The minefield of early adolescence is a treacherous phase in Spanish visual artist Pascual Sisto’s John and the Hole, in which Charlie Shotwell gives a rivetingly affectless performance as an apathetic 13-year-old who holds his parents and sister captive in an underground bunker. The director has jokingly referred to his psychological coming-of-age thriller as a Michael Haneke version of Home Alone, which isn’t far from the truth. But it more specifically recalls the 2014 nail-biter by the Austrian auteur’s compatriots Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy — in the unsettling scenario of a child wresting control from adults in a sleek modern house nestled among tranquil woodlands and in its fixed shots loaded with menace.
Originally slated for Cannes 2020 before that edition became a pandemic casualty, Sisto’s debut feature is a fine fit for Sundance’s main Dramatic Competition. Its observation of the festering dysfunction tucked beneath the neat façade of the privileged American family is amply compelling even if there’s a slight hollowness to the film that’s not uncommon with European directors exploring this territory. And the puzzle-like aspect of making the main narrative a story within the framing device of another family coming unstuck is thematic overkill that doesn’t really work.
But Sisto has an arresting visual style, a firm command of tone and an impressive ability to steer his fine cast onto the same rigorous wavelength, all of which makes him a talent to watch. His use of music and sound is also striking, blending Caterina Barbieri’s brooding synth score with Bach, video game noise and other technology to create an obsessive mood that crawls under your skin.
Adapted by Argentinean writer Nicolás Giacobone (an Oscar winner for Birdman) from his short story The Well, the film introduces John (Shotwell) in math class, staring like a deer in the headlights as an unseen teacher asks a question to which he knows the correct answer. That short scene with its unblinking tight shot swiftly suggests John’s detachment, a kind of numbed irrationality that distinguishes him from the unchecked evil of kids in more straight-up horror like Goodnight Mommy. As he coasts along the quiet road home on his skateboard in an upscale leafy suburb somewhere in Massachusetts, John looks like any normal awkward-age adolescent.
Working with gifted Dutch cinematographer Paul Özgür and using long lenses in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, Sisto creates a simultaneous sense of scrutinizing his subjects up close and from a distance, while also mirroring the visual motif of “the hole,” which is actually a square opening of an unfinished concrete bunker, abandoned years earlier.
The camera often gazes at the family from outside the spacious, airy house. Initially, we don’t hear their dinner conversation, but there doesn’t appear to be much of it as John’s father Brad (Michael C. Hall) and mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) sip their wine and inhabit their own respective worlds. His older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) rushes her meal while glued to her phone, dashing away from the table the minute she hears her boyfriend’s car pull up. Brad seems warm enough later when he opens John’s door to say goodnight (“Hey, buddy!”), drawing his son’s attention to the gift of a top-of-the-line drone camera under the bed.
It’s when the drone gets stuck in a tree in the woods that John finds the bunker. He tells his parents about the discovery but doesn’t seem overly preoccupied with it, robotically hitting serves at his tennis lesson the next day and playing online video tennis with his friend Pete (Ben O’Brien), who has moved to Boston. But when John spikes some lemonade with Anna’s sleeping pills and knocks out the gardener (Lucien Spellman), poking him with a stick to ensure that he’s unresponsive, it’s clear the kid has some kind of sick plan brewing.
In keeping with a screenplay that strips exposition down to the bone, what follows shortly after is a chilling static shot framing the bottom of the stairs as John drags his drugged father’s body down from the upper floor and then outside into a wheelbarrow. The dazzling fire-engine red of that garden equipment is one of many instances where the filmmakers use pops of oversaturated color to create a surreal visual world. We don’t witness John following the same steps with his mother and sister, but it’s evident that’s what happened when the three of them wake up underground the next morning, alarmed and confused.
It’s at this point that Sisto and Giacobone introduce the superfluous story-within-a-story idea, as 10-year-old Lily (Samantha LeBretton) looks skeptical about the vague reassurance of her mother (Georgia Lyman) that her father will be back. But she settles for a story, requesting “the one about the hole.” The idea appears to have been to give the main narrative the quality of a dark fable, though the fussy set-up, especially coming so far into the running time, seems more of an intrusive distraction.
The film regains its equilibrium quickly, however, as Brad, Anna and Laurie struggle to figure out how they got there, worrying about what’s happened to John and never thinking for a minute that he was responsible. Even when he appears above them, staring down in emotionless silence as he drops a bag of food and water for them, his parents shout instructions about fetching a ladder or calling 911. Only Laurie realizes he hasn’t come to help. The captives’ view of a square patch of trees and sunlight or night sky, occasionally with the blinding light of the drone camera beaming down on them, becomes a special kind of torment.
Sisto and editor Sara Shaw establish a fluid but disquieting rhythm as Özgür’s camera snakes around the large house, trailing John as he settles into a routine of playing online tennis and eating junk food, then switching back to check on the folks down below as they adjust to their captivity, getting filthier, hungrier and more desperate with each passing day. Aside from some brief stabs of blame or self-doubt, they seem incapable of airing their feelings. Only Anna, in a reflective moment, recalls John asking a weird question about what it feels like to be an adult, and seeming dissatisfied with her response.
Casual insights into John’s difficulty imagining how his life will change as he gets older come with a visit from Pete, their stilted conversations friendly but at the same time adversarial. John seems to be trying on an adult persona for size as he drives his dad’s car into town and withdraws wads of cash from the ATM, or asks unnerving questions of his mother’s friend Paula (Tamara Hickey), who doesn’t buy his lies about the family’s absence. An odd exchange with his tennis instructor (Elijah Ungvary), whose motivational skills are cold and creepy, hints further at the confusion in John’s head, and the fumbling eagerness to be somebody.
Ultimately, the filmmakers are not interested in providing tidy psychological explanations, and yet the resolution, as John quietly realizes his experiment has gone as far as it can go, is strangely poignant. Considering the hell he has put his family through and the potential after-effects on his own mind of carrying out such a radical act — a redefinition of domestic terrorism — the choice to end on a note of quiet ambiguity is a ballsy one.
It pays off in no small part thanks to the terrific actors, who show unerring restraint conveying both their characters’ middle-class complacency and their panic when their world is upended. Shotwell is just astonishing. Despite his youth, he’s already something of a Sundance veteran after appearing in standouts Captain Fantastic and The Nest, and he has Marvel’s Morbius up next. He makes John a fascinating blank, impassive but with roiling undercurrents beyond his understanding, leaving him only with darkest instinct.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Mutressa Movies, 3311 Productions, in association with Oscura Film
Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga, Lucien Spellman, Georgia Lyman, Samantha LeBretton, Tamara Hickey, Ben O’Brien, Elijah Ungvary
Director: Pascual Sisto
Screenwriter: Nicolás Giacobone, adapted from his short story, The Well
Producers: Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky, Michael Bowles
Executive producers: Nicolás Giacobone, Pascual Sisto, Ross Jacobson, Jennifer P. Dana, Tony Pachella, Mark Roberts, Phil Hoelting, Marco Vicini
Director of photography: Paul Özgür
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Music: Caterina Barbieri
Editor: Sara Shaw
Sound designer: Nicolas Becker
Casting: Jessica Kelly
Sales: ICM, UTA