Review: ‘John and the Hole,’ starring Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle and Taissa Farmiga

August 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Charlie Shotwell in “John and the Hole” (Photo by Paul Özgür/IFC Films)

John and the Hole”

Directed by Pascual Sisto

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “John and the Hole” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy drugs and abducts his mother, father and older teenage sister, so that he can keep them captive in a bunker on a nearby property. 

Culture Audience: “John and the Hole” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching strange and baffling dramas about teenagers who commit disturbing crimes.

Michael C. Hall, Taissa Farmiga and Jennifer Ehle in “John and the Hole” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The rambling and pretentious drama “John and the Hole” raises more questions than it answers about a teenage boy who holds his family members hostage in an underground bunker. If the point of the movie was to show what a teenage sociopath looks like, then congratulations. Mission accomplished. If the goal was to present a meaningful story, then this movie is a failure.

Directed by Pascual Sisto and written by Nicolás Giacobone, “John and the Hole” is a sluggishly paced film that’s meant to be a psychological portrait of the emotionally detached teenager who commits this crime. Once it’s established that the teen troublemaker is a sociopath, “John and the Hole” doesn’t have much to say. The majority of the movie is about how he gives his family no explanation for why he’s holding them captive, and he lies to people to cover up his family’s disappearance.

Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that viewers will be very disappointed if they might be expecting some kind of insightful ending to this story. There’s also an unnecessary subplot involving a single mother and her 12-year-old daughter who do not know this family and have nothing do with the crime. Don’t expect any clues on how or why this teen sociopath ended up this way. The characters in this movie have no backstories.

John Shea (played by Charlie Shotwell) is a 13-year-old who lives in a sleek, upper-middle-class home with his father Brad (played by Michael C. Hall), mother Anna (played by Jennifer Ehle) and sister Laurie (played by Taissa Farmiga), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. The house is in a wooded area that’s somewhat isolated. On the surface, they seem like a typical American family with a comfortable lifestyle in an unnamed U.S. city. (“John and the Hole” was actually filmed in Massachusetts.)

But the “normalcy” is all a façade, at least when it comes to John. He’s a quiet and introverted loner, but that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous. The beginning of the movie tries to make it look like John is slightly behind in learning development, compared to his peers. The opening scene is of John in a classroom being asked by a teacher (played by Pamela Jayne Morgan) what the square root of 125 is. John repeats, “I don’t know,” until he gets the correct answer.

At home, John is using his toy drone in the woods when it gets stuck in a tree. When he climbs the tree to reach the drone, it accidentally falls into an area of the woods that he can’t reach. During this attempt to get his drone back, John notices a partially finished underground bunker that looks like construction on it has been abandoned. There’s nothing inside this bunker but walls. The bunker is about 20 feet deep and is about the size of a medium-sized shed.

When John goes home, he somewhat nonchalantly tells his father Brad that he lost the drone. Brad is annoyed and disappointed, but he doesn’t seem too surprised. John mentions the underground bunker and asks his parents if they know anything about it. John’s mother Anna mentions hearing that the land owner ran out of money to finish the bunker and/or the construction permit expired. She also explains to John that bunkers are where people want to live in case of emergencies.

Laurie and John seem to have a typical sibling relationship. They argue sometimes, such as when John keeps bouncing a tennis ball off of a ceiling, and he ignores Laurie’s request for him to stop. They get into a little scuffle when Laurie takes the tennis ball away.

It’s mentioned later in the movie that Brad has put John in a tennis program, with the hope that John will become a star player. John has been training for the “qualies” (a tennis term for qualifying rounds), which will determine if John can qualify to compete in state-level tennis tournaments. After holding his family members captive in the bunker, John uses this tennis training as an excuse for why he’s the only person who’s stayed behind in the house when certain adults show up to look for his absent family members.

