From its earliest moments, Pascual Sisto’s John and the Hole announces a major debt to the work of Michael Haneke. John’s (Charlie Shotwell) shaggy haircut, white polo shirt and disaffected speech immediately recalls the tennis white-clad psychopaths of Haneke’s Funny Games. That recognition is bolstered by cinematographer Paul Ozgur’s stark, naturalistic camera, which recalls both Haneke’s unsettling dramas as well as Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy, a more intense horror movie about homicidal children in a secluded, wealthy setting. Those hallmarks send a clear message: this kid is about to do something nasty, and Sisto is going to make us watch every moment of it.
Those choices also set up an expectation for John and the Hole as capital-A Art, something it clearly aspires to be, and even approaches. However, the film’s many callbacks to similar movies do less to distinguish it than to remind us that other filmmakers have already traversed this territory, and done it more gracefully. In particular, John and the Hole suffers from a somewhat pretentious, unnecessary framing device that, coupled with a few other strange stumbles, keep it from reaching the heights it’s striving for.
Thirteen-year-old John lives in a rich, wooded New England suburb with his sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and father Brad (Michael C. Hall). After discovering a half-constructed underground bunker in the woods behind their house, John decides to drug his family – who seem perfectly normal, if a little out-of-touch – and dump them into the hole, allowing him to take over their spacious, well-appointed home. All of this is set inside a framing device that makes itself known roughly 15 minutes in. In this bizarre story-within-a-story, a mother, Gloria (Georgia Lyman) recounts the tale of “John and the Hole” to her young daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton), who’s about to go through an unexpected coming-of-age experience of her own.
Much of the movie makes good use of Sisto’s precise, unsparing filmmaking, which pulls dynamic performances from his cast. Shotwell follows up his excellent performance in The Nest with another turn as a troubled kid with an uncertain (but likely disturbing) future. Farmiga, Ehle, and Hall are also committed in their roles as John’s entrapped family, as they become filthier and more anxious over the course of the film. The situation feels absurd to the level of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, but their desperation lacks that ironic, icy remove. It always feels real.
This makes it all the more confusing, then, in light of the elements of the movie that stick out for their lack of precision. The film’s framing device is introduced distractingly late in the film, and is revisited only two other times, with increasing strangeness that obscures the takeaway of the main story. These scenes could be removed whole cloth with little – and likely even positive – effect. Some gaps in John’s story itself (how he’s able to get his whole family and their bedding down an eight-foot-plus deep, concrete-lined hole without dropping them in and breaking their necks, for instance) are a little easier to overlook in the context of a fable. Given how deliberate and detailed the rest of the movie is, however, it feels like an almost amateurish oversight.
John and the Hole implies a promising career ahead for Sisto; if nothing else, he’s borrowing from excellent influences and understands how to use visual language for disquieting symbolic effect. His first film displays plenty of ambition, though the execution suggests he’s still finding his feet. Ultimately, the film’s cold, creepy look and strong performances are what make it worth looking at, though you’d be forgiven for being tempted to abandon Sisto’s attempt to imitate Haneke with an actual Haneke movie instead.
“John and the Hole” is in theaters and VOD Friday.