There’s an abandoned bunker in John’s backyard. Most kids would probably see it as a place to play, the basis for a hideout or secret fort. Some might climb in and get trapped, and then we’d hear all about it on the news. Not John. John goes through life in kind of a daze, a skinny kid with slack shoulders and a blank, expressionless stare (played by “Troop Zero” kiddo Charlie Shotwell, eerily numb here, like a prepubescent Donnie Darko). John sometimes gets funny ideas. Not long after discovering the bunker, he drugs his family with his mom’s meds, drags them out to the bunker and lowers them in.
That is the story of “John and the Hole,” an unconventional thriller from Spanish-born, New York-based visual artist Pascual Sisto that would have drawn comparisons to Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos had it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Sisto’s noteworthy debut was selected to screen on the Croisette, but a global pandemic delayed the movie’s launch by eight months, such that it bows in competition at a virtual Sundance instead, experienced alone in living rooms rather than amid the undivided attention of a majestic screening room, as it deserves. In this context, “John and the Hole” will likely be seen as an odd and ambiguously sinister coming-of-age story, since coming-of-age stories are sort of a Sundance staple, especially those of “quirky” extraction.
But “John and the Hole” is not quirky. It’s calculated and precise and meticulously constructed in a way that will be of considerable interest to audiences who appreciate stories that unsettle, and those who recognize the precision of Sisto’s approach. Both in style and psychology, this arm’s-length, deliberately paced film resists sensationalism, even as it relates a potentially freaky situation: John has been coddled by his family to such a degree that he feels compelled to banish them from the picture, but the way he goes about it is unpredictable (or at least inscrutable) enough that we start to fear for the lives of everyone involved.
It’s not normal adolescent behavior to roofie one’s parents, to keep them cooped up like pet tarantulas in your private aquarium, and to ignore all but their basic needs — food and water — for days while living alone. This plot might seem too abstract for some, less relatable than metaphorical (the existential despair of the amateur entomologist stuck in the pit of “Woman in the Dunes” comes to mind, though Sisto assumes the perspective of those peering in from above). But like “Dogtooth” or “Benny’s Video,” it works as a kind of suburban surrealism, set in a posh modern home surrounded by woods. This family is a bubble, cut off from the world, in which the lowest-ranking member stages a coup.
Expanded from a nine-page short story by Nicolás Giacobone (who wrote the screenplay), Sisto’s low-blood-pressure feature is framed as a sort of fable, repeated by a mother to her daughter Lily, who’s introduced (then immediately abandoned) half an hour in. Why tell a child such a story? What kind of ideas might it give an impressionable young person? That question lingers over the end credits when Lily resurfaces in the film’s creepy coda. Now that the movie has put the idea out into the world, what’s to stop any kid from overthrowing his or her parents?
John’s apathy, from first scene to last, springs from a life without conflict. He’s that rare movie teen who’s never been bullied, never been punished. When he misbehaves, his positive-reinforcement family responds with affection rather than criticism. His entire life, John has been sheltered from conflict and responsibility and anything that might prepare him for the real world, and so he finds himself wondering what it feels like to be an adult. This much we know because his mother (played by Jennifer Ehle) recalls John asking her that very question — a clue to the behavior he pursues while his mom and dad (Michael C. Hall) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) are stuck at the bottom of the hole.
This entire episode, which could go horribly wrong if something were to happen to his family, feels like some kind of elaborate experiment, a test of John’s independence. Not that survival is particularly difficult for a family with a posh modern home and three-quarters of a million dollars in the bank. John’s only real skills involve playing tennis, piano and video games. But with the house to himself, he teaches himself to drive, he cooks dinner, he drinks wine — all grown-up activities, none of which make him any more mature for it.
During this time, John also hangs out with his best friend, Peter (Ben O’Brien), and together they practice nearly drowning themselves in the family pool. This is an alarming test of another kind, not unlike the risky “blackout challenge” enticing teens on TikTok, and Shotwell is never more chilling in the role than during the scene where he holds his buddy underwater as instructed. His entire performance is unnerving. The actor has clearly been instructed to hold back the kind of emotions we expect from kids, coming across as detached — an impression reinforced by DP Paul Özgür’s distant and largely static 4:3 framing.
A movie shot and edited like this requires work from its audience, most of whom are used to directors spoon-feeding them thoughts and feelings. We play detective with the limited clues as to what Sisto and Giacobone are saying, of course, but the film proves more effective when we bring ourselves to the table, parsing its ambiguities according to our own experience. As narratives go, “John and the Hole” is downright minimalist, but it leaves ample room for interpretation and debate — namely, what is going on in this kid’s head?
With any luck, the film will put both Shotwell and Sisto on the map. Through the subtlety of his performance, the actor cycles between identification and alienation, inviting genuine concern in certain circumstances. Meanwhile, Sisto’s the architect behind this whole crazy scenario, weaving a very dark thread of humor through an otherwise high-tension situation. We laugh in places when we don’t know how else to react, to defuse the pressure, because the vacuum inside John is so much scarier than the hole in his backyard.