A core theme in “John and the Hole” is, what does it mean to be an adult?
Throughout the film, the titular John (Charlie Shotwell) tries to figure out what it means to be an adult. It’s a reasonable question for any kid, as it’s mystifying for a kid to imagine that there are people who have power and status simply because they lived longer. However, with John, there appear to be sinister forces at play. He gets the general idea of being an adult, self-sufficient, responsible, etc., but something is missing. He’s missing that connection, empathy, we have for people in our lives that we love. With the confidence of an adult but lacking empathy, it’s no wonder John thought it was perfectly natural to trap his family in a hole in the ground. John and the Hole explores John’s decision and how he tries to figure out what’s missing in his mind.
The film has a methodic pace, often letting Charlie Shotwell carry the film through his distant and subdued performance. This method effectively gets us in John’s head, allowing us to take in just how disturbed the situation really is. Director Pascual Sisto visually communicates just how drastically the power dynamic changed in the family and how warped John’s mind is shifting. Every quiet moment is given an extra edge, as we’re reminded how despite John’s family being stuck in the hole, he still manages to live a life on his own. His whole idea of what it means to be an adult seems to be based on self-sufficiency. He eats, goes to tennis practice, drives, he feels validated that he doesn’t need them. That’s a creepy perspective for a 13-year-old, and the film does an effective job exploring how John feels validated while trying to rationalize what adulthood is. At the same time, the film effectively balances John’s intellect, skill, and confidence with his lack of emotional maturity, something that realistically a 13-year-old wouldn’t have figure out yet. This keeps him as a character grounded, rather than coming off like a tiny adult.
The film relies heavily on its performances to guide us through the film’s methodic pace, and the performances are great all around. As previously stated, Charlie Shotwell carries this film with a compelling and eerie performance that never feels unrealistic for a kid, but still delivering the idea that something is wrong. His strongest scenes are when he’s trying to figure out why he’s not feeling more empathy for what he’s doing to his family, almost like’s his as confounded as we are. His parents, played by Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall, and his sister, played by Taissa Farmiga, give enough personality to their roles while also amplifying the horror of their situation by just seeming like nice people. They’re a bit distant but not deserving of the horrors they experience at the hands of their son. Being trapped in the hole is where they truly showcase their acting chops as the hunger, rage, and desperation slowly break them as people. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
While the film is great at building its atmosphere and mood, it’s guilty of meandering at a few moments a little too long. The film establishes John’s independence and disconnect effectively, so when the film lingers at certain places, it feels unnecessary and drags the pacing. It’s not frequent enough that it drags the film down, but once you notice it, you can’t unnotice it. Additionally, certain plot threads feel unnecessarily ambiguous and should have more definitive conclusions to make the themes hit harder.
Overall, John and the Hole is a solid thriller that benefits from its strong performances and creepy ideas. It’s a film that gets under your skin and grips you as you try to figure out what happens next and how far John will go. With its excellent pacing, chilling atmosphere, and an impressive performance from Charlie Shotwell, John and the Hole will trap you in your seat.
John and the Hole will be released by IFC Films on August 6th