“A kid with more responsibilities.” That’s what Anna (Jennifer Ehle) recalls telling her 13-year-old son, John (Charlie Shotwell), when he asked what it meant to be an adult. You never really stop feeling like a kid, she remembers saying to him, in so many words. You stay the same inside, but your life becomes more complicated. We don’t hear this conversation. We only see Anna relay it to her husband, Brad (Michael C. Hall). All the same, it amounts to the most relevant dialogue in Pascual Sisto’s ambiguous, crisply manicured psychodrama John And The Hole. If there’s a key to the bizarre, disturbing predicament these parents have found themselves in, perhaps it lies in this recounted heart-to-heart between mother and curious son.
Anna and Brad discuss the discussion while sitting maybe 30 feet below ground. They’re trapped in a pit—the abandoned remnants of a bunker that was started but never completed—somewhere in the woods behind their chic fishbowl of a suburban Massachusetts home. As they’ve slowly come to accept, it was their son, John, who put them there, drugging them and his older sister, Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), and then dragging their unconscious bodies into the eponymous hole, which the boy discovered earlier in the week. They’re his captives now, subsisting on the small care packages of food and water he drops into this subterranean prison every couple days. Why he’s done this is a mystery every bit as pressing to his family as their desire to escape.
John And The Hole comes on like a spooky portrait of budding teenage sociopathy, but it resists diagnostic shortcuts. We first meet John as he steps into the tightly cropped opening shot, standing at the front of a classroom to solve a math equation. He gets the answer right but can’t say how; his thought process is a mystery to everyone, himself included. Like the fictionalized school shooters of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, John sometimes plops in front of a piano to play some classical compositions that sound sinister through context, and other times sits in front of a TV for some online multiplayer action, though his game of choice isn’t a violent shooter but a virtual variation on his real-life extracurricular activity, tennis. None of these glimpses into his home life add up to a profile of a disturbed mind; if there’s an explanation for John’s actions, it’s allegorical rather than psychological.
Sisto, a Spanish director making his feature debut with this portrait of unnerving American detachment, has been upfront about his influences. He’s made John And The Hole in the severe, calculated, antagonizing style popularized by Michael Haneke, the exacting Austrian disciplinarian who directed Benny’s Video and The White Ribbon (to name two relevant visions of the young and amoral). There’s something quite familiar, even old hat, about the film’s bag of distancing effects: the hard cuts that jump us jarringly through the story, the coldly elegant compositions (framed in an aspect ratio squashed to the dimensions of the hole itself), the way Sisto often films the action from a literal, voyeuristic distance. The possibility that something (else or even more) horrible is about to happen keeps presenting itself in the slow forward creep of the camera, as during a scene where John plays a dangerous game in a swimming pool with a fellow teen knucklehead.
One could certainly imagine the scolding, scalding wonders Haneke would do with this premise, predicated on something deranged and inexplicable seeping through the cracks in “perfect,” bourgeois family life. But John And The Hole is no empty ripoff, no Caché clone. There’s not just suspense but also unexpected dry humor in the, well, gaping pit separating John’s extreme actions from the banal teenage time-wasting they facilitate. While his family bickers, despairs, and theorizes in their filthy manmade hollow, the boy lives out an exceptionally mild Home Alone fantasy of his own engineering—eating fast food for every meal, driving the minivan, setting up an unsupervised sleepover. The dark joke here is that John barely seems capable of grasping the seriousness of what he’s done; for him, it’s just a means to an end, a way to get a taste of the independence so many kids think they want.
Maybe the operative word is taste. John may be a question mark to his family, but the script by Nicolás Giacobone (Birdman) has a much clearer idea about his motives, about what he’s fumbling to grasp: that indistinct barrier that separates youth and grown-up life. But is John’s simulation of the latter a realistic one? Or is it more like, say, the bubble of college, a twilight zone of freedom sans much responsibility? By the time Sisto and Giacobone introduce a metatextual element that drives home the disquieting thesis of Anna’s talk with her son, John And The Hole has revealed itself to be a film about the impossibility of that transition, whether it’s gradual or harshly sudden. We’re all just kids playing at adulthood. And who among us hasn’t wished we could put some quick distance (horizontal, if not vertical) between ourselves and our family, only to find them exactly where we left them?