There are no signs that John is in an abusive home. It’s implied throughout the story that he was probably born with sociopathic tendencies. What John does in the movie goes beyond what an underage teenager would do to try to be in a house for days without parental supervision. John isn’t as intellectually underdeveloped as he first seems to be. He’s actually a cunning manipulator.

In fact, as soon as John finds out about the bunker, there’s a very big clue that he meticulously planned how to force his family into the bunker. However, what he didn’t plan very well was how to deal with any inquiring adults who would want to know where John’s parents and sister are. His lies often seem like he hastily thought them up, almost like he was so fixated on holding his family captive that he didn’t think much about how people who see the family on a regular basis would get suspicious of not seeing Brad, Anna and Laurie for several days.

The first red flag that something is off-kilter about John is when he drugs the family’s unsuspecting, middle-aged gardener Charles (played by Lucien Spellman), who sometimes goes by the name Charlie, by spiking a glass of lemonade that John gives to Charles. It’s not mentioned what type of medication was used, but it’s a sedative that’s so powerful that it causes Charles to lose consciousness. Charles is a friendly employee and there’s no reason for John to hate Charles. John is just using Charles as a test.

Somehow (it’s never shown how), John is able to put Charles in a wheelbarrow. Charles is of average height and has a somewhat stocky build, which means that he would be too heavy for a scrawny 13-year-old boy to carry on his own. Like many other things in this poorly written movie, “John and the Hole” skips over logical details. Viewers will find out later in the story what happened to Charles.

John uses the same drugging method to secretly incapacitate his parents and sister while they’re asleep. It’s implied that he put the drug in their food or drinks at dinner. The movie shows John dragging their unconscious bodies out of their bedrooms. But after that, it doesn’t show how he was able to get their bodies inside the bunker without breaking any of their bones.

The only way to get in and out of the bunker is by climbing on something tall enough to reach the surface (such as a ladder) or by being lifted. The bunker has no sharp incline where people can slide or climb in and out. Anyone who jumps into the bunker is at risk of getting injured on the hard surface of the floor. Sure, John could’ve used a wheelbarrow to dump his family members into the bunker, but that would also mean they would sustain major injuries when they hit the floor.

How this physically slight 13-year-old got three adult-sized people into this deep hole without any injuries is a major plot hole (no pun intended) that the movie never addresses. The movie just shows Brad, Anna and Laurie waking up in the bunker and being confused over what happened. At first, they think it’s the work of an intruder and they’re fearful of what happened to John.

But when they find out that John is the culprit, the parents are shocked, but Laurie isn’t. She says that she’s always suspected that John hates them. John ignores their pleas to get them out of the bunker or to call for help. He throws food and water down to them, but not on a regular basis. At different points in the movie, he even cooks risotto for them and throws down some blankets when the weather gets cold, as if he thinks he’s being very generous. John never says why he’s keeping them captive.

Of course, John’s parents and sister do the best they can to get themselves out of this horrible situation. They try to climb on each other’s backs, to make a human ladder, but the three of them aren’t tall enough to reach the surface. They also try yelling for help, but the bunker is in a very remote part of the woods. It’s very unlikely that anyone will pass through that area, except for John, who is the only person on the outside who knows that they’re in the bunker.

The rest of the movie, until the last 10 minutes, shows how John lies to people to cover up for why his parents and sister are not around and why they aren’t returning phone calls and messages. John stops going to school, and no one from his school tries to find out why. The movie also doesn’t explain why no one from Laurie’s school or Brad’s job tries to find out why Laurie and Brad aren’t there. These are just more examples of how badly conceived and ridiculous ths movie is.

It’s unclear if Anna is a homemaker or has a job outside the home. The first person to notice that Anna is missing is her good friend Paula (played by Tamara Hickey), who stops by the house because she and Anna were supposed to go an event together. Paula is upset because it’s out of character for Anna to make them tardy for an event where people are expecting them.

