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John and the Hole

John & the Hole

Maybe we should all just stay in the hole a bit longer

dir: Pascual Sisto


John and the Hole is quite a strange movie.

I like strange. Strange is good. Strange is sustaining for me, the way other people need hydration, or painkillers, or holidays. Strange, for me, resets the pathways in my mind, forces me to drift away from the well-trodden ways my mind tends to think, at least when it comes to art and movies.

When I think about this film, I am left with profound, unanswerable questions. It's not questions like whether what we saw was “real” within the context of the movie, or what parts were real, what parts imagined, or story within a story – type storytelling.

The question I can’t figure out is why at least two of these actors agreed to be in this movie.

Did they not read the script beforehand?

Jennifer Ehle will probably always best be known for playing Lizzie Bennett in the series of Pride and Prejudice alongside Colin Firth as Darcy. I know it was decades ago, but if people joke about Firth’s Darcy decades after the fact, then it’s a positive for her too. She’s been in a stack of other movies, even a psychological horror flick called Saint Maud I saw earlier this year, but rarely does she get to attack roles which resonate with the movie-going public. This role is unlikely to change that perception.

Michael C. Hall is probably best known for playing the serial killer lead of the Dexter tv series, but I prefer to remember him as David Fisher from Six Feet Under, a show I still treasure in my heart of hearts. I can only imagine that he lost a bet or has serious gambling debts to have stayed and completed his part of this movie.

I mention these portions of their résumés because for 90 per cent of this movie, which could mean that for 90 per cent of the time that this flick was being shot over the course of 23 days somewhere in rural Massachusetts, Ehle and Hall are down in a hole wearing dirty clothes with mud smeared all over their faces. Or on / in a set made to look as such for all that time.

They’re not even really main characters. The two main characters are the John of the title (Charlie Shotwell), and the Hole itself, near where the characters live.

John is an odd kid. Though nothing in the story implies as such, he could be some kind of alien-cuckoo changeling, replaced at birth, unsuited to and baffled by our human ways.

This is not, just for some reassurance, a story about a deeply disturbed child who goes on to murder a bunch of people. We Don’t Need to Talk About Kevin or John, at least not yet. But there is something deeply weird about this kid, and we get to spend about 100 minutes watching him do weird thing after weird thing, and I’m not sure there was much point to it.

John seems to be baffled by everything, but at least he makes choices. He seems highly intelligent and determined, but he knows little about how the world actually works. The world of adults seems especially alien to him, but he decides that he wants to find out what it would be like, despite being only 13.

He finds an unfinished bunker near to where he lives with his parents and older sister, and after experimenting with sleeping pills, as in, he experiments first on himself, and then on the poor gardener, he figures out a way to drug his family and then gently lower them into the hole.

There’s no way out of the bunker, no stairs or ropes. They are trapped in there and wake up confused.

John is pretty well organised. He has their mobile phones, and records messages in their voices in order to allay suspicion as to their absence. He gives a cover story to anyone who listens about a sick grandfather, and a hasty departure. He can drive, and knows pin numbers to his parent’s accounts.

Okay, maybe that sounds rational, but it all proceeds both with an air of sociopathic criminality and of icy unreality throughout. If that wasn’t enough, at exactly the half hour mark, the scene cuts to a little red-headed girl we’ve never seen before, and a woman, saying some banal but weird stuff, who then says “let me tell you the story about John and the Hole”.

And then the title flashes up onto the screen, half an hour into the movie.

While unsettling a lot of the time, this is not a grotesque or horrifying movie – it’s not horror. I can’t really say what’s going on, but it less horrific than it is plain odd. John has a friend he plays online games with, who he invites to come and stay with him while his family is away. While swimming together in the pool, John nearly drowns the other boy.

It’s not out of malice, it’s not out of anger or hurt pride, it’s not out of boredom.

It’s either out of curiousity or simply that he doesn’t realise how easy it is for humans to drown.

The same attitude pervades his wary dealings with his family down the hole. He doesn’t want to harm them overtly, and gives them food and such, and clothes for when it gets colder, but he doesn’t want them escaping, and never tells them why he’s put them there.

For their part, they seem to be accepting of their situation, not too put out about it, and not even too angry about having to crap into a bag for throwing out of the hole (which seemed like a recipe for disaster, but thankfully we’re spared that). The mother especially wonders whether it’s something she did that made John put them down in the hole.

How patient, how self-sacrificing of her.

It’s hard to know what to think about anything to do with either John or the whole story. I am baffled by it. It was all well-composed and shot, with an eerie quality to it throughout, mostly because John is just so fucking alien. His mimicry of human behavior is very off-putting, and one has to assume that’s exactly what was intended.

About three quarters of the way through the movie, the mother and the other child appear again, with the mother saying to the very small girl “I am leaving you forever. There is enough money under your bed for you to pay rent for a year.”

The girl begs her mother not to leave, and tells her she’ll pay her to stay, that she’d be her assistant and do whatever she wants.

The mother says, with a very strange expression on her face “No child of mine will ever be anyone’s assistant.”

The last we see of this other element of the story is the little girl walking near where John’s family had previously been in the hole. Not to spoil what happens with the family or the hole, but I have not a fucking clue as to whether the whole “hole” thing actually happened even within the story itself.

Is John, somewhere on the spectrum, imagining what it would be like to be rid of his family for a week and having to pretend to be an adult? Is the little girl imagining what it would be like to be a slightly older boy thrust through every fault of his own into “adulthood” because she’s now on her own, in a way that makes no fucking sense to us but that maybe does in the flick?

Is it a meditation on how annoying families are and how you should be able to put them in a hole every now and then just to get some me time? Is it also looking at how, if you did get your way, you’d find yourself feeling very lonely, because there’s no-one to tell you how special you are, and pat you on the head? Is it how, as a kid, you imagine how cool it would be to have money and self-determination, but that when the reality hits, you’re in exactly the same place you were before?

I have no fucking idea. But I did watch the whole flick, so I can at least tick this off my bucket list.

6 times no, I didn’t really get it either, but I didn’t totally hate it out of 10

“You are in so much trouble right now” – no he’s not, and he just made you such a lovely risotto - John and the Hole