Premise: A coming-of-age psychological thriller that plays out the unsettling reality of a kid who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.

John and the Hole, the debut feature from Pascual Sisto, is a psychological thriller that’s filled with a disturbing coldness with a sliver of dark comedy undertones. For the most part, John and the Hole works as a mood piece, showcasing just how disassociated its central character is with his actions. It’s a film that sees a 13 year old boy drug his family, trap them in an open hole in the ground, and then go about his newly independent life without much thought given to his captors. Aside from a couple peculiar and out of place side tracks, John and the Hole manages to stay compelling and unsettling throughout.

There’s no question that John (Charlie Shotwell) is a disturbed kid. The opening scene employs a very tight shot of his face as he is badgered by his teacher to solve a math problem. When he answers correctly and is asked how he found the answer, he dazedly replies that he doesn’t know. It’s a not so subtle introduction that lays the groundwork for a story that isn’t going to play into the well tread territory of a conventional thriller film. Instead, this is a film that lives in the cloudy and troubled psyche of a disturbed child who doesn’t think his actions through or possess the self-awareness to understand why he feels such dark impulses.

What’s perhaps most disturbing about John and the Hole is the way the film depicts John as simultaneously troubled and premeditating. In order to place his parents (Michael C Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) in the deep hole that was to someday be a bunker but was never finished, he has to drug them. But first, he tests his concoction on the gardener to make sure he’s got the right amount. He does this with such a casual coldness that it nearly comes across as total disinterest on John’s part and that makes it even more unsettling.

Once the family is secured in their hole in the ground prison, the film wisely doesn’t play up the tension. This isn’t about a family being held captive by a deranged child, after all. It’s about a child exploring his deepest and darkest impulses. We watch John go about his life alone in the family’s ostentatious home while his family suffers in isolation with only each other’s company. Moments where you wonder how the family will survive a change in their situation (such as a thunderstorm approaching) aren’t met with a stylized 127 Hours style reaction scene from the hole. Instead, the film stays with John, alone in the house eating dinner, as the storm rolls in and we’re left to imagine the panic and horror the family faces in the Edgar Allan Poe style prison they’re in.

In a strange turn, John and the Hole routinely avoids the “captive family” tension built into the premise. Instead, there are scenes of the family being somewhat happy to be sharing each other’s company, all things considered. There’s a scene where they pass the time painting each other’s faces with mud in a relatively jovial manner. This is particularly fascinating as it flops the captive isolation around on the captor. John isn’t privy to the mud painting, but he doesn’t need to be. The family creating a vaguely (and very brief) positive memory in this situation serves to further isolate John as a character and demonstrate how much of an outsider he is, even among his family.

None of this is to say the film is devoid of tension, however. There are plenty of tense situations involving John at home. When people come by to ask about his absent parents, John engages them with a creepy intensity. Oftentimes the people he talks to are unnerved by him but, credit to the actors across the board, it’s clear they don’t understand just why they’re unnerved. The way Shotwell will deliver a polite offer to give his visitor food or a drink is tense enough on its own without needing to contrive a sudden inquisition from the visitors about John’s missing family. It works well in tandem with the ever present but mostly off-screen tension of the family in captivity.

Despite its strength in centering the film around a quietly disturbed child, John and the Hole does stumble a bit. There’s a peculiar framing device, of sorts, that shows a woman with her young daughter. What happens with them is an intriguing enough riff on the film’s main premise, but it doesn’t connect enough with John and his family’s story to make it anything less than a bizarre excursion in an otherwise tightly paced thriller.

The film ends on a note of supreme ambiguity and leaves some thought provoking ideas about the strong bond of family. John is a poster child for a troubled youth and the way the film reconciles his actions and his family’s experience on the wrong end of those actions is perhaps a little too unclear in execution. But even if you don’t find meaning, or even understand what the film is going for, with its ending, the ride toward it is filled with some unsettling character work that hinges on a rightfully cold and interesting performance by Charlie Shotwell.

John and the Hole is now playing in select theaters and available digitally everywhere you rent online.


About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive ViewerAnthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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