John and the Hole (2021)
Written by Nicolás Giacobone
Directed by Pascual Sisto
There’s been a trend in independent cinema for the last decade and a half to focus on cold neutral aesthetics. For some films, that can work given a well-written script with strongly developed characters. While these movies often lure me in with moody slick trailers, I find myself utterly bored while watching them. This isn’t to say there’s something wrong with slow, atmospheric films, but you need to be a very skilled filmmaker to make this particular aesthetic pop. John and the Hole failed to do that and was a true slog to watch.
John is a young teenage boy, the youngest of two children, who seems eerily distant and unemotional. One day, while playing outside, he comes across an unfinished bunker, the titular hole built by the now long gone neighbors. John makes a note of this hole and moves on with his life. He begins going into his mother’s medicine cabinet and testing out her sleeping pills. One morning, his mother, father, and sister wake up to find themselves gently lowered into the hole while they slept. After that, John begins to live independently, faking excuses to family friends and obligations to keep attention away. His family sits in the hole, unsure what John wants or why he is even doing this.
The premise for John and the Hole is a decent one, and I think it could have worked beautifully as a short novel. In that venue, we could have gotten some better internal monologue or an omniscient narrator to help us delve into the minds of these characters. The film is apparently based on a story by the screenwriter (who also co-wrote Birdman and won an Academy Award for that), and I am curious to read it and see how it compares to the film. The themes of the movie are centered around dealing with the bridge between childhood and adulthood.
Audiences will likely note the cold detachment John displays towards everyone and everything around him. In that way, I wondered if we were supposed to view him as sociopathic or simply taking the world from a scientific point of view. The way he goes about drugging his family and holding them in the hole is done with little display of emotion. But even the family lacks the type of manic urgency you would expect being in such a situation. I tend to believe we’re meant to view the picture as allegorical, as it does have influences from European fairy tales used to warn children of dangers in the world. You could easily see this as inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos, who also uses a similar style in the detachment of his characters. However, I would argue that Lanthimos provides a sense of biting humor & satire through his direction that better underscores his character’s neutrality.
The big question I’m left pondering is if this film needed more of a jolt in the pace and tone or if this baseline drone was essential to making the story work. If the film critiques wealth & privilege, then I can understand the monotony that builds over time. We’re meant to see lives like John and his family’s as banal, empty of life & purpose. They just exist in coldly beautiful places and never really move forward or have anything happen to them. However, I can also see this working for the theme of transitioning into adulthood. In America, there is no clear demarcation when children ascend into that new sphere, which happens within the empty cycle of existence.
It’s clear this film is influenced by filmmakers like Lanthimos, Antonio Campos, and Michael Haneke, to name a few. But it is the director’s debut feature, so he’s not quite reaching the heights of those directors yet. Nevertheless, I think this is an exceptionally confidently made movie, and there is a sense of precision to the shots. The fable-like dreamy presentation is clearly a choice made by Sisto, and it’s an aesthetic I typically like. However, John and the Hole just left me feeling nothing, and I can’t say it’s a movie I would enthusiastically recommend. If you are keen to watch it after seeing the trailer, I would encourage you to but definitely set realistic expectations.