‘John And The Hole’ Is Social Satire Without Much Bite

The premise of John And The Hole (out now in theaters and on VOD) sounded deliciously disturbing — a cross between a Saw movie and Home Alone — with a 13-year-old living on his own after deciding to hold his family captive in a hole that he finds in the woods. I expected madness, I expected violence, and to come away disturbed. And when I saw the kid (Charlie Shotwell) looking like Baby Buffalo Bill while staring down at his family in the eponymous hole, it seemed like the film was going to meet those expectations. It did not.

In the film, an official Cannes 2020 selection, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga do good work with what they’re given as John’s offending parents and older sibling, but the nature of their offense is intentionally hazy. Mom and Dad are seemingly stuck in a cycle of exhaustion and routine, not inattentive but also not the kind to push too deeply when their son is clearly dazed at the dinner table. Big Sis is living her own life while still pulling focus. And then there’s John, navigating the wilderness (literally and figuratively) with a lot of questions about what comes next for him with adulthood and the kind of under the surface sociopathic tendencies that make it clear why the family doesn’t have any pets.

When John goes off to play with his new top-of-the-line drone and discovers the eponymous hole, his first thought is to talk it over with the fam, but they condescend. His second thought is to drug them and put them in the hole — an act of unlikely physical strength that isn’t explained. This is a pattern, with Oscar-winner Nicolás Giacobone (co-writer of Birdman) writing himself out of rough spots with no real concern for the reality of the situation. Like when cops come to the door and then seemingly shrug their shoulders and give up on a report of a teenager living alone and acting suspiciously. The tension feels manufactured and John seems to be untouchable, which contributes to everything feeling childproofed.

Speaking of manufactured, there’s an out-of-left-field side story here involving an entirely different set of characters that briefly pop up in a couple of places to make you question what you’re seeing with John and his family. It’s worthless art film bedazzlement that’s supposed to impress but it just feels like something they forgot to cut. I’m all for leaving threads untied, but they should contribute something to the finished product besides confusion.

John And The Hole, which is helmed by visual artist and first-time director Pascual Sisto, is at its best when its sights and sounds are pushed to the forefront. Some of the story shortfalls are covered by moody, dark visuals that represent the forest at night, a synth-laden score, the muted colors of John’s antiseptic upper-class life, and jarring sound effects (a tennis ball machine, a leaf blower) that shatter the mundanity. Some.

IFC Films

One place presented with less visual flex than you would think happens to be the most important one: the hole. Rather than maximize the claustrophobia of the situation, each of the three characters seems to have just enough space to avoid being literally piled on top of each other with many scenes happening during daylight. Listen, I don’t want to spend a weekend there. They adequately sell it as a frightening place to be, but it just doesn’t feel as extreme, uncomfortable, and nightmarish as it could have. As a result, while the stir-craziness, anger, and degradation of the situation are explored lightly, it’s not enough to make you feel anything beyond baseline empathy for these characters as they bicker and blame when they should be ceaselessly screaming their heads off and viciously turning on each other. Or maybe that’s just me reflecting my own experience with loved ones during a pandemic lockdown that has felt, at times, like being trapped in a bunker. Har har, ugh.

I get it! The point is to make this hit under the breastplate by making John seem like a normal, quiet kid whose family doesn’t seem like a cabal of abusive monsters that would obviously inspire his malicious and troubling actions. That means it could happen to anyone (within close proximity to ground holes), which would be more off-putting if you were led to feel a tug of relatability or recognition with this family.

Even John skips away without you feeling much for him — he doesn’t intimidate or fascinate. Like everything else here, he just is. Shotwell isn’t to blame, he’s a clearly talented young actor. It’s just that, like everyone else, he isn’t given enough of a meal. Shouldn’t a kid in this situation show a more diverse palette of emotions? Some joy when literally joy-riding? A splurge beyond a bigger TV with access to his parents’ near million dollar bank account? The strict adherence to schedule and John’s limited imagination when it comes to playing an adult make this feel like a slow burn whose fire goes out in the middle. Which means the dish is undercooked. And then everyone feels sick. Metaphors.

I know I’m breaking a rule reviewing the movie that this isn’t as much as I’m reviewing the one that it is, but it’s hard to not get mad at this for wasting a pretty cool mishmash of ideas to instead present as a not-so-thrilling thriller and subtle social satire without much to clearly say. And when it gets to its end, it’s hard to not be mad for a perceived waste of time.

Mike White’s White Lotus is a show that takes a different route in its effort to call out the evils of opulence and the dissociative head traps that the rich can fall into, but it was on my mind when I watched this. To be honest, the first few episodes White Lotus bored the hell out of me, but when you realize in the middle where it’s going and what it’s trying to say about the subtly monstrous acts that selfishness and a lack of self-awareness can spark (and how it’s its own epidemic), its existence is justified and more fully enjoyed.

In a totally different way, Ilana Glazer and John Lee’s False Positive is another social satire with something to say; something it’s screaming throughout before adding a prodigious, disturbing, surprising exclamation point at the end. Each of those distinct projects makes it a point to make you remember them, at least. But John And The Hole just doesn’t, preferring to go up to the edge of being thought of as provocative before settling for the quickly fading legacy of something stylized but ultimately hollow.

‘John And The Hole’ is out in theaters and on VOD