John and the Hole (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A boy who traps his family in the hole

“John and the Hole” begins with a very twisted story promise to grab your attention, but it is unfortunately not developed into something really interesting or compelling as humorlessly trudging along its increasingly flat storyline. While this is not a crappy piece of work at all thanks to some competent technical aspects to be appreciated, the movie is still no more than a hollow and superficial genre exercise on the whole, and it ultimately lets us down more with the insipid resolution at the end of the story.

At first, the movie sets its clinical tone around its equally detached young hero. Right from his first scene, we notice something odd and disturbing about John (Charile Shotwell), and the early part of the film phlegmatically shows us how this 13-year-old boy has been pretty distant to his close family members, who are living along with him in one posh modern house located in the middle of a forest. His father Brad (Michael C. Hall) and his mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) look like nice parents on the surface, but they do not know how to get close to their peculiar son, and the same thing can be said about his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), whose mind is mostly revolving around her new boyfriend.

When he is playing with a drone in the forest during one afternoon, John happens to come upon an abandoned bunker, and that subsequently leads him to one disturbing idea. After testing the effectiveness of a certain prescribed drug for his mother, he has his whole family drugged at one night, and his parents and older sister are shocked to find themselves trapped in that bunker in the following morning. Once they come to realize what is really going on, they naturally plea to John, but John coolly ignores their desperate plea, and then he embarks on becoming the man of the house. For example, he drives his father’s vehicle for himself and then gets some money from an ATM machine, and he also makes sure that nobody is looking for their family members for a while at least.

We naturally come to wonder more about what makes this problematic boy tick, but the movie, which is based on screenplay writer/co-producer Nicolás Giacobone’s short story “El Pozo”, adamantly refuses to give us any easy answer. As struggling to survive in the bunker day by day, John’s parents ask themselves again and again on their son’s elusive motive, but they cannot find any answer, and neither can their daughter, who already knows a bit about how odd and unnerving her younger brother is.

Meanwhile, the movie continues to observe how John tries to act like a free grown man able to take care of himself and his life. At one point, he invites a boy around his age who has communicated with him via an online game, and they have some fun together at his house, but John turns out to be pretty clumsy in interacting directly with his friend, who comes to regard John with more bafflement when John later pays him some money just for being with John for one day.

Is John simply an emotionally stunted kid who happens to take a drastic measure for more freedom? Or, is he actually a cold-blooded psychopath incapable of making any meaningful human connection with others around him? The movie keeps observing his creepy behaviors as often tantalizingly suggesting these and other possibilities about its young hero, but it only ends up going nowhere without giving us any understanding or insight on him, and John accordingly becomes a more distant cypher to us. In case of his three unfortunate family members, they are more sympathetic in comparison, but the movie does not flesh them out well enough to engage us more, and we become more frustrated while also caring less about whatever will happen between them and John in the end.

Director Pascual Sisto, who incidentally makes a feature film debut here in this work, and his crew members did as much as they can for maintaining the cold and detached attitude of the movie to the end, but their fairly good efforts are often wasted due to the barebone narrative of the film. There are several morbid moments reminiscent of the twisted works of Yorgos Lanthimos and Michael Haneke, but the movie mostly fails to reach to the dark absurdity of Lanthimos’ films or the gut-chilling ruthlessness of Haneke’s movies, and a subplot involved with a mother and her young daughter seems rather pointless without resonating much with the main storyline.

The main cast members of the film try as much as they can do for filling their respective roles. Charlie Shotwell, a young actor who has steadily advanced since his notable supporting turn in “Captain Fantastic” (2016), is hopelessly stuck in his distractingly one-note role, and I must tell you that he was much more engaging in “The Nest” (2020), a little but intense family drama which is also one of the overlooked gems of last year. In case of Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga, they have more things to do at least, but then they only come to function as a mere counterpoint to Shotwell’s blank attitude.

In conclusion, “John and the Hole” stumbles a lot due for many reasons including thin characterization as well as deficient storytelling, and I have been feeling emptier as reflecting more on its considerable failures. At least, the movie shows that Sisto is a filmmaker who does know how to intrigue us with mood and idea, and I sincerely hope that he will soon move onto better things to come into his nascent filmmaking career.

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