“John and the Hole” has a maddening ambiguity that seems a whole lot like lazy storytelling rather than a well thought out narrative. Director Pascual Sisto‘s unsettling story of a 13-year-old who drugs his family and dumps them in an unfinished bunker in the woods is a nightmare tale of young teenage angst, and the film’s imperfections are partially what make it so interesting.
John (Charlie Shotwell, in a chilling performance) is a very strange kid. To the casual observer, it looks like the boy has a nice life. Loving parents (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall), a kindhearted older sister (Taissa Farmiga), and a beautiful home with everything he could possibly want or ever need. John looks and acts depressed, but his concerned family is always wondering and asking him why.
Out of the blue one night, John feeds everyone sleeping pills and drags them to a giant hole, leaving them captive for days. He visits a couple of times to bring them food and water, but after enjoying the freedom of living at home alone and being the sole one in charge, he begins to neglect his starving prisoners in favor of playing house.
It’s a messed up idea for a movie, but the premise is well-suited for this restrained psychological thriller. John is definitely a disturbed sociopath, and one who is consumed with the desire for more adult responsibilities. He has an ominous obsession with money and control, but it’s unclear what the boy’s ultimate motivation is for kidnapping his family. There are concerning elements that don’t feel quite right, like his dad’s extremely well-funded bank account and John’s delight when play-drowning a friend in the backyard pool, but he mostly seems like a normal but confused teenager who has perfected the cold, blank stare.
Screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone includes an unnecessary failure of a subplot about a mother telling her little girl a version of John’s story, and it’s an ineffective distraction that steals from the strength of the themes. Despite that major stumble, “John and the Hole” has some big ideas that are both fascinating and awful, but I still found the film to be a bit more frustrating than thought-provoking.