Sundance 2021: 'John and the Hole' is a Brilliant, Unsettling Parable
by Alex Billington
January 31, 2021
Hole-y sh*t, indeed. (Let's just get that pun out of the way.) John and the Hole is, in my opinion, one of the finest films premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It's divisive in the best of ways. The film is based around a seriously messed up concept that is meant to be provocative and unsettling, and yet still be compelling in a very cinematic way. It's not at all what I expected (an indie Home Alone re-imagination) instead it's a very dark parable that acts as a metaphor for about 100 different things in society. My theory as to what it means is only what first came to my mind watching, and others will find more connections and references in it. Which is the mark of something brilliant - not only is it oddly alluring to watch, even though you hate what's going on, but in the search for meaning I found so much nuance buried within the frames.
John and the Hole is essentially: Yorgos Lanthimos presents John is a Really Fucked Up Kid. Written by Nicolás Giacobone, and directed by Spanish filmmaker Pascual Sisto, the film has that Lanthimos-esque touch in that it's deliberately fucking with the audience (much like Lanthimos' 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer). The premise is seemingly quite basic: a boy named John, played by Charlie Shotwell, decides to drug his family and throw them into an unfinished bunker (the titular "hole") that he finds in the forest near their house. And it's surprisingly bleak after that - it's a quietly contemplative film and moves at a maddeningly slow pace, without much happening. He doesn't go crazy and throw parties, he just acts like a spoiled brat kid who no longer has to worry about consequences or repercussions without his parents to get him in trouble. He drives around, eats junk food, plays video games, does fuck all. And that's pretty much it.
Early reviews from others who have seen the film at Sundance have pointed out that it's about growing up and not wanting to be a grown up (and deal with the responsibilities of being an adult). There is literally a conversation among the parents while they're in the hole where they say that - at one point John had asked the mom what it's like to grow up, and it seemed he didn't like that. But this is just the surface-level story (and interpretation) the film presents. And it is the key to the film. We never really get to understand why John is doing this to his family, because that's an unnecessary aspect of the story. He's just a lazy kid who doesn't like dealing with his parents and wants to act like a kid without consequences. When you look at it that way, this story clearly acts as a metaphor for a lot of other "adults" who act like children that have never grown up. And adults who can do fuck all and get away with it because they threw the rest of us into a hole.
It's not just the film's story that is brilliant, either. John and the Hole has some of the best cinematography I've seen in any Sundance film this year (so far). All of the cinematography by DP Paul Ozgur is especially noteworthy. Perfectly framed and perfectly composed in the classic 4:3 aspect ratio (which is very clearly used to evoke that sense of compression and claustrophobia that the family feels in the hole). I loved every off-angle shot looking from the hole up to the kid staring down. It's just my kind of perfect cinematography and it gives the film a whole other atmospheric feeling. If it was all close-ups or handheld shots, we'd lose the mystique and mystery. Shots of the forest and sky, hearing the leaves rustle, makes a difference. And the eerie electro score by Caterina Barbieri is sumptuous and moody and oh so fucking good. I just want to listen to it on repeat already. All this works together in harmony to build up the beauty of this wicked film.
Sisto's John and the Hole is a fascinating slow-burn, mind-fuck thriller in addition to the crazy concept of a kid throwing his family into a hole. Masterfully slick, unsettling filmmaking builds this film into something more profound than it seems at first glance. It's one of these films that is going to be endlessly divisive just because it's so ambiguous and creepy. It's not easy to figure out what the whole point is, and what it's trying to say. Is it a metaphor for this, or for that? It's the best kind of film to discuss for hours after and what it all means. I really enjoy that kind of unsettling concept when it's done well - and this is a case where the film is superbly moody and intriguing and alluring. And the ending is brutal, absolutely brutal. It's a reminder that we all too often never deal with the real problems, with the real issues, and that's exactly the kind of ending that should piss people off - whether consciously or subconsciously. Which is why it's all so damn brilliant.