Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 6.
“John and the Hole” is based on a very short story by Argentine novelist and “Birdman” screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone, which doesn’t come as a surprise for a movie in which its succinct title covers the gist of the plot. The icy debut from installation artist Pascual Sisto unfolds with the sparsity of a drama begging for further elaboration.
At the same time, Sisto’s austere narrative adds a solid entry in the “creepy kid” subgenre of psychological thrillers, with the ominous and strange tale of a 13-year-old boy who holds his affluent family captive in an old bunker near their home. A scary, solipsistic variation on “Home Alone,” the movie turns on the twisted appeal of watching its young anti-hero attempt to steal his way into the adult realm and realize he’s trapped himself.
The John in question, a peculiar introvert played by “Captain Fantastic” breakout Charlie Shotwell, seems to possess all the signs of a juvenile psychopath in waiting. He’s smart at school but hesitant to speak out, and sits stone-faced at the dinner table while his garrulous father Brad (Michael C. Hall) and spacey mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) pay more attention to his teen sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). Huddled in his room playing video games ad infinitum, Charlie exists at an afterthought in the privilege surrounding him. But there’s no mistaking the eerie impression that he’s about to do something drastic to change that.
And so, a few late-night poisonings later, Charlie’s next-of-kin find themselves stuck in bunker in the forest by their home, with John staring down at them. At first, he’s keen on taking charge of his new domain, inexplicably figuring out how to drive himself into town and inviting his classmates over to live like kings in a castle. But the danger of the outside world slowly encroaches on his existence, while his relatives grow increasingly disheveled in their cavernous surroundings.
While John is certainly the enigma at the movie’s center, some of the best scenes involve the people most impacted by his scheme. There’s a morbid fascination to watching Hall (best known for playing a psychopath himself on “Dexter”) attempt to suppress his anger while John’s mother wrestles with her parental failings, and Farmiga basically just looks like a teen ticked off by the poor sanitation standards. Still, Shotwell’s turn is the movie’s greatest asset, in part because he’s such a disquieting, repressed contrast to the ball of energy he played in “Captain Fantastic.” Gazing dispassionately at his family and roaming slowly around the vacant mansion at his disposal, he’s the engine of a movie that draws on his soft-spoken demeanor to cast a persistent spell of unease.
John’s newfound freedom leads to a series of disturbing confrontations, none stranger than a quasi-erotic encounter with his mother’s friend that grows more sinister, and almost balletic in their movements, as it goes along. John also toys with a death wish in the family’s pool, in a recurring bit that verges on incredulity that suggests a pint-sized variation of the shooters in “Elephant.”
However, the most obvious precedent for this kind of dreary, slow-burn look at chaos overtaking the comforts of the rich stems from Michael Haneke, who has built an entire career out of deconstructing safe spaces through the violence and chaos that sneaks in. “John and the Hole” plays that game well enough, but often seems a bit too blatant in its intentions to justify the slog. (It also includes a baffling tangent surrounding a different set of characters that feels shoehorned in.) At their best, Sisto and Giacobone bring an almost painterly sophistication to the notion of domesticity gone awry; at worst, they mistake low-key misery for depth.
But the movie’s a constant visual wonder, with cinematographer Paul Ozgur’s 4:3 aspect ratio tapping into the paranoia lingering over each scene, and the stellar production design by Jacqueline Abraham (whose credits range from “The Lobster” to “Lady Macbeth”) endows each room of the home with an expansive quality that adds to the impression of a self-contained universe defined by John’s curiosity.
“What’s it like to be an adult?” he asks his mother, long before he sticks in her the ground to find out for himself. With time, he discovers that the answer to that question isn’t so easy to hack. The arc of that journey shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the movie’s strengths lie in how uncertain it is when, or how, John’s scheme will collapse.
Despite its shortcomings, “John and the Hole” shows enough restraint and thematic sophistication to indicate strong potential for Sisto behind the camera. To date, his installation and sculpture work has engaged with the porous relationship between reality and subjective consciousness. “John and the Hole” does that as well, by allowing a child’s view of the world to take charge, at least until it becomes unsustainable on its own terms. It’s not the best “creepy kid” movie out there, but it’s certainly the rare one to double as a bonafide coming-of-age story, as John come to terms with a truth he can’t escape: There’s no safe shortcut to adulthood, but plenty of ways to screw it up.
“John and the Hole” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Narrative Competition section.
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