One of the most frustrating yet common subgenres of festival movie is the kind that is assembled with a high level of craftsmanship, a beautifully wrapped present urging us to see what’s inside. But once opened, you find out there is nothing there, a cruel gotcha that disappoints then aggravates, a problem facing the first-time director Pascual Sisto’s underwhelming psychodrama John and the Hole.
The script, from the Alejandro González Iñárritu collaborator Nicolás Giacobone, offers up a tantalising set-up. John (Charlie Shotwell) is a dead-eyed 13-year-old living with his wealthy family in a luxurious house surrounded by woodland. After encountering a bunker close-by, John decides to drug his parents (Michael C Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and leave them down there. As they scramble for a reason, as well as wait patiently for infrequent food and water deliveries, John carries on with his new life, one without as many rules but with a great deal more responsibilities.
The crudest way to describe what transpires in John and the Hole would be Home Alone if re-envisioned by Michael Haneke or perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos in the broadest possible terms, a chilly atmosphere successfully evoked but without any of the thought or intellect that both film-makers would also bring to the table. Sisto and the cinematographer Paul Ozgur have created something visually effective here, from the sleek yet soulless home the camera glides through and around to the menacing woods that surround it, a world we’re eager to explore with more depth, hoping that such distinctive style isn’t just a cover for a lack of substance.
In the first act, it’s hard not to be intrigued, an interesting escalation of boundary-pushing as John checks the limits of the world around him and tests what he might be capable of, the things he might be able to do and whether some form of conscience might stop him. There is a great deal of dream logic that is then required for him to drug his family and physically move them all the way down into the bunker, given his age and slight frame, but Giacobone intersperses his script with scenes of a mother telling her daughter a story, clueing us in that everything might not be as it seems. This genuine early creepiness though turns into a fear that actually, Giacobone doesn’t really have much to say or do with his concept, like it was written on the fly, an elevator pitch panicked into production.
Teases of something more to grab on to come and go as the story progresses with John inviting a rambunctious friend to the house, both of them as fascinated by a morbid drowning game as they are by the idea of unlimited fast food, before the realities of adulthood start to dawn, a world of promise and agency but also one that’s messier and crueler than what came before. Investment starts to fade as intrigue turns to boredom and as hard as Shotwell might try, he’s given so little to work with that he starts to seem as lost as we feel. By the time we edge toward a third act realisation that is remarkably similar to something Macaulay Culkin figured out in 1990, it’s clear that we’ve been hoodwinked, a disappointment for us and a waste for Ehle and Hall, both better than the material they’re attempting to elevate.
As a calling card, Sisto shows an assured hand and one can see him being snapped up to make an “elevated” arthouse horror, an ease with creating unease that will be utilised far more efficiently in the future (although his decision to use a 4:3 aspect ratio never manages to be anything but an inconsequential and frequently overused gimmick). For now, he’s stuck dressing up what is revealed to be nothing much of anything, a hole that’s been diligently dug but remains completely empty.