The unusual and hard-to-categorize “John and the Hole” marks the feature film debut for Spanish director Pascual Sisto. It’s penned by Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) who is adapting his own short story titled “The Well”. Built around a startling premise, the film takes an unconventional look at adolescence versus adulthood. At the same time it often plays like the origin story for soon-to-be psychopath. Is a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a psychological thriller? It’s a little of all three.
The film centers around 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell). He has all the markings of a normal kid, a little quiet and shy but normal nonetheless. He has a comfortable life with an affluent family. His parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) seem to care for him and there’s no sign of abuse or neglect. He butts heads with his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) but nothing out of the ordinary. He’s on his school’s tennis team and enjoys video games online with his friend and classmate Peter (Ben O’Brien). There are those weird questions he begins asking about adulthood, but other than that he’s a regular kid.
Well, not exactly. A few scattered indicators later and we know something is a little off.
While flying his new drone over a nearby patch of forest John discovers a deep hole in the ground. When he brings it up at dinner his parents tell him it’s an old bunker started by the landowners but abandoned five years ago. Later that night John drugs his family and hauls them out to the hole. In an odd omission we never see how he gets them to the bottom. Does he lower them down? Does he drop them? The fall would be enough to severely hurt or kill them. Instead they all wake up laying side-by-side as if they had been carefully placed. The little details.
Soon he’s living out his warped fantasy of independence – taking his dad’s SUV for a spin, withdrawing hundreds of dollars at the ATM, buying chicken nuggets and a new 4K television. He has his buddy over for pizza and video games, fending off any suspicions by saying his parents are away visiting a sick relative. We do get occasional hints of normalcy, but the chilling emotionless pathology that drives John’s thinking keeps things always uncertain.
Meanwhile his family languishes in the muck of the pit, swinging from panicked to angry to physically and emotionally worn down. John visits just enough to keep them alive, occasionally dropping food and blankets while giving them no explanation for his actions. It’s basically the same for us. Sisto soaks his film in ambiguity much to his film’s benefit and to its detriment. In one sense mining the story’s deeper themes and framing outcomes for ourselves is rewarding. But Sisto leaves some things so murky that it’s hard to come up with a satisfying conclusion. And then there is this seemingly random side-story about a little girl named Lily. Obviously there is some connection with the filmmaker and the story but I never found it.
“John and the Hole” is one of several festival films that went with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Here it contributes in a couple of interesting ways. Most obvious is the sense of confinement it brings to the scenes in the hole. It highlights the tightness of the space making it feel even more claustrophobic and suffocating. In John’s scenes the 4:3 emphasizes the smallness of the world he has created for himself. He thinks it’s freedom – an open and limitation-free existence where he’s the adult. He sets the rules and makes the decisions. Of course we know better.
Despite its hiccups and frustrations “John and the Hole” never loses its suspense and it keeps the audience interested and guessing. But with that comes a certain level of expectation which the ambiguous finish doesn’t quite satisfy. It leaves things too up in the air and the ‘little girl’ arc simply doesn’t land. Still there’s a lot to like about Sisto’s debut and I applaud not only the audacity of his vision but also his willingness to stick to it. I’m anxious to see what he does next, especially with a more fully realized script.