John and the Hole

John and the Hole (2021)

John and the Hole had its UK première at FrightFest 2021

13 years old, with a little boy’s lankiness and a voice not yet broken, John (Charlie Shotwell) is at an awkward age. In the opening scene of John and the Hole, when he is made to stand in front of his maths class and answer a question, with the camera locked on his face as he looks slightly up at the unseen teacher (voiced by Pamela Jayne Morgan), we can see his painful tentativeness. He knows the answer to her question, but is unassertive and uncertain – and the teacher’s goading intimidation of John just exposes his squirming powerlessness before an adult. 

Quiet, questioning, curious, John is on the cusp of adolescence, and does not know, but wants to know, what it feels like to be an adult. To him, adulthood is a mysterious void that he longs to fill fast, and he finds a counterpart for that void when he chances upon a concrete pit in the woods near his home while out testing a new high-end drone. When he asks his father Brad (Michael C. Hall) and mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) what the hole is for, they explain that it is the beginnings of an underground bunker whose construction had to be abandoned when the owner ran out of money – but they are much more coy when it comes to explaining the purpose of such a structure, not wishing to frighten their son with the kind of thinking, paranoid or not, that leads to a bunker mentality. Once again John is excluded from arcane adult knowledge, and left only with the vague idea that a bunker is a safe underground home – and so he formulates, and carefully executes, a plan that will allow him to displace his parents and older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), and become the uncontested adult head of the house. 

In drugging his family and imprisoning them in a deep, inescapable hole where they become fully dependent on him for their very survival, John is merely reversing his normal relationship with them (Brad, in particular, quickly regresses to childishness). Now John looks down at them, not up. Now he decides whether to answer the many questions that they have, or not. Now he is the provider of food and clothing. Now he can drive the family car, get money out of the ATM and run the house, in a parodic (and very obviously imperfect) imitation of what it means to be a grown-up. As John playfully (but still perilously) tests the limits of mortality with his friend Pete (Ben O’Brien) visiting from Boston, and fends off the concerned questions of this bourgeois family’s friends and staff about the whereabouts of his parents, tension arises over just how long and far John is willing to push this experiment in coming of age, and whether, indeed how, it can possibly have a happy ending. 

John and the Hole is an intimate domestic story, told from an unnerving distance. Much as this (genuinely loving) family read – and look at their phones – at the table and barely communicate with each other, much as John plays online videogames remotely with Pete and views things from afar with the camera on his drone, so too, for his feature debut, director Pascual Sisto, working with his DP Paul Ozgur, favours the long shot, so that we never get too close to these strange, dislocated characters, all occupying spaces where they do not really belong. If John’s conduct, so calculated and so lacking in empathy, seems psychotic (he even pauses, in the middle of transferring his unconscious family to the hole, to play a game on his phone), then there is something about the disengaged approach of the filmmaking that comes across as similarly unhinged and affectless. It is as though we as viewers are being reduced to John’s state of pre-adolescence, where this big alien world in front of us on the screen is somehow an incomprehensible playground where we seek, perhaps in vain, to exert some kind of control, interpretative or otherwise. One might compare the aloof, austere style of Michael Haneke, whose films like Benny’s Video (1992), Funny Games (1997, 2007), Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) have all observed, without overt judgement, the errant, even extreme behaviours of young people.

Adding to these alienation effects, the film’s title card does not appear until half an hour in, just after we have been introduced to a wholly new set of characters. To Gloria (Georgia Lyman) and her daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton), ‘John and the Hole’ is just a bedtime story – or perhaps a cautionary tale, given that Lily, one year younger than John, is about to be cruelly confronted with her own helplessness and dependence as a child in an adult’s world, and will herself eventually be drawn to that same hole, now as much a metaphor as a concrete structure. John and the Hole is a surreal, tense allegory of the enigmatic boundary, sometimes wide, sometimes less so, between childhood and adulthood.

strap: In Pascual Sisto’s coming-of-age psychodrama, a pre-adolescent boy appoints himself head of the house

© Anton Bitel