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.
This film is a about a dysfunctional family. It’s about a family that goes through a crazy ordeal without never understanding exactly why. What makes 13-year-old John tick as a person? Well that’s the thing, nothing really makes him tick. That’s a better way of putting it. We see him in what would appear as an average, even privileged adolescent life and while he does things most kids would enjoy doing, he’s not enthusiastic about them. He’s trying to feel things, and realizing he has a pervasive yet undefined apathy growing inside of him. He wants to feel things on his own terms, anything, whether it’s exhilaration or tension or fear. He’s scared the first time he checks in on his family in the hole, he can’t speak, even though he’s responsible for throwing them in there. Throwing his family in the hole is his way of dealing with the numbness. John never analyzes or tries to understand what he’s doing, it’s present-tense and methodical. John’s parents are trying to protect him so much that they deny him of an actual experience. The film shows John connecting all these dots about his life. For John the bunker is a safe place, a sort of purgatory or a waiting room where he can keep his family away while he lives on. His family doesn’t see it in the same way, obviously. For them it’s completely unexpected. The hole is a mystery to him, it feels right. Putting his family in it becomes a visceral act, something that has to be done, like a rite of passage.
A hole is a universal leitmotif. Holes are a source of mystery and fear. What’s down there? What can you throw in them? What if you got stuck in one and couldn’t get out? Holes are all over literature and fairy tales, sometimes metaphoric and sometimes not. But we want to have a real reason for the hole to exist, it isn’t a question of entering into some kind of fantasy realm. One could assert John suffers from affluenza, the affliction in which people who seemingly have everything in life are unable to feel much of anything. The film is interested in that concept, but we’re careful not to say any one thing because every time we get close to a possible explanation for John’s actions the whole story shrunk. If you apply that to this movie, you take the family as the key element, and you try to figure out what it means to be a family by breaking it down into parts. It’s a form or reverting hierarchies or equalizing them. We’ve to understand them as a whole. Another element is repetition, this idea of mantras, cloning, creating rhythms out of that. This becomes part of the movie in the highly repetitive acts John performs over the course of the movie. He’s trying to break the patterns he’s stuck in to see if he can find his own system, or path forward. In essence, it’s an act of rebellion.
The house and the hole are the two major locations in the movie. The house is the most important thing in terms of setting up the family. It’s not the classic middle-class home with the white picket fence. It’s more a glass box or a fish bowl, at night they become light-boxes where you can see inside. The idea is to show this model family on display, like a storefront window display. The house becomes a character, just like the hole. It also has an open plan layout with large rooms and lengthy hallways so the film isolates John by using long lenses. We’re close to John, but from a distance. We feel like he’s being watched from a distance. The combination of long lenses with shallow depth of field isolates the characters in depth and the 4×3 ratio contains them in width. If Bach were making music now, it would sound something like ‘Caterina Barbieri’. Her music has this melancholic sound that feels timeless. It feels like it encompassed both generations, John and the family. It’s minimal and repetitive yet expansive, it bonded perfectly with the visual tone of the film. The music is the closest we get to feel what’s happening inside John’s head, his consciousness.
The short story is nine pages long, so the film opens it up considerably in the screenplay, creating more moments and going deeper into the kid’s psychology. The film shows that arc in their psychology, shock, anger, sadness, blame, self-reflection, surrender, acceptance. In some ways, John and his family go through a separated but parallel process and they reach the pinnacle of awareness at the same time. The short story is also a first-person narration, with the kid telling the story. What works better in the film than in the short story is that you can see more of the contradictions in John. It’s very sparse. We notice that in every story where dysfunctionality happens, there’s a clear excuse for it, like some sort of abuse that justifies the dysfunction. This new generation of parents is ahead of their kids, clearing away any problems or potential conflicts that arise along the way. When the kid gets to a bump, it’s already been smoothed out by the parents. These kids are living in a world that’s been paved clear for them, so when they get to college and experience real trauma or distress for the first time, it gets magnified much more than if they had encountered them while growing up. It makes them vulnerable and fragile. We all learn from mistakes.
written by Gregory Mann