Sundance 2021: ‘John and the Hole’ Review

Editor-in-chief Pihla Pekkarinen finds disappointment in this Cannes-selected drama.

On paper, and at first glance, John and the Hole appears rather impressive. 13-year-old outcast John stumbles across an unfinished bunker in the woods near his lavish family house. He steals some medicine from his parents’ bathroom, drugs his entire family, and drags them into the bunker. He proceeds to hold them hostage, pretending that they have gone to visit an ill grandfather, leaving him behind to train for upcoming tennis tryouts. The premise is intriguing, and the chilly aesthetics of the film are initially compelling. But ultimately, the word that comes to mind is purposeless. 

The film makes no sense. This is not to say that all films need to have perfect storylines tied up in neat string, leaving no question unanswered, no stone unturned. However, John and the Hole doesn’t make sense even within its own internal world. It sits between two completely different films, a surrealist fable and family drama, seemingly unable to decide on a genre, never committing to either. For instance, it is constantly and explicitly establishing real-world problems that we expect to have to come to terms with. Won’t John’s sister’s boyfriend, who is mentioned several times, wonder where she’s disappeared to? We see him at school, and yet nobody comes to check when he stops turning up. One of his mother’s friends finds out that John is lying about his parents disappearance, calls the police and turns up with an officer. He hides and doesn’t answer the door… and they leave, and never turn up again. It makes no sense for the film to bring up all of these situations where John would get caught, and not follow through. Had John and the Hole leaned into this surrealism, with everyone around John taking him at face value and allowing him to get away with his actions, it could have become an interesting film about the bridge between childhood and adulthood, about cruelty without consequence. Or, it could have taken more cues from Home Alone and asserted itself as a comfortable family drama. Instead, in a terrible crisis of identity, it does neither.

We also spend a fair amount of time in the hole with John’s family – and again, nothing happens. Earlier on, it is established that John’s father, Brad (Michael C. Hall), doesn’t like that his daughter, Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), has a boyfriend, who she has hidden from him. Whilst trapped in the hole, Laurie laments over missing John, and Brad replies: “You barely know him.” The scene ends, and the boyfriend is never brought up again. There is no argument between them, no reconciliation, nothing at all. Similarly, Brad wakes his wife (Jennifer Ehle) up one night to interrogate her about what she had done to provoke John’s actions. She says nothing happened, and the question why John trapped his family in a hole, a question you might imagine is central to the film’s premise and plot, is never brought up again. We are continuously dancing around conflict but not diving into it, never really learning anything new about the characters. And ultimately, when we reach the end of the film, there is no real resolution to speak of. All that remains is confusion, and the feeling of a terrible waste of a good idea.

In the end, John and the Hole was my biggest disappointment at Sundance this year. I did get a decent-looking film with some interesting ideas and a cast of strong actors, but I expected so much more. Upon learning that this film was adapted from a short story, it makes perfect sense. It feels like the film had one idea, one that was enough for about 20 minutes worth of film, and then continued to tack things on to extend its runtime to that coveted 90 minutes. As a result, there are lots of long, boring shots of nothing at all, characters introduced only to disappear having served no purpose, and cheap anxiety-inducing moments to cover up for a lack of substance. The premise, whilst attractive, turns out to be all there is. And alongside other films showcasing some true creativity and original thought, John and the Hole feels disappointingly empty.

After the cancelation of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, John and the Hole premiered at Sundance and is currently seeking distribution.

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