desperate utterings of the parents, initially concerning John’s whereabouts and, later, once they know their son has actually put them this inescapable position, their tormented wonderings about what’s going on and why.
To be sure, these are the questions of the day, to which there are no immediate answers. Aesthetically, one at this point fully appreciates why the filmmakers opted to use the box-like 4:3 aspect ratio, which wickedly increases the sense of unavoidable claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the slow-drip mystery continues: Brad tries to climb out of the hole but it’s clearly impossible; Anna mentions that John has been asking a lot of questions recently, such as, “When do you stop being a kid?”; a young friend comes over and the boys play a dangerous game in the swimming pool; a drone hovers around for a while, and John hides when the police come by with an expensive-looking blonde. Meanwhile, John’s tennis instructor wants to be paid.
After two days of this, John makes a risotto dinner for his family and sends the food down along with a good red wine; they all just eat, asking no questions. There’s another scare to come that doesn’t really answer anything. Revealing the ending wouldn’t really be revealing much at all.
The director and writer clearly have much more on their minds here than just a twisted suspense tale. What’s conspicuous is not only the abundance on display—the fabulous house, money, education, wherewithal, the freedom to do whatever these wealthy people please—but the boy’s lack of a moral code and sense of how to use his almost unlimited freedom. Sure, he can drive, but where should he go? Yes, he can cook, but who will he feed? Absolutely, he has money, but to what end will he use it?
This is, arguably, a sort of fable, an odd modern one about having abilities but not knowing how to channel them, of having responsibilities but being oblivious as to how to apportion them, of being the intellectual equal of smart adults while remaining emotionally and morally untutored; it’s about too much, too soon. But regardless of whether the filmmakers intended these connotations or something else altogether, John and the Hole feels far too designed, too much of a precision creative exercise at the expense of communicating any tangible ideas, much less genuinely engaging drama. It all feels like a big game that you wouldn’t want to play yourself.