JOHN AND THE HOLE (REVIEW)
Dir. Pascual Sisto
Reviewer. Ed Hartland
John, a teenager, finds an unfinished bunker in the woods behind his family’s house. It is not much more than a hole in the ground. John enacts the nightmare of any parent of a disaffected teen and holds his family captive within this hole.
This is the premise of Pascual Sisto’s debut feature film, JOHN AND THE HOLE, adapted by Nicolás Giacobone from his own short story, and what we have is an uneasy psychological horror that creeps up on you and sinks its claws in.
The methodical way that John goes about his business is chilling. The first half hour of JOHN AND THE HOLE proceeds with a slow disquiet as you watch him experiment and prepare for what is to come. Each step of his plan is considered and tested before being carried out with an unnerving ease.
JOHN AND THE HOLE is a slow burn of a film and it demands work. It is a subtle film that refuses to spoon feed you or provide clear cut answers. One of the things I loved was an almost total eschewing of music, which has the effect of giving greater attention and significance to mundane sounds; a pill bottle being opened, a light being turned off, the ominous buzzing of insects and a drone. It makes the viewing experience even less comfortable by removing some of the crutches that get us through tension in films. The script is as sparse as the soundscape and relies much more on the visuals than it does on dialogue.
What dialogue is there has a very distinct style; a lot is left unsaid and I wouldn’t be surprised if David Mamet were an influence on Nicolás Giacobone due to the use of repetition. These repeated questions revealing so much, from the disconnect between John and the adults that surround him to the futility of actions like weeding a garden.
There’s a lovely exchange between John and his parents when they’re explaining what a bunker is and it’s so obvious that they’re holding information back from John, thinking they’re subtly navigating a tricky topic, wanting to keep him protected from bad things, but they might as well be screaming “This is not for you to know because you’re a child!” Taking another unwitting step towards the bunker they’re painfully trying to avoid explaining fully.
What JOHN AND THE HOLE reminded me of was Mendal W. Johnson’s novel Let’s Go Play at the Adams’. The horror of both of these works, at their best, is that they have an awful inevitability. We watch John practice first by drugging himself and then the gardener and we know where this is leading, helpless to do anything but bear witness.
That’s what we are in JOHN AND THE HOLE, we’re witnesses to something that we, as adults, can’t control.
A lot of the film plays out from a distance, at one remove. We watch the collapse of the gardener from an upper floor of the house, distanced from the man’s struggle. Highlighting the disconnect between John and the rest of the world. What happens when John puts his family in the bunker is that they can finally see the distance between them and him.
The acting is brilliant. Michael C Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga are great as the family unit, but this very much lives and dies on Charlie Shotwell’s performance as John—and it lives. Shotwell turns in a wonderful performance that’s understated, chilling and human. We’re allowed into John’s head just enough, but kept at something of a distance. There’s a lovely absence in some of Shotwell’s facial expressions that say so much without saying a lot. It’s a layered performance which, from the first shot, combines intelligence and lack of understanding; giving the correct answer to the square root of 225 under pressure, but not able to explain how he knows.
Pascual Sisto has served up a truly creepy film that is confident enough to play its hand with agonizingly slow speed. I think the pacing could well be something that turns people off from JOHN AND THE HOLE—if the thought of a slow-moving, dialogue light film makes you roll your eyes then this probably isn’t for you. It was for me—up to a point.
For the first half hour I think Sisto is successful in the slow burn. I found the opening a wonderfully unsettling build to an awful inevitable outcome. However, once the family are in the bunker, John and the Hole begins to lag a little and then there is the surprising detour the film takes by moving away from the story we’ve been following—this tense and eerie set up—and we meet a young girl whose mother is preparing to abandon her—but before she does she has a story to tell. The story of John and the Hole…yes…cue opening title (MANDY style) deep into the film.
It’s an ambitious idea to throw into the mix so far into a film and it’s intriguing—I said before that JOHN AND THE HOLE is a film that makes you work. Unfortunately, I found the opening third so interesting and so unsettling that I didn’t want to leave it. I wanted it to build from this promise, sink claws into me and refuse to let go. Ultimately I don’t think it does this. The claws go in, but they don’t grip tightly enough. Instead, JOHN AND THE HOLE fell away not long after the family ended up in the bunker.
It’s worth noting that even after this turning point there are some lovely touches to admire about it. Taissa Farmiga’s little glance to Jennifer Ehle when Anna asks John if someone is making him do this, if they’re hurting him, tells you everything that Laurie is thinking in such a small moment. The performances are great, the sound is eerie and effective and camera work is wonderful (courtesy of Paul Özgür), but I was left with the feeling that this was a film that promised more than it could pull off.