2021 Sundance Review: John and the Hole

Director(s): Pascual Sisto

Writer(s): Nicolás Giacobone

Cast: Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, Taissa Farmiga, Charlie Shotwell

Synopsis: 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.

Where to start with this one. Using a tight aspect ratio Pascual Sisto creates an atmosphere in this film that is so compact and haunting, you never know what is about to happen. You feel constricted in this story and trapped inside the confines of this hole. Strangely enough, for how batshit crazy a lot of this movie is, I think it could have gone further. I don’t think this is a horror or a black comedy, but I don’t think the film really knows either. For how haunting it was, there were definitely tonal shifts throughout the movie that just didn’t feel right. I would have much preferred had Sisto picked one tone or genre and stuck with it throughout the film.

There were a number of things that didn’t work in this film. Some of the stakes for John seemed too… low, at points. Given the fact that he had thrown his family into a hole with no food or water and only came by every few days, I was kind of wanting more out of him in some scenes. I also think the film made John, played well by Charlie Shotwell, too much of a sympathetic character. This kid was clearly all sorts of fucked, the last thing I needed to do was to try and reason with him. There was also a subplot between a mother and a daughter which seems out of focus, but, without getting into spoilers, was confusing, and will likely be the sole reason I rewatch this film.

But what does work is the hole itself. Not the hole as a plot device, but the hole as a metaphor for the duality of being an adult vs being a kid. Where John is taking his time to learn what it is like to be an adult and on his own, his parents are having to learn how to be kids again. How to play, laugh, be together, and be one. There comes this mutual understanding between John and his family, which anyone who has seen Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius could have seen coming. However, this didn’t feel like a rehashed device, maybe because I was terrified of what was about to happen, or maybe because the path to get to this finale is one we haven’t seen before. A scene towards the end of the film involving an honest conversation between John, who is wearing a suit jacket, and his sister Laurie, played fantastically by Taissa Farmiga, tied the whole film together and was the point at which their two moments met. The film does have two endings basically, and I think the first one actually works fairly well, even if it is kind of offputting and insane in retrospect. However, the second ending… that is the one that I can’t tell if it is forced ambiguity or a sincere thrilling ending to this film.

Final: John and the Hole is an utterly intense movie bolstering a piercing score and direction that came straight from an insane asylum. An odd and strange film that works on some levels, and falls apart on others. Some plots are out of focus, but the duality between the family of learning to be an adult vs learning to be a kid worked in a twisted and manic way. A truly ambiguous film that is a lot to unpack, and that ending?? I do really want to see this in a theater.

My Score: B-

2021 Sundance Coverage

2021 Film Rankings

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür

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