Sundance Film Festival Review: John and the Hole is an ambiguous thriller that refuses to spoon-feed its audience

There’s a series of odd interludes dispersed throughout Pascual Sisto‘s unnerving thriller John and the Hole that suggest the story at hand has been passed down over time as something of a fable, one that impressionable young children may construe as a challenge on how they view their own relationship with their supposed elders.  It’s a bizarre additive that grows deeper and ever psychological the more one reflects on the creepy 103 minutes that have preceded.

Said fable revolves around the titular John (Charlie Shotwell, making an incredible impression), a 13-year-old who’s almost unknowingly intelligent.  Not far from the backyard of the secluded estate he resides in – this wealth-driven removal from reality also leaning into the mentality that John has never had to truly answer to any of his wrong-doings – is a bunker (“the hole”, as he states), an abandoned construction that, as he’s told, is there in case of “something bad” happening.

That “something bad” happens to be John himself.  A boy of inquisitive nature – his mother (Jennifer Ehle) even mentions at one point that John asked of her what it felt like to be an adult – he utilises the hole for his own curious amusement.  Drugging his parents (Michael C. Hall plays his father) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) whilst they sleep, he lowers them into the hole and awaits their reaction.  He’s disturbingly numb during the process, with Nicolás Giacobone‘s slow-burn script almost playing out like a more sinister take on Home Alone as John goes about his days in a manner that suggests his idea of adulthood is one removed from the norms of society.

There’s an unpredictable nature to both the film and John’s actions.  His stoic face means he never gives away just how he feels, and even though he provides his trapped family with essentials (he even cooks them risotto at one point), it’s still on  the most basic level for survival, and you’re constantly in distress as to whether or not he will let them live.  This morbid curiosity with both death and the feeling of being an adult extends to the film’s limited side players too, with he and his best friend (Ben O’Brien) practicing a challenge in the pool where they nearly-drown each other – this sequence is particularly stress-inducing – whilst the concerned visit from one of his mother’s friends (Tamara Hickey) suggests his inquisitiveness regarding sexual relations.

John and the Hole is a film that refuses to spoon-feed its audience.  It may not ever entirely uncover fully just what makes John tick – you can imagine there’s a whole other film relating to a deeper realisation of just who he is and what he’s experiencing – but this minimalistic approach allows ample room for interpretation which, in turn, makes the overall that much more unsettling.

Given the potential Sisto exposes here, one can only imagine what else he is capable of as a storyteller.  John and the Hole isn’t a delightful experience, but its suggestive nature and deliberate ambiguity result in a feature that proves more intriguing the further you think about it.


John and the Hole is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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