Every now and again, some internet smart aleck will cut a trailer for a beloved comedy classic that imagines that film as a horror movie. Mrs. Doubtfire, Shrek, Ross from Friends, what have you — they all turn into the psychopathic killers given the right editing choices and a creepy enough musical score. But the most popular victim (or villain, depending on your reading) is Kevin McCallister from Home Alone, whose cartoonish antics strike fear in the hearts of people who think about their real ramifications.
Of course, the chilling psychological thriller John and the Hole is more than just a cobbled-together internet video. The feature directorial debut of Pascual Sisto, penned by Oscar-winning writer Nicolás Giacobone (Birdman), John and the Hole is a harrowing deep dive into pre-adolescent ennui, that is closer to the empty cruelty of Yorgos Lanthimos. It only maintains a surface-level similarity to the premise of Home Alone — a young boy who is left to his own devices, only here, the boy, John (a chilling Charlie Shotwell) is the one who is holding is family captive in a misguided attempt to understand his own burgeoning pubescence.
John lives a spiritless existence. He comes home from school to his severe home, eats a silent dinner with family, plays with his new drone, attends tennis practice, and whiles away the rest of the hours playing video games while chatting with his friend through a headset — the only time his expression breaks from the blank, cold stare he usually wears — to let out a string of curses and profanities while gunning down faceless zombies. But one day, while wandering the nearby woods to test out his new drone, John stumbles upon a hole in the ground. Later at dinner, he asks his inattentive mom Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and impatient dad Brad (Michael C. Hall) what the hole could possibly be. It must be a half-constructed bunker, they muse, abandoned after the builder ran out of money. Curiosity piqued, John returns to the hole, something turning in his mind behind his dead-eyed stare, the camera closing in as we can decipher nothing, our thoughts — and the film’s suffocating silence — getting drowned out by the incessant, violent buzzing of his drone.
It’s baffling at first when John begins to execute his plan, looting his parents’ medicine cabinet to find sleeping pills, which he tests out on himself before administering on the house gardener. Then it all becomes clear, as his parents and sister (Taissa Farmiga, giving great face the whole film) drop down in fatigue after dinner, and John begins to drag their sleeping bodies out to the hole one at a time. They wake up just as baffled as us, horrified at being trapped in this dank, filthy hole and anxious that John is missing, until John appears at the edge to silently stare down at them. “He did it,” John’s sister Laurie realizes, Anna instantly flying to John’s defense while Brad flies into a rage. But none of their pleading or berating affects John, who only silently returns to throw them a bag of fast food.
John and the Hole operates in an airless space, withholding the audience completely from John’s thoughts and motivations, instead keeping us as in the dark as his family are for much of the film. It’s aided by the film’s claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio and Dutch cinematographer Paul Özgür’s use of either wide shots or intense close-ups with a long lens, emulating that feeling of being boxed into a hole. The audience is left to wonder alongside John’s family: Did they mistreat him? Did someone make him do this? The closest thing that Anna can think of is an “odd” conversation she had with John shortly before, when he asked her what it was like to be an adult. Unable to give him a nice answer, she told him truthfully, “It’s like being a kid with more responsibilities…I don’t think he liked that. I think he was disappointed.”
A little more air is allowed into the film. That’s it: John is playing at adulthood, stealing his parents’ bank cards and withdrawing enough money to hold regular fast-food feasts for him and his friend, driving his parents’ car around town, practicing classical piano like a little psychopath-in-training. But as he wanders the minimalist house, a deep loneliness begins to set in, so much that he begs for anyone visiting him — usually a concerned adult looking for his parents — to stay, just for a little while. He sits on the edge of the hole to stare silently at his family while they plead, but he can’t close the gap between them, not knowing how to actually genuinely connect with people.
It’s an interesting idea on page, but in John and the Hole, it is all a little too opaque to make sense of Sisto’s muted portrait of adolescence. John’s story is framed as a sort of fable, with a woman telling her daughter the tale of “John and the Hole” like some kind of modern-day boogeyman, but this framing device kneecaps the specificity of John’s story — as a product of the inert, privileged environment in which he grew up, a disaffected youth who doesn’t know what to do with the bubbling up of his adolescent angst.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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Author: Hoai-Tran Bui
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February 2, 2021