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Sundance 2021 ‘John and the Hole’ Review: Staring Into the Abyss with Nothing Staring Back

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13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers a hole — an unfinished bunker — in his backyard, and it becomes a sort of playground for him. But the fun he has in mind is rather disturbing. He drugs his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga), and brings them all into the hole, leaving them there to awaken from their stupor terrified and dumbfounded about where they are and why they have been abandoned.

John and the Hole is a disturbing tale of a child’s loss of innocence, if he ever had it in the first place. This premise makes for great fun for viewers at the painful expense of family members trapped in the hole. Visual artist Pascual Sisto makes his directorial debut, taking a disturbing premise and approaching it with chilling precision, while screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone adapted the spare script from his own short story, with much of the runtime filled with long stares and hollow expressions.

While the rest of the family explode in confusion and disorientation, John remains forever stone-faced and inscrutable, delivering each line of dialogue in a flat, unconvincing tone. John becomes the master of the house, but this is no Home Alone-style romp; he feels almost entirely emotionless as he becomes the master of his family’s fate. When they see him looming over them, silently tossing down some food and water, they beg for mercy from someone who might as well be their god. Though his intentions are never quite clear, he keeps finding himself called back toward the hole – a magnet pulled to its sinister counterpart.

The carefully composed frames, the long takes capturing the coldness of the house’s interior, and John’s utterly blank expression feel reminiscent of Michael Haneke. But this indie-drama feels too self-serious and pretentious for its portrayal of adolescent disaffection to have any substantive effect on the audience. The camera moves fluidly around his dark home as he plays the piano, plays tennis video games, or drives around his parents’ car playing classical music from the radio. John tries to allay the worries of neighbors, and keeps going to tennis practice, following a strict diet and training regimen. His tennis coach tells him that other kids are training harder, like professionals, for tennis quallies. He seems to be forced into this life of intense competition and discipline, though it is unclear how much of this is self-imposed. The film implies a criticism of the dark side of suburban families chasing perfection without ever really making its intended point clear.

While John might play perfectly harmless video game tennis, he and his friend also make a sport of trying to drown themselves in John’s pool. At one point John holds his friend under despite his thrashing and splashing as they attempt to see visions, like the Virgin Mary in a swimsuit. To John, everything seems to be a game; but the game of John trying to “play house” has deadly serious consequences that he never seems to fully grasp.

At one point in the hole, John’s mother comments on the strange things he would ask her: “What does it feel like to be an adult? When do you stop being a kid?” To John, it seems that being an adult is driving a car, using an ATM card, and having responsibilities. To him, being an adult means being selfish, and this film paints a surreal portrait of so-called adults abandoning their families in pursuit of their own ambiguous ends.

This film has a pitch-black premise for a coming-of-age drama, with a teen boy attempting to annihilate his family, or at least testing the limits of his own power. But it never quite delivers on the disturbing promise of this premise. From a technical perspective, the film is creepily satisfying in its smooth tracking shots and shadowy frames, the camera slithering around to follow John as he haunts his own house. Yet the writing leaves something to be desired, as the audience desperately searches for answers to explain his behavior. Where does trapping them in the hole get him? What thrill, or emotion of any kind, does it bring him? The entire film remains shrouded in ambiguity, but when the haze clears, there is nothing to look at. Sisto’s film attempts to pull us into a deep, dark hole, but only manages to be rather shallow.

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