“John and the Hole,” the painterly, understated and under-plotted directing debut of visual artist turned filmmaker Pascual Sisto, leaves the diagnosis of its title character up to the viewer. And right from the start, he’s a puzzle.
John (Charlie Shotwell) is smart, but expressionless. He’s full of questions, but won’t directly answer any question posed to him. An off-camera teacher badgers him about a math problem, which he answers but only says “I don’t know” — repeatedly — when she asks him how he figured it out.
The few queries he bothers to answer at home, or from anyone else, get the same response. When he blurts “Okay,” just to extract himself from a conversation and make whatever adult is quizzing him give up, he sounds exactly like Pete Davidson doing his annoying “Saturday Night Live” dimwit Chad.
Is John, a well-cared for, well-off upper middle class 13 year-old “on the spectrum?” He plays the piano, takes tennis lessons and yet seems disconnected from reality. He is blank-faced and deadpan, utterly unemotional. Dad (Michael C. Hall, aka “Dexter”) gives him an expensive drone. No response. No “Thanks, Dad,” either.
He’s given to vacantly serving up a barrage of questions that that would leave anyone dismayed in a “Where do I begin?” sense.
The gardener tells him he’s “weeding.” “What’s that?”
That big hole he found in the woods behind the house? It’s a “bunker.” Why would people build a bunker? “In case something bad happens.” “Like what?” Mom (Jennifer Ehle) mentions “a bad storm,” sheltering this sheltered child from the nuclear paranoia that ebbs and flows and prompts bunker-building, like the one somebody abandoned before finishing it.
The sense we get from his parents is that they indulge this “What’s it like, being an adult?” child, and don’t sweat the warning signs. His sister (Taissa Farmiga) is the only one to point out when he’s being annoying. Which is often.
But he’s on his own a lot, which means he wanders the house and has access to the family pharmacy. When he foists lemonade on the gardener, it puts the man to sleep. And that’s just a trial run. John then methodically drugs his parents and sister and wheel-barrows them out to the bunker in their sleep.
And when they wake up, he ignores their cries, pleas and threats, lowers food to them occasionally, and leaves them trapped.
John is a psychopath.
Sisto, working from a script by Nicolás Giacobone, has made an overcast, glum and seriously disturbing “Ice Storm” without the ice, a parable seemingly without a point.
We’ve got Shotwell (“Eli,” “The Glass Castle,” Captain Fantastic”) at his most perfectly-coiffed and perfectly deadpan, playing a character “curious” about adulthood and its superficial trappings (driving, having money, eating what you want) and about what one sees in a near-death experience.
Maybe he can get an answer to that last one by holding his only friend (Ben O’Brien) underwater in the pool.
Adults start asking where his parents are? He lies on the fly, embellishing and covering up.
The parents aren’t the most attentive and have either never corrected him or given up on that because of how he is. But there’s nothing we see that would explain the kid’s cruel entombment of them or his apathy about letting them out. Ehle’s mother figure seems more aware of how he is than the others, but the child doesn’t relate or respond to any of them.
And let’s not think too much about how a scrawny 13 year-old got them in that “hole” without killing or injuring them in the drop, mattresses or not.
The cryptic story has an equally cryptic framing device, a newly-single mom (Georgia Lyman) telling the “story” of “John and the Hole” to her little girl (Samantha LeBretton) as…a cautionary fable? No, that doesn’t work.
There’s nothing wrong with weaving a story the viewer can’t unravel as its playing out. But “John and the Hole” doesn’t have enough of a story to maintain any narrative drive and doesn’t point towards answers or give the viewer any hope of resolution or release.
Director Sisto paints a pretty picture of a hole, and never digs himself out of it.
MPA Rating: R for language
Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, Ben O’Brien and Taissa Farmiga
Credits: Directed by Pascual Sisto, script by Nicolás Giacobone. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:38