John and the Hole, 2021.
Directed by Pascual Sisto.
Starring Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga.
A coming of age psychological thriller that plays out the unsettling reality of a kid (Charlie Shotwell) who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.
In true crime documentaries, I’m usually a sucker for the first act where they talk about warning signs of a serial killer or dive into the early makings of some psycho. You see the foundations begin to form for what would become a disastrous life, and you can’t help but watch it unfold. That’s how John and the Hole felt.
The film feels like the first act to a twisted tale of a lost boy who will put his pain in the world. But John and the Hole only feels like the first part of a larger story and often doesn’t feel like a complete tale.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty I enjoyed in the film and wouldn’t rank it as something terrible, but there’s no denying a sense of “oh, that’s it?” when the credits roll.
You get what you need from this story but not enough to sustain you. Let’s describe it as a meal. It’s going to fill you up, but expect to be hungry again in an hour. John and the Hole can work, but you will instantly want a little more to fulfill yourself.
In the film, we follow John as he attempts to live life on his own. The 12-year-old boy seems painfully bored, frustrated with how he’s treated, and goes to an extreme measure to try out adulthood. What is this drastic measure? Well, he drugs his family one evening and tosses them in an abandoned, unfinished bunker in the woods. Yes, this young boy drops his family in a hole in the ground and leaves them there to fend for themselves.
With the occasional visit to bring them food or seemingly taunt them, we get more of the relationship between this family. John’s father, played by Michael C Hall, is a stern and frustrating man who seems like the person who pushed John to this. But between his odd relationship with his mother and the typical teen fighting with an older sister, you never know. John and his sister, played by Taissa Farmiga, have the best bonds and ground the film when it desperately needs it. Sadly, there isn’t enough to sink your teeth into as the film mainly plays out like an artsy version of Home Alone.
One of the most puzzling parts of John and the Hole is the titular John himself. The character is so cold, so distant, which actor Charlie Shotwell captures well. He delivers a bone-chilling performance, but I kept trying to figure out why it was bone-chilling. He did something terrible and always felt on the verge of going further, but the film fell short of actually doing something more shocking. Maybe it’s my love of extreme cinema, but with this subject matter, you could push the limits.
Yet, the film somehow finds a way to leave you on edge. Every time he meets with someone, you keep waiting for something to happen. He doesn’t want this secret blown, and you think he’ll do anything to keep it hidden, but he has such a lackadaisical attitude about it. But maybe the bland lack of intensity is supposed to make him feel even more chilling.
There’s no doubt that John and the Hole is a visually pleasing film and carries itself very well. The presentation is packaged well, elevating itself over the look of many indie film peers. The lighting is perfect, using the outdoor settings and glasshouse to its advantage. While very slow at times, the editing sets a mood when it gets the pacing right.
Also, there’s a very deliberate choice made in the cinematography during John’s interactions with his family in the hole. It’s chilling each time we see John peering down at the hole, feeling as small as he’s making his family. He wants to feel like God, and the camera work sells that. Moments like that really push the story further than the actual plot does at times.
Suspense is there in plenty, and the acting is strong, so John and the Hole feels like a worthwhile watch. It just helps to know that the film doesn’t go as far as you may expect.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★