John and the Hole has an alluring premise, some provocative themes, and a terrific cast. What it doesn't have is the right energy to bring all those positive elements together. The film, which divided audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival, deserves credit for ambition. Goodness knows, it works overtime to say something. A slower-than-necessary pace and one genuinely bizarre storytelling choice cause the message to get watered down.
John (Charlie Shotwell) is a 13-year-old boy. He doesn't seem particularly connected to parents Brad (Michael C. Hall) and Anna (Jennifer Ehle) or sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). Then again, none of them seem connected. After discovering an old, unused bunker in the woods near their house, John decides to drug his family members and throw them all down into the pit. Of course, they don't like this development, nor do they even remotely understand why he's done it. Days go by, with them left down there, feeling dirty, hungry, and wet.
Up on the surface, John enjoys "mature" life by himself in their luxurious home. He plays video games, withdraws large sums of money from his parents' bank account, and eats whatever he feels like. This is not a joyous Home Alone scenario, however. Despite being free of his family's demands, John seems to be searching for something he can't find. The film’s most harrowing scene shows him and his friend Peter (Ben O'Brien) trying to near-drown one another in the swimming pool, hoping to induce hallucinations -- an act John takes a little too seriously.
You can read a lot of things into John and the Hole, but at its core, the story is a dark-side look at how being an adult isn't necessarily the panacea it seems like when you're a kid. Since his family generally ignores him, John figures he doesn't need them. He'll be happier playing grown-up. The level of happiness this "freedom" brings is nowhere near what he expects, though. Meanwhile, the shared trauma of being trapped inside a filthy old bunker brings Brad, Anna, and Laurie together in a way they never were above ground. With nothing else to compete for their attention, they start to focus on one another. The film leans heavily on that irony.
Writer Nicolas Giacobone and director Pascual Sisto dabble in a few other ideas, from how having money can cause you to exist within a bubble to burgeoning psychopathy. (It's quite a range.) John and the Hole is too slowly paced to allow these concepts to meaningfully click. Scenes drag on longer than they need to, and there are spots in which John's behavior seems illogical, even by his own troubled standards. Most perplexing of all is a framing device in which we learn the movie is a story being read to a little girl by her mother. Okay, so what we're seeing may not be true. So what? That question is never satisfactorily answered.
All the actors are exceptional in their roles, and John and the Hole certainly has some haunting individual sequences. Despite the intriguing concept and good performances, this is the kind of picture you admire more than enjoy. None of its bold aspirations ever come sufficiently into focus to invade your psyche the way it wants to.
out of four
John and the Hole is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.