Initially set to debut at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, Pascual Sisto’s directorial debut John and the Hole feels like one of those weird films we’re seeing now where you think about how it actually could have been filmed during the pandemic. With a very minimal cast and essentially two locations, Sisto’s film is pure character drama, though not of the variety that we’re used to seeing. The influence of Michael Haneke and especially Yorgos Lanthimos is quite strong with this one, to the point where there isn’t a good sense of who Sisto is as an individual voice.
John (Charlie Shotwell) is a 13-year-old boy living in a spacious upper class home with his sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), and their parents Anna and Brad (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall). We get the sense right away that he’s a pretty odd kid, with Shotwell filling out a role that would have been earmarked for Ezra Miller a decade ago. When he discovers a hole in the wooded area just outside his family’s property, he’s got a lot of questions about where it came from, why it’s there, who owns it, and what’s going to happen to it.
This is clearly a red flag (we’ve all seen the title), yet the family placates his peculiar questions, and we see them treat him with nothing but kindness and respect. There’s nothing to suggest that John isn’t in a loving, inordinately privileged home. Perhaps that’s what makes him so sure that he will get away with what he’s about to do. Based on a novel by Nicolás Giacobone (who adapted his source material for the film’s screenplay), there’s a lot of suspension of disbelief that needs to occur if you want to accept the premise of this film, as John drugs his family and drags all three of them to the bunker, where he dumps them in.
When mom and dad are away, John will play, as we then head into demented Home Alone territory where John fulfills every desire he can imagine. Anyone who ever dreamed as a child about what they would do with the house to themselves and all the freedom that comes with it can relate to the kinds of choices John makes, namely eating a lot of garbage and using his parent’s debit card to take out a ton of money and buy a massive television. John and the Hole sets up a decent question about where this movie is going to go, but it never fulfills that promise. Instead, we have to spend 100 minutes essentially going nowhere.
It’s a frustrating experience, because the idea alone is interesting, and you want to see it reach for something higher than it does. Unfortunately, there’s never a feeling that Sisto knows what he wants to be saying, or if he’s ultimately saying anything at all outside of the surface level observations about privilege and humanity’s inherent belief that people are good, which in this case leads to many instances of people knowing something isn’t right with this kid or this situation and then not doing anything about it.
The biggest issue that John and the Hole faces is how much it owes to its influences. We all love a Lanthimos world, but Sisto’s aesthetic here is pure imitation, all surface level without the insights and layers that Lanthimos brings to his odd table. The characters never get any development, leading to a film that starts out intriguingly enough and then becomes stagnant by the end of the first act. It sadly never recovers from there, making it a bit of an endurance trial even before you get to its four different endings.
John and the Hole premiered in competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is awaiting release.