John and the Hole is one of those movies that refuses to spoon-feed the audience, leaving any and all scenes open for interpretation. This will certainly frustrate or bore some, but the ambiguity that Spanish filmmaker Pascual Sisto goes for in his directorial debut is the film’s greatest strength. The slow, methodical yet offbeat pace that editor Sara Shaw crafts goes hand in the hand with the distant and cold shots of cinematographer Paul Ozgur to create an unnerving tale of adolescent angst, existential dread, and what exactly it means to be independent.
John (Charlie Shotwell) is a scrawny 13-year-old boy growing up in a home somewhat above middle class. Life is mostly uneventful. When he’s not practicing tennis, he’s playing video games in his family’s sleek million-plus dollar house surrounded by woods. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his father (Michael C. Hall), his mother (Jennifer Ehle), or his older sister (Taissa Farmiga). Nevertheless, the second John comes across an abandoned bunker – which really doesn’t amount to anything more than a deep hole in the ground – behind the house, he seems to already be planning for the dark deed he eventually carries out.
John drugs his unsuspecting family one evening, hauls them one-by-one into a wheelbarrow, and dumps them into the hole. The most immediate question that they ask upon awakening is why, but as John makes infrequent visits to drop down food and water – always without a word and nary an expression – it becomes increasingly clear to both them and the audience that they may never get a real answer. John himself may not even know exactly why he’s doing any of this; he doesn’t appear to have any definite endgame to this scheme and seems more like he’s just trying things out and pushing the limits of what he can get away with.
John takes advantage of his newfound freedom by driving the car, soaking in his parents’ bathtub, playing video games for hours on end, and pigging out on junk food. While that kind of childhood fantasy was immortalized by Macaulay Culkin’s exuberant performance in Home Alone, Shotwell’s hollow expression and stony silence during these activities make you wonder if he’s enjoying himself at all. Despite the film’s creeping pace and refusal to explore anywhere beyond the house, each scene carries sufficient tension where you’re never sure how things will play out. Every time John returns to his increasingly filthy and feral family, you don’t know whether this is the moment he’ll finally let them out or simply put them out of their misery.
The same goes for any interaction the young boy has with the other characters, like his friend he invites over, that friend’s mom, the gardener, or his overbearing tennis coach. You can’t be sure whether John’s attempts to get them to stay and spend time with him are a genuine plea for companionship in the wake of his missing family or a deviant way for the boy to lull them into a trap. That atmosphere of chilly unease and detached indifference, as well as an air of unpredictability, is what carries the film to its conclusion – something that will read as either bleak or strangely heartening. Again, much of John and the Hole is open for individual interpretation.
Has John’s sheltered and overly positive suburban life bored him to the point of depravity? Is this some sort of sociopathic experiment? Is he cruelly punishing his family or is this a desperate cry for attention and warmth? John appears stuck in the purgatory between innocent and naive childhood and looming and overwhelming adulthood; his desire to try out the role of an independent grown-up seems to drive some of his actions. But as he trades the rules and pressures of adolescence for the responsibilities of maturity, he struggles to see the benefits that piqued his curiosity in the first place.
John in the Hole’s ambivalence isn’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the deliberately slow pace allows time for its ideas to grow and stew in the minds of viewers. The film itself may not go far enough with those ideas, but the fact that its vagueness and refusal for straightforward answers make it more engrossing than aggravating is an impressive feat.