John and the Hole

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

John and the Hole
dir Pascual Sisto
scr Nicolas Giacobone
prd Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky, Michael Bowes
with Charlie Shotwell, Michael C Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga, Ben O'Brien, Georgia Lyman, Samantha LeBretton, Tamara Hickey, Elijah Ungvary, Lucien Spelman, Pamela Jayne Morgan
release US 6.Aug.21
21/US 1h38

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John and the Hole
A coming-of-age drama with a sinister twist, this film retains an unnervingly hushed tone throughout its steadily paced narrative. The visuals are eye-catching, and performances are skilfully understated, echoing Michael Haneke in bleak outlook and Yorgos Lantimos in surreal-fable tone. Director Pascual Sisto deploys ominous horror-style elements to crank up the menace, and the script plays with some big ideas, but the minimalistic approach never offers much insight.
In an affluent neighbourhood, inquisitive 13-year-old John (Shotwell) is disinterested in the activities prepared by his involved parents Brad and Anna (Hall and Ehle). And the noise he makes annoys his big sister Laurie (Farmiga). Then one day John finds a deep hole in the woods, an unfinished bunker. And he quietly enacts a plan to trap his family inside it, so he can get on with life. When he delivers them some food, they beg to know why he's doing this, but he remains silent. Then he invites his pal Peter (O'Brien) to visit.
The title only appears half an hour in, with a cutaway in which a mother (Lyman) recounts this story to her daughter (LeBretton), an increasingly surreal parallel plot that never makes sense. But the cinematography is beautiful, a claustrophobic square ratio that echoes the hole itself. And this also nicely frames John's perspective, although Sisto can't resist abandoning that from time to time. John watches everything with detachment, so even momentous events play in run-of-the-mill ways. And while he thinks through every detail of his plan, he's still a kid.

Shotwell is terrific as the clear-thinking kid with darkly psychopathic tendencies. The way he crafts his own life at home is beautifully played, revealing John's true interests and desires rather than those laid on him by his parents. Which of course makes his various responses utterly chilling. And Hall, Ehle and Farmiga are excellent as the abductees. Brad stoically refuses to accept that his child might have got the drop on him, while Anna and Laurie viscerally understand this nightmarish situation much more quickly.

Shifting the point of view shift between John and his family (plus the unnecessary framing device) causes some problems, weakening the film's focus and undermining John's warped new reality. It also results in a few rather oddly preachy moments. So instead of digging into the intriguing themes, Sisto and screenwriter Giacobone settle for creating a basic creepy kid freak-out with some added provocations. And the salient message is clear: underestimate your children at your peril.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 2.Aug.21

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