First-time director Pascual Sisto's John and the Hole serves as a calling card for a possible new talent. His command over the icy visuals on display here proves he has an eye for genre storytelling. While Sisto creates some disturbing images and moments, the film is thin on meaning. With screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone, the two have written a film about pubescence and unchecked boredom that leads to cruelty. The trouble is we understand this early on and the film doesn't develop any other meaning as it goes along.
At the center of the film is John (Charlie Shotwell), a 13-year-old boy who lives with his affluent parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and his sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). John is a dour kid whose environment is a glass-laden house surrounded by woods. We learn early on of an abandoned, condemned bunker in their yard. It is the hole the title refers to. Mom and dad call John "buddy" a lot early on. It suggests they view John as a pal and equal rather than a child. John runs with this, wanting to know what it means to be an adult. He asks his mom off-screen about being an adult and doesn't like the answer she gives.
Early on we see the boredom John feels. He pathetically flies a drone around the forest, plays video games with his friend, and practices tennis. He then poisons the gardener and drags the body downstairs. We are uncertain if he has just knocked out the gardener out of curiosity or has killed him. At this point, it is unclear exactly where things will go but we understand quickly that John's family may be next.
And they are as John drugs them all at dinner one night and then drags them to the hole. Oddly, the film's title finally shows up at this point, 30 minutes into the film. His family wakes up wondering where they are. At first, they worry for John and think something must have happened to him. Laurie isn't buying that for a second though. A few early glances and exchanges suggest she understands the evil bubbling in her brother.
From here, the film plays like a dark version of Home Alone. John drives a car around, indulges in junk food, and basically does whatever he wants. What drives John here is a desire to be an adult, to skip his adolescence. He makes his family risotto at one point in an attempt to front as more adult than he is.
This is about all there is to the film. It works as an allegory about growing up but not much else. The film slows down as we spend more time with John being a spoiled brat and less time worrying about his family. There is a peculiar lack of suspense around what will happen to John if he will get caught or kill his family. The 4:3 aspect ratio suggests a sense of claustrophobia that works better from the family's point of view than John's.
Sisto has a strong sense of dread but the film is rather shallow. I could tell you the ending and it wouldn't really add or subtract from the experience. I like the film's exploration of privileged boredom but wish it has been willing to dive deeper into this theme. John and the Hole lives up to its title but never goes past it to develop a film with lasting effect. The cast does a fine job here and the film looks great but there isn't enough story here for me to heartily recommend the film.