John’s lie—which he never wavers from every time someone asks him where his family is—is to say that his parents and sister had to abruptly leave because Anna’s father had a heart attack, is in a coma, and isn’t expected to live much longer. John explains that the family had to travel out of the area for this family emergency, and that they decided to leave John behind so he wouldn’t miss his tennis training.

John also tells Paula that it’s unlikely that his mother will call her because Anna is just too stressed out. Does that sound believable to you? Paula seems a little suspicious of this story, but she doesn’t really question it until the days go on and she still hasn’t gotten a phone call from Anna, despite leaving many messages.

Meanwhile, John drives one of the family’s cars to do things like use his parents’ bank card to withdraw cash from an ATM and to buy things that he wants. He also gets lonely and invites an online friend over to the home, so that they can meet in person for the first time. The friend, who’s about the same age as John, is named Peter (played by Ben O’Brien), and he’s told the same story about why John is alone in the house.

John drives Peter in the family car multiple times, such as when they go to a store and when John goes to a bank ATM to get more cash. Peter doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that John (who definitely does not look old enough to drive) will be caught illegally driving. It’s just more ridiculousness on display. Peter’s parents are barely mentioned, but apparently, he has the type of freedom where he can just go over to a stranger’s home to spend the night whenever he wants, without his parents wanting to know where he’s going and who will be with him.

At John’s house, Peter and John spend time playing video games, goofing around, and doing a dangerous underwater experiment in the house’s swimming pool. They each try to hold the other down underwater for as long as possible. At one point, it looks like John might actually drown Peter.

There’s another part to this movie which is supposed to be artsy, but it just comes across as nonsensical. Before John’s parents and sister are shown waking up in the bunker, the movie shows a 12-year-old girl named Lily (played by Samantha LeBretton) asking her mother Gloria (played by Georgia Lyman) to tell her a story called “John and the Hole.” Who are Lily and Gloria? Don’t expect to this movie to give any clear answers.

As time goes on, it becomes harder for John to keep his secret. His tennis instructor (played by Elijah Ungvary) gets a little suspicious when John offers to pay the latest fee in cash. The instructor refuses to take the money because he says he’s used to getting paid by check. And when Paula comes back to the house to check on John, he acts clingy and bizarre by asking her to spend the night with him. It’s not the type of thing that Paula will easily overlook.

In the beginning of the movie, Laurie mentions her boyfriend named Josh. She appears to be having a hot romance with him because she wants to spend as much time with him as possible. However, not once does Josh appear in the story. Even if John wanted to impersonate Laurie by using her phone to text Josh, it still doesn’t explain how this boyfriend wouldn’t be suspicious that he hadn’t heard his girlfriend’s voice in more than a week.

In order for a movie about a sociopath to have some type of impact, viewers need to have more information than just a series of scenes where the sociopath acts weird and secretive. John and his family are not shown in any significant way, except for what happens when he keeps them captive. It’s not the actors’ fault, because they seem to be doing the best that that can with this very unimaginative and limiting screenplay. Shotwell shows talent in playing a teenager who seems to be emotionally defective, but John has absolutely no charm or wit to suggest that he can keep up a long-term charade like a skilled sociopath.

While John’s parents and sister are trapped in the bunker, they mostly complain about their discomfort (they’re underfed and they can’t take showers), and they sometimes bicker with each other. They make a minimal effort to try to figure out what could have caused John to commit such a heinous act. The only clue that Anna can come up with is that John once asked her what it was like to be an adult. Anna says that her answer was that it was just like being a kid, but with responsibilities.

That’s still not a good-enough explanation. Lots of underage kids would like to be home alone without adult supervision. That doesn’t mean they’re going to keep their family members in captivity. How John’s family deals with this problem is supposed to be this movie’s commentary on the denial that family members can have when they have a loved one who is mentally unstable or a sociopath. However, the way that this movie presents everything is as empty as John’s soul.

IFC Films released “John and the Hole” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 6, 2021.