JOHN AND THE HOLE is a film that demands that its audience draw its own conclusions rather than spell out what has driven a 13-year-old boy to trap his family in an abandoned bunker. Dancing adroitly between reality and metaphor, this psychologically disturbing story is told in muted colors and hushed tones, the better to create a dreamlike state where subconscious fears about control, trust, and emotional intimacy are deliberately provoked.
The 13-year-old is the eponymous John (Charlie Shotwell), quiet, clever boy with a passion for tennis, and an adolescent’s inability to verbalize things effectively, whether how he figured the square root of 225, or his friendship with Peter (Ben O’Brien), his best pal with whom he swaps profane insults. Life with his parents, Brad and Annie (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle) and older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) is tranquil, with meals at their stylish glass house in the woods taken in near silence, but not overt hostility. Laurie even makes a point of kissing her kid brother on the head as she heads out for a date with her latest boyfriend. There might be more to her father’s barely ruffled consternation at being unaware of his daughter’s latest boyfriend, or to the neutral way he responds when John tells him that he’s lost the expensive drone that Brad has just given him.
It’s the drone that was responsible for John finding that abandoned bunker, a cement-lined hole two or more stories deep. And it’s the discovery that sets John’s mind in motion, something hinted at by the odd question he asks his sister about how many pillows they have in their home. His plan is brilliant, leaving no loose ends when it comes to explaining why he’s alone when the others have rushed off to be with a sick grandparent. The adults who visit may have their doubts about the wisdom of leaving John alone, but they show a reluctance to question it that speaks more to the expectations of friends than to anything resembling a plot hole,
It becomes, in fact, one of the more pointed and poignant observations made by director Pascual Sisto and writer Nicolás Giacobone, who use pitched camera angles juxtaposed with carefully composed scenes that are both physically all but static, but emotionally kinetic. None is better than a close-up of Ehle, driven by hunger when John fails to bring food for two days, surrendering to a banana peel. No words are necessary.
Having established John’s intelligence and resourcefulness, we are left to contemplate what drove him to this act. What is, pardon the expression, the hole in his emotional landscape that left him unable to feel empathy? An early scene of him entering the family’s pool, arms and legs torn by a fall he’s taken, showing no reaction to the water touching the tender, exposed inner flesh speaks volumes about John’s disjuncture from life and the extremes of which he is capable in order to feel something.
Clues such as these, some that may well be red herrings, are scattered to tantalize and to confound, leaving the impression that mere logic is incapable addressing anything approaching motives at any given moment. Hence antistrophes involving a mother and 12-year-old daughter playing out the reverse of the larger story.
Shotwell, in a performance of brilliant understatement, takes us through the stages of John’s adjustment to absolute freedom. From gorging on fast-food to rearranging his living space, the first rush of pure pleasure slowly giving way to something he finds trouble processing. His initial absolute silence when bringing food to his family, resolutely refusing to answer any questions about why he’s put them there, becomes as onerous for him as it is frustrating for them
JOHN ANDTHE HOLE is horror film that touches on both the fear of and longing for adulthood, with an ending that is as disquieting as it is enigmatic. It is also perfection itself as a reflection of all that has gone before.