Despite a commanding performance from Charlie Shotwell and a clever premise, John And The Hole falls short of its lofty ambitions.
A deceptively simple film that blends psychological thrills with a unique coming-of-age tale, John And The Hole marks a brilliant feature debut from Pascual Sisto. It’s the kind of movie that crawls under your skin almost immediately, picking at thoughts and ideas most try to avoid before foraging the depths of human nature in search of profound universal truths.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the film, Charlie Shotwell plays John, an awkward teenager who stumbles upon an unfinished bunker in the woods near his home. For reasons that are initially unclear, John decides to drug his family and place them in the hole. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds, but its poetic nature and unusual framing device will undoubtedly divide viewers.
The script by Nicolas Giacobone, who is one of the four people credited for writing Birdman, is surprisingly lean. John executes his plan almost immediately, leaving ample room for the film to dig into its protagonist’s mental state. John doesn’t seem to have any desires other than the freedom that his act creates. He spends his time playing games, practicing piano, and inviting his friend to visit. It’s mostly innocuous, at least on the surface, but hidden in the quiet moments of Giacobone’s screenplay is something profoundly insidious that will slowly take up residence in your bones.
The responsibility for selling this unique story falls mostly on Shotwell’s shoulders. John is a curious young man, and even though his proclivities may mirror the behavior of someone much older, his adolescence still shines through. He doesn’t know how to feed himself or care for the house. He wants to push the boundaries, but he’s too self-conscious to follow through. He’s a confused human being yearning for answers that nobody can give him because they don’t exist. The ambiguous nature of existence is crushing him, and audiences watch as he struggles under the weight of being.
Making up John’s family is a likable cast of major talent whose presence in this strange journey is both surprising and welcomed. Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Elle, and Taissa Farmiga spend the bulk of their screen time working through questions they too cannot answer while stuck in the hole. Much like their son and brother, none of them are sure what they’re doing or what happens next.
But then there is a twist in the framing device that, as I said before, Is baffling. Its presence in the film is a total mystery to me. However, I imagine the metaphor Giacobone is trying to convey fits into the story’s more important questions about our place in the universe. But the execution is so underwhelming, especially in comparison to everything else, that it feels like an unfinished thought.
To write about John And The Hole without discussing the sound design of Nicolas Becker and the mixing of Jeremy Eisener would be to overlook a vital component of the film. Whether it’s how they emphasize seemingly random sounds to illustrate John’s fixation on things other don’t seem to notice further or the way the noise of nature bleeds through otherwise quiet moments, the sound of the movie does a lot of heavy lifting that deserves recognition.
Unnecessarily complicated framing device aside, John And The Hole is an intriguing look at sociopathy in youth. Charlie Shotwell has future star written all over him, and his work here only proves his continuing growth. While I feel there is much the film could stand to explore further, I cannot shake the idea that moments in this film will be with me for some time. I only wish I could live a bit longer in its world to consider all that it has to offer fully.