Opening with promise and displaying tantalizing initial threat, John and the Hole quickly squanders its potential not long after its delayed opening titles. The feature directing debut of Pascual Sisto, and adapted by Nicolás Giacobone from his own short story “El Pozo”, the film pairs stark imagery with an intentionally vacuous perspective on its titular young man. But beneath its enigmatic austerity is an arduous 90 minute effort to unlock its character study only to find an empty cave echoing back your frustration. The most embarrassing selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and sure to be one of the year’s worst films, John and the Hole is all empty aesthetics and reactionary psychology performatively, even petulantly without depth.
Charlie Shotwell is the film’s John, an affluent youngest child of an affluent family who is much like any young man on the brink of puberty. He plays video games, fumbles through tennis practice, zones out in isolation at the dinner table. One night, he drugs his family and lowers each member into an unfinished well in the woods that surrounds their home. While his parents (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) muddy themselves in the hole wondering what led to this, John makes his own sustaining mess of fast food wrappers and expletives.
But John’s motive’s don’t remain an elusive mystery. What Sisto and Giacobone labor to the audience is that John is not acting out of violence or retribution, he does so merely because he can. The film provides only the most obvious, basic observations on both teenage male behavior and mindset; John and a friend bluntly curse at their competitive video games, he has no sense of cleanliness, he views the potential of violence with nonchalance. If the point is to declare the certainty that preteen and teenage boys (or maybe just men) are as helpless and vacant as the oldest of cliches, then John and the Hole lacks the amount of narrative substance to justify an entire movie.
Sisto is bent on giving us nothing, even outside of characterization: not wit, not observation, not even punishment. As much as the talents (and time) of the cast go wasted, the mood-setting of Paul Ozgur’s cinematography and Caterina Barbieri’s score ultimately fall flat as Sisto stumbles to connect anything thematically to what their craft provides. Despite the talent involved, all efforts are stuck in the backseat to a driver who refuses to turn on the car and demands we think its immobility is interesting.
A film that trusts our intelligence so little that it has to flash the family’s literal bank account balance at one point, John and the Hole pontificates in its emptiness and mistakes finding nothing in its antihero’s impulses for profundity. It’s an effort in the kind of useless and faux-insightful nihilism bred in sophomore dorm rooms, dead certain of its brilliance merely because it rebels against an expectation it assumes exists; worse yet, it stands ignorant of its predecessors that have actually subverted such expectations in revealing, meaningful ways. Equating to little more than a narrative temper tantrum against cinematic armchair psychology, John and the Hole is a movie for no one except its creator.