It would seem odd to say, “I’ve seen this before,” about a movie where a teenage boy throws his family down a hole, but I’ve seen John and the Hole before. I haven’t seen this exact scenario, but I’ve seen more than my fair share of movies that rely entirely on style to craft a broad metaphor while neglecting the work of story and character. Director Pascual Sisto attempts to make his movie feel ominous, but setting aside the fact that throwing your family down a hole is kind of funny because it’s so outlandish, the film doesn’t seem to be in service of anything greater than a vague concept of kids trying to find their way to adulthood. But because Sisto’s storytelling is so weak and his concept is so broad, the film could be about anything, which means it’s nothing but a waste of time.
John (Charlie Shotwell) seems like a typical albeit somewhat odd and quiet 13-year-old boy. One night, he drugs his father (Michael C. Hall), mother (Jennifer Ehle), and sister (Taissa Farmiga), drags them to an unfinished bunker near their house, and lowers them down into the hole. When the family members awaken and see a silent John standing over them, they plead with the boy, who doesn’t answer. The family then, after realizing the hole is too deep to climb out of, slowly pass away the time while John spends their money, lies to other adults that the family is visiting a sick relative, and basically does what he wants while occasionally bringing his captive family some food and water. There’s also an odd framing device that appears 30 minutes into the movie where a mother (Georgia Lyman) tells her daughter (Samantha LeBretton) a story about “John and the Hole”.
This framing device, which renders the entire first 30-minutes into nothing but a slow and tedious prologue (in case you’re wondering the speed at which this movie operates), tells us that what we’re witness is a fable. It’s one story passed down to illuminate a larger truth, but the larger truth that Sisto seems to pursue is nothing more than kids wrestling with what it means to be an adult. However, because there’s no specificity to John beyond being a creepy little sociopath, there’s nothing real or specific to those developments. No one here feels like a real person, so they all exist in this realm of fable where they only serve the metaphor. The trouble is that the metaphor isn’t all that defined or interesting.
I’ve seen this movie before because this is what mediocre directors do when they’re not capable of good storytelling. They hedge more with style, and so John and the Hole feels creepy and ominous all the time, but that simply renders the movie monotonous. They go broad with the themes and hope that you as the viewer do the work of filling in the blank. I could easily make the argument that John and the Hole is about an uncaring god figure (John) who has left behind humanity (his family) who call out for his support but he only gives them enough to survive rather than live. But that argument would be hollow because it’s my construction rather than anything John and the Hole provides beyond its crushingly broad strokes.
Sisto had a strong starting point. That premise—a boy leaves his family in a hole—is why I watched the movie in the first place. But he didn’t bother to do anything with it other than detach from reality and hide behind metaphor. It’s no small thing to hook your audience, but within the first ten minutes, it becomes painfully obvious that Sisto doesn’t know what to do once he has us, so he hopes that if his film is brooding enough, we’ll think it’s thoughtful. Instead, I spent the next 90 minutes wishing I were in a hole rather than this interminable slog.
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