The term “modern-day fairy tale” is one that usually promotes a good deal of eye-rolling. That’s generally for good reason, especially as the function of most classic fairy tales is lost on modern storytellers, as they typically use the description to cover up for a story that’s too ambiguous or broad. Director Pascual Sisto’s debut feature, John and the Hole, seems to embrace its identity as a modern-day fairy tale wholeheartedly, however. It doesn’t announce its intentions right away — more than 30 minutes of the film have gone by before screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone introduces a young girl, Lily (Samantha LeBretton), who asks her mother to tell her the story of “John and the Hole,” the tale that has already been taking place on screen. The delay in announcing its framework is all part of the film’s coy tone, its demented little game it plays with the audience that mirrors the skewed psyche of its title character. John and the Hole is undeniably an obscure film, but one that is consistently intriguing.
Before Lily and her mother are introduced and essentially act as the story’s framework, John and the Hole introduces young John (Charlie Shotwell), a boy living a comfortable life with his affluent family — loving yet detached parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and an affectionate but bratty sister (Taissa Farmiga). Right from the opening scene, John appears polite but confused, unable or unwilling to follow rules, respect authority or understand basic human tenets. His unassuming demeanor lulls those around him into a false sense of security, his family completely unsuspecting before John decides to drug them and drag them, one by one, into a deep concrete hole in the woods left by people once intending to build an emergency bunker there. John gives his trapped family food, water and clothing — on occasion, that is — while he has full reign of an opulent home, playing video games and eating junk food all day.
The quick and easy description of John and the Hole is Home Alone as directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and the comparison to the Greek filmmaker is more than fair. Giacobone seems to mimic Lanthimos’ sociopathic deadpan rhythms, using them as a way of indicating that his story is intentionally satiric, just as Sisto adopts Lanthimos’ penchant for staid compositions and cool, muted tones. It’s easy to see these choices less as homage and more as laziness, and the choice of presenting John and the Hole in a 4:3 aspect ratio seems to be about swiping the A24 indie aesthetic more than anything else.
Yet perhaps Sisto and Giacobone want these stylistic references to be as obvious as they are, providing a sort of shorthand so as to draw even more attention to the movie’s deeper mysteries. After all, Giacobone wrote Birdman (2014), a film that was also self-reflexive in its references. One of the themes of the movie is its hollowness, a literal and figurative hole in its backyard that also exists in John, if not every other character. Whether John and the Hole’s style is an intentional set of references or not, it acts as a sort of cinematic novocaine, a numbing agent that allows the film to be that much more horrifically tense.
Sisto’s cast is more than game, able to play the arch juxtapositions of tone in John and the Hole perfectly. There’s even a clever subversion of expectations to the film’s settings, as the moments with the family down in the hole are perversely charming, the three attempting to survive in ways that get close to slapstick. Conversely, the scenes of John just chilling with his best friend or smooth talking a curious neighbor are uncomfortably tense, especially because the threat of John taking some new, potentially deadly action is always there. Shotwell is, of course, the movie’s MVP, playing John so matter-of-factly sociopathic, never once letting the mask slip in an obvious way. Even when he seems to have a moment of introspection or self-awareness, his perfomance is so tightly controlled that it still retains some ambiguity.
Much will likely be made of the fact that John and the Hole never quite announces what it’s about, which means many will dismiss it as an empty exercise. The film has enough of a haunting aura that I believe there’s something to it, and I think a key component is its deliberate comparison to fairy tales. Those classic stories were often fables about children, mini-horror stories that were intended to teach them about the terrors of maturity as well as prepare them to face real life. John and the Hole seems to comment on the way modern upper class society has skewed childhood development — John isn’t doing what he does out of malice so much as unfettered desire, the act of a kid of privilege not understanding why, if he can have anything he want, he can’t get away with everything, too. John’s story seems to act as both cautionary tale and social satire, just as the moments with Lily (who may or may not exist in the same world as John) seem to evoke fairy tales both as reference to their teaching ability as well as their cruelty to their child characters. John and the Hole may be too frustratingly vague to really connect, but it seems to challenge its audience from a place of urgency, asking the viewer what, if anything, have they learned.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.