Sundance 2021: John and the Hole, by David Bax
Pascual Sisto’s John and the Hole belongs to a longstanding cinematic tradition, from Rope to Thoroughbreds and with idiosyncratic stops along the way like Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (one scene of which is almost specifically paid homage to here) of movies that are fascinated with rich kid sociopathy. Not that I’m equipped to make such a judgment but John’s (Charlie Shotwell) aloof lack of understanding of how the world works and off-kilter inquisitiveness (I mean, how do you know when you’ve become a grown-up, though?) seem to bear the hallmarks of that popular armchair diagnosis. It’s in the nature/nurture question that Sisto shows the most interest, as the family John eventually victimizes may not be any more mentally healthy than their youngest member.
When he loses track of the expensive new drone his father (Michael C. Hall) bought him, John stumbles across a would-be bunker in the woods, abandoned in the early stages of its construction. Essentially, it’s just a deep concrete hole in the ground. Without any real explanation as to why, he decides to drug his dad, mom (Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and then drag them into the bunker in their sleep, going about the ensuing days while occasionally tossing them some food, water and blankets. Taking its cues from its protagonist’s unwaveringly placid demeanor, John and the Hole beguilingly resists traditional forward momentum, not even getting to its title card until half an hour in. Instead, it meditates on John’s bizarre, chilly, potentially dangerous moments away from his family.
It’s early autumn in Massachusetts, still just warm enough to go for a brisk swim in the backyard. John and the Hole floats, too, like the newly fallen leaves lying languidly on the surface of the pool. And, in an early sign of Sisto’s dry sense of humor, the movie is shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, vaguely mimicking the family’s view of the world from within their hole.
At times John and the Hole seems poised to become a full-on dark comedy, especially when it turns into a sinister, Home Alone-style, child wish fulfillment movie. John uses his dad’s credit card to order a new television and makes himself towering, overloaded bowls of ice cream. It’s almost cute until you remember the three people nearly starving a few hundred yards away.
Perhaps the biggest joke is that John’s behavior–though not explained–isn’t exactly surprising, given the atmosphere in which he’s grown up. His family is so reserved, so shut off, that the canned sitcom laughter coming from an unseen TV in the opening sequence sounds like mockery. Is it possible that, for these folks, this harrowing experience might count as the warmest bonding experience they’ve ever had?