REVIEW: John and the Hole [2021]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 98 minutes
    Release Date: August 6th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Pascual Sisto
    Writer(s): Nicolás Giacobone

I was blue in the blue.

Adolescent angst. That’s the impetus behind John (Charlie Shotwell) drugging his family (Michael C. Hall‘s Brad, Jennifer Ehle‘s Anna, and Taissa Farmiga‘s Laurie), dragging them through the backyard, and depositing their bodies in an unfinished bunker according to the synopsis of director Pascual Sisto and writer Nicolás Giacobone‘s film John and the Hole. Adolescent angst. I guess you can get away with it too when you declare the result a “fable” as opposed to a nightmare. We aren’t supposed to look so closely at the why when there’s a lesson to be learned from the how. We’re instead asked to relate to this thirteen-year-old boy’s desire to know what it’s like to be an adult and escape the incessant infantilizing by every single older person in his life.

Let’s look a little closer at John and his family, though. They’re rich. Take away the gorgeous window-walled house, casual talk about gifts being “the best on the market,” and gourmet meals. I’m just talking about the fact that their savings account has a balance of $750,000. No wonder John is taking private tennis lessons, is proficient at piano, and thinks nothing of losing a drone despite it costing hundreds of dollars to collect dust under his bed. To see his cold stare of indifference and desire to connive his way into getting what he wants isn’t therefore angst at all. It’s not affluenza or apathy either. No, it’s straight sociopathy. John does not feel. He’s in desperate need of a therapist. And his parents are absolutely clueless.

You can’t call your film a fable and expect audiences to ignore John testing his plan on an unsuspecting gardener before putting cash in his back pocket as though compensation makes his actions okay. I think it’s supposed to be funny and yet I’m not sure you can laugh without condoning the act—something that inherently speaks towards your own privilege and entitlement when it comes to believing one should be able to buy their every desire without the threat of consequences. Fast-forward to John silently staring down the bunker’s opening at his helpless sister and parents and I don’t care how vehement you are when you explain the scenario as one concerning “protection.” John’s “experiment” with independence isn’t the storm this shelter shields them from. He is.

The movie works if Sisto and Giacobone allow this truth to be acknowledged. Let John be a monster. He has reason even if his psychological issues have warped his ability to react in a way that doesn’t see him committing a crime. His father dismisses him. His mother shields him. And his sister can’t help herself from kissing him on the forehead before leaving a room. John is treated like a baby. A plaything. An object to be molded to the whims of people too self-absorbed to ask what it is he wants to be. That life would make anyone want to scream. It’d make anyone want to grow up faster than nature intends so as to break free from this state of inferiority. He simply does it.

Shotwell’s performance is without a doubt unsettling. His inherent innocence turns him into the precocious kid letting curiosity steer conversations into weird places as his need for answers outweighs his ability to think things through. His stoicism transforms him into a formidable foe merely because his silence disarms his opponents and forces them to realize how powerless they are when confronted by it. And his fearlessness in the face of keeping up appearances with family friends, coaches, and neighbors is inspiring if not saddled with the baggage that comes from why he’s been left to fend for himself. John’s victims should be scared and yet they go from angry to contrite instead. That’s what’s chilling. They see it as a game. They’re too sheltered to understand true danger.

This is what I believe Sisto and Giacobone want to shine through. They want us to see how John’s actions expose this white suburban family’s ignorance towards real suffering. They want us to see the absurdity of what happens and realize just how anticlimactic it all is in the grand scheme of their comfortable existences. But that prevents them from letting what transpires add up to anything. Those moments that worked so well when Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga become closer than ever before with no distractions to keep them away from one another are wasted. Forgotten. John’s own deluge of emotion and yearning for companionship in awkward and inappropriate ways that reveals humanity’s rejection of isolation also inevitably fades away almost as soon as it appears.

So that leaves us with a parallel story starring twelve-year-old Lily (Samantha LeBretton) and her mother Gloria (Georgia Lyman). Be warned as my talking about them at all could be construed as a spoiler, but you can’t really discuss the film’s intentions without them. Because if John’s journey is a fable, they are rendered as reality. If John craves the independence he’s refused, Lily begs for love in a world replete of it. Which then is the cautionary tale? Is one’s wild notion of dog-eat-dog living supposed to make it so the other’s warped notions of angst prove commendable? Is that the point of this strange unexplained duality? I hoped we’d get some answer. Or even a crumb of explanation as to their relation. We don’t.

I get the impulse to leave things open-ended. Let the audience decide. The problem, however, is that I think doing so was a way to save Sisto and Giacobone from having to solve the problem they wrote on the board. Whereas John knows the square root of 225 without fully understanding why, we don’t know why the filmmakers have created two contrasting narratives with conclusive endings only to smash them together with inconclusive intent. Rather than find myself scrolling through my own thoughts about what happened during the end credits, I simply laughed at the fact that Sisto and Giacobone had the gall to pack up and disappear. They’re John and Gloria. We’re supposed to be their abandoned prisoners. Except that we can also leave. So I did.

[1] Charlie Shotwell as “John” in Pascual Sisto’s JOHN AND THE HOLE. Courtesy of IFC Films.
[2] Michael C. Hall as “Brad,” Taissa Farmiga as “Laurie,” and Jennifer Ehle as “Anna” in Pascual Sisto’s JOHN AND THE HOLE. Courtesy of IFC Films.
[3] Charlie Shotwell as “John” in Pascual Sisto’s JOHN AND THE HOLE. Courtesy of IFC Films.

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