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John and the Hole review: Tantalising and deliberately unsatisfying

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Dir: Pascual Sisto. Starring: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga. 15 cert, 98 mins.

In American drama John and the Hole, we’re introduced to a refined but ultimately austere vision of the bourgeois lifestyle. It’s a glass prison of Scandi minimalism, a few bits of furniture scattered about the place like crumbs. What’s most obvious about the film is its stillness, with the camera advancing only in the manner of a slow, methodical creep. Its story, meanwhile, toys with the extremities of human emotion: a boy (Charlie Shotwell’s John), seemingly in want of nothing but still craving more, decides one night to drug his mother (Jennifer Ehle), father (Michael C Hall), and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and chuck them down the hole that constitutes a half-constructed bunker deep in the woods. He occasionally drops by to provide food, water, and warm clothes. But he will not speak to his captives. No matter what.

For cinephiles, John and the Hole may, at first, appear to be treading the same path as Austria’s Michael Haneke, most famous for 1997’s Funny Games and its shot-for-shot American remake. He is, after all, the acknowledged master of violence and chaos exploding out of privileged, cold-hearted comforts. But director Pascual Sisto has achieved something a little more clever than pure imitation. He takes his audience’s expectations, that his film can only lead to bloodshed and despair, and leaves them hanging in the air for as long as he likes – it’s both tantalising and deliberately unsatisfying. You’re never given the comfort of knowing what comes next.

Cinematographer Paul Ozgur’s framing lends a voyeuristic touch. Early on, we watch the family’s nighttime routine through a window, the laugh track of an unknown sitcom booming menacingly in the background. Are these characters puppets for our own amusement? Or are we the predator stalking the prey? The threat is always that John will give in to sociopathy, but what actually drives him seems to be far more naive in nature. He’s not entirely unlike Peter Pan, as warped and hellish as his actions might be. Instead of running away from his home and family in order to remain a child, John tries to rid his home of his family so that he can advance into adulthood.

His Neverland involves cooking risotto, using recipes off the internet, and inviting his friend (Ben O’Brien) over so they can try to hold their breath long enough that they see the Virgin Mary, as a disturbing, childish game dictates. Shotwell excels in a particularly difficult task: delivering a performance that essentially involves a complete shut down of the self. There are no emotions to read, only small clues to uncover in certain gestures and movements. And he’s nicely pitched against a trio (Ehle, Hall, and Farmiga) who have all dabbled in the horror genre – they scream, groan, and weep like true professionals.

The trio of John’s family (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C Hall, and Taissa Farmiga) have all dabbled in the horror genre – they scream, groan, and weep like true professionals. (Vertigo Releasing)
The trio of John’s family (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C Hall, and Taissa Farmiga) have all dabbled in the horror genre – they scream, groan, and weep like true professionals. (Vertigo Releasing)

But the film’s script, written by Birdman’s Nicolás Giacobone and adapted from his short story, El Pozo, fails to push his idea as far as it will go. It’s not that John and the Hole should escalate to violence and destruction, but that it’s a film without a closing statement, or any clear idea of why it uses the framework of a mother (Georgia Lyman) telling John’s story to the daughter (Samantha LeBretton) she’s about to abandon. At the bottom of John and the Hole’s dark misadventures lies the revelation that adulthood is nothing but a collective myth – but who alive isn’t already aware of that hard and unpleasant truth?

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