John and the Hole is a story written by Nicolás Giacobone, so there’s a weird element along with the everyday. He also wrote Birdman, which interspersed familiar scenes of an actor in crisis preparing for a show with moments where he’d be transformed into the superhero he’d played years before. In Biutiful, the 2010 movie starring Javier Bardem, the story of a man dying of cancer is interpolated with moments of magical realism.
John and the Hole does the same, but differently. At one level it’s a straightforward story of a 13-year-old boy who might be on the autistic spectrum – he’s certainly very closed off and has a knack for mathematics – who one night drags all his family out of their beds (we assume he’s drugged them) and deposits them at the bottom of a hole, a bunker started years before but abandoned before it was finished.
And he leaves them there, popping over occasionally with a bottle of water or some food, some warm clothes. Why? We have no idea, and since this kid is fairly unexpressive, we don’t really learn what’s going on in his head, just that he seems capable of some fairly cool, cruel behaviour.
And calculating. Impersonating the voice of his mother (Jennifer Ehle), he fires the gardener by phone. Taking the ATM card of his father (Michael C Hall), he takes big chunks of cash out of the bank account. He checks the balance in the savings account – there’s about $750K, so enough to keep going for a good while. He invites his gamer friend Peter (Ben O’Brien) over for a few days, so they can play games and swim in the pond, eat fast food and just hang out.
The weird element, as if that wasn’t weird enough, comes in a parallel story strand which seems to have little bearing on the story of John and his family. Young mother Gloria (Georgia Lyman) is telling her 12-year-old daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton) a story called John and the Hole. Later she’ll do something that mothers don’t generally do to 12-year-olds, something really really odd. These two only turn up a couple or three times and have maybe five minutes in total on screen.
The whole thing is an allegory of child-rearing? It might be. A parable? Possibly. If there’s a nag to be had at John and the Hole it’s its opaqueness, its wariness. Like John, the film isn’t letting on what it’s thinking. If it’s meant to be an exploration of a psyche it didn’t get very far, beyond sketching out the terrain.
It’s more a bizarre mood piece anchored by great performances. Jennifer Ehle is in that category of actors who are so good that they get overlooked by the big prizes – too good for an Oscar, because it doesn’t look like acting, the thing she does. The cliche is “inhabits the role”, so let’s go with that. Michael C Hall, understated, a sketch of a dad who might be angrier than he’s letting on. Taissa Farmiga as the daughter, again a thumbnail performance, as the daughter wide-eyed with fear but trying to keep a lid on it.
But it’s Charlie Shotwell as the oddbod John who is what the film is all about. His day to day blankness. His fascination with drowning as a way of trying to feel something, anything. Perhaps that’s why he’s put his family in the hole, as a goad to his emotions. Never a blink out of place, Shotwell is spot on as the odd kid who might be a sociopath, or a psychopath. His stilted dealings with the gardener, whose body language shouts “I’m wary of this weird kid”. His angular interactions with his mother’s friend, Paula (Tamara Hickey), who keeps popping by and is asking awkward questions.
It’s atmospherically shot on a narrow aspect ratio to suggest the closed-offness of John, maybe, with a soundtrack that consists mostly of single notes. John isn’t a harmony guy either. That requires interacting. Perhaps one film it’s close to, in terms of theme as well as look, is The Ice House, another story of a middle class family (two, in fact) in something of a hole.
Except far less happens in John and the Hole. Eventful this film ain’t. But then that’s kind of the point.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021