‘John and the Hole’ is as Unsettling as it is Captivating [Sundance Review]

John and the Hole premiered at Sundance Film Festival last night. The intriguing, dread-inducing thriller from director Pascual Sisto (Océano) comes complete with an all-star cast and an unsettling quality that will leave you squirming in your seats.

The film synopsis reads as follows:

While exploring the neighboring woods, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers an unfinished bunker—a deep hole in the ground. Seemingly without provocation, he drugs his affluent parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and drags their unconscious bodies into the bunker, where he holds them captive. As they anxiously wait for John to free them from the hole, the boy returns home, where he can finally do what he wants.

What is fascinating and chilling about what John does with his newfound freedom is just how boring and uninspired it all seems to be. Sure, he loads up on junk food, takes the car out for a drive, and buys himself a new TV, but it is not as though he is running wild through the country, killing people. He even continues going to his tennis coach and gives his friend a stack of cash from the ATM, asking him what he wants to do with it.

It is all so utterly mundane that at first, I was almost sure that Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone had missed the mark. Then the message began to settle.

You see, it doesn’t matter what John does with his freedom. What matters is that he made the decision to put his family in the bunker to begin with and that there seem to be very few consequences to those actions.

Throughout the film, John interacts with other adults, and no one really seems to question what he’s doing, especially in the beginning. When he tells his mother’s friend that his family went away to take care of his grandfather because he had a heart attack, the friend doesn’t even bat an eye that they left a 13-year-old boy home alone while they did it.

Not only does he drive the family car, but he goes to pick up his friend from the bus station and not one person seems to notice that a kid who is obviously not old enough to drive is doing so.

John is invisible, shielded by the privilege of being a wealthy white kid, which ultimately chafes at him more than anything else. The film is peppered with any number of disturbing moments of tension that leave the audience wondering just how deeply disturbed the boy might be but no one in his life seems to care or want to do anything about it.

Then there is John’s family down in the bunker.

As the days go by and the polish begins to fade, more of their underlying personalities and conflicts are revealed. Sisto and the cast are brilliant in these moments. The camera never seems to get in the way of their little breakdowns. Instead, it makes us all voyeurs standing just a little to close to those things that compel and repulse us.

It is this voyeuristic feel that creates most of the discomfort in watching John and the Hole. It infuses us with the feeling that something should be done and frustrates us when nothing is done.

This was all intentional, of course.

Sisto gives us perhaps one of the most pointed statements on privilege I’ve ever seen without being heavy-handed about it. In fact, I would say the single misstep in crafting the film is the inclusion of a second family comprised of a mother and daughter in less affluent circumstances which seems to only exist to point a finger at the rest of the film and say, “SEE, WHAT’S HAPPENING OVER THERE COULDN’T HAPPEN HERE” in as loud a voice as possible.

While I understand why this story was included, after the first time we see them, they feel more like hiccups in storytelling that are far too jarring in an otherwise understated and beautifully crafted film.

I will not spoil the ending of the film. Much like the rest of the film, it is understated, and all the more effective because of it.

John and the Hole is definitely sparking conversations and definitely one that we will be keeping an eye on to see if they snag one of those legendary Sundance distribution deals.

Stay tuned for more Sundance Film Festival coverage as the weekend progresses!

Featured Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür