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Sundance 2021: “John and the Hole” is damn near empty

John and the Hole

Pascual Sisto’s debut feature is a surprisingly toothless psychological thriller with very little on its mind.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

In what will be sure to elicit an insurmountable amount of Home Alone jokes, John and the Hole is a textbook example of a simple premise with potential. There’s John (Charlie Shotwell), a 13-year-old boy whose demeanor straddles the line between budding psychopath and awkward middle school kid. His eyes are so glazed over that they might as well be taped onto his face, and for a while, it’s really quite effective. When it stops making an impact, it’s because it’s clear there’s nothing else behind the surface.

One day while exploring the woods by his house, he finds a hole. More specifically, it’s a bunker that was never completed. Soon, he drugs his mother (Jennifer Ehle), father (Michael C. Hall), and older sister (Taissa Farmiga). Then he—you guessed it—drags their bodies into the bunker. He leaves them there for days on end while he lounges around the house, supplying his family with meager amounts of food and water. Whatever cause he has for doing this sits in the dark, and while it would be fine if Nicolás Giacobone’s script didn’t try to fill in the gaps, it kind of does. Worse yet, its attempts to tie fable into metatext are just overt enough to cement how toothless it all really is.

Perhaps it would be a little bit better if John and the Hole at least tried to hold its cards closer to the vest. It doesn’t. John is sick of being a kid, and the film illustrates it clearly within the first five minutes. He doesn’t want to go to school. He doesn’t want his sister to tell him to be quiet. He is, simply put, a very affluent child, and his lifestyle lends nothing to the character, themes, or plot at hand. Does this kid’s privilege have anything to do with his decisions? Possibly, but he exists in such a bubble that those implications never even begin to blossom. Is his behavior indicative of a larger issue? Not really, especially when the movie can’t settle on a structure.

Worse yet, its attempts to tie fable into metatext are just overt enough to cement just how toothless this tale really is.

It’s a 103-minute feature that tries to only focus on John’s newfound solitude, yet it doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions to be that minimalist. Like John tossing chicken nuggets to his family 20 feet down, it throws in a few cutaways and flashbacks, hoping the viewer will project some deeper meaning onto it. They’re unnecessary from a narrative perspective, yes. But they’re also unnecessary in the grander scheme of things.

When John and the Hole does work, it’s because of its tone. Pascual Sisto directs the picture with a decent sense of place. It may not be particularly meaningful, but it captures an overcast mood. DP Paul Ozgur also shoots the movie digitally but with a keen sense of texture to play off the nature that surrounds each setting. If anything, it’s the fact that Sisto and editor Sara Shaw keep the pace moving well enough. The cast gets very little to do; that much is obvious. It’s not until after the film ends that it registers to have been a waste of time overall. At least it’s harmless. It’s even darkly funny at a few points, and for better or worse, both those descriptions also fit John.

John and the Hole premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."