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 withdraw cash from an ATM (by using his parents’ bank card) 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.

Review: ‘Saint Maud,’ starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle

February 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Morfydd Clark in “Saint Maud” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Saint Maud”

Directed by Rose Glass

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed city in England, the horror film “Saint Maud” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hospice nurse in her 20s is convinced that she can communicate with God, but her religious beliefs sometimes conflict with other people.

Culture Audience: “Saint Maud” will appeal primarily to viewers who like “slow burn” horror films that leave a lot that’s open to interpretation.

Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle in “Saint Maud” (Photo courtesy of A24)

There’s never any question that something is very wrong with the mental state of the title character in the psychological horror movie “Saint Maud.” The problem is that Maud doesn’t see anything wrong with herself, as long as she’s getting all the guidance she needs from the deity that she thinks is in communication with her. “Saint Maud” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Rose Glass) is a haunting story about the fine line between religious fanaticism and losing touch with reality. Throughout this well-acted film, Maud often blurs those lines, sometimes to devastating effects.

“Saint Maud,” which takes place in an unnamed city in England, never reveals how or why Maud (played by Morfydd Clark) became obsessed with Christianity and the idea that she can communicate with God. The main things that viewers find out about Maud is that she’s a woman in her 20s who works as a hospice nurse, a profession she’s had for about a year. She previously worked in a hospital, where a terrible incident happened that was related to Maud having a mental breakdown. This breakdown isn’t shown in the movie, but it’s discussed by Maud and a former co-worker named Joy (played by Lily Knight), who knows some things about Maud that Maud doesn’t want other people to find out.

Maud lives a solitary life in her sparsely furnished studio apartment, where she spends most of her free time praying, reading the Bible, and engaging in other religious practices. She has a shrine that includes a crucifix of Jesus Christ and illustrations of saints and other holy people. Much of “Saint Maud” is narrated with her voiceovers, where she usually sounds meek and soft-spoken. But all is not tranquil in Maud’s world.

This chaos is clear from the movie’s opening scene, when viewers first see Maud: She looks crazy and almost like she’s in a trance. And she’s crouched on a bathroom floor with blood on her face and hands. The movie eventually shows what led her to get to this horrifying point. Until then, viewers of “Saint Maud” get taken on a ride of her slow descent into pure madness.

Near the beginning of the movie, Maud is shown as the caretaker a wheelchair-bound patient named Amanda Köhl, a former dancer/choreographer, whom Maud describes in a voiceover as “a minor celebrity.” Amanda, who is in her 50s, lives alone and has no children. There are vague references to Amanda’s past as a bon vivant with an active social life. But now, Amanda is struggling to cope with the reality that she’s dying, she can’t dance anymore, and she’s even losing her hair because of the cancer. That doesn’t stop Amanda from being somewhat of a chainsmoker.

Maud explains in a voiceover that she doesn’t care for creative types because they tend to be very self-involved. In that respect, Amanda fits that description. But it’s obvious that Amanda’s moodiness and difficult attitude has a lot to do with the pain and trauma of having stage 4 lymphoma of the spinal cord. Amanda lives in a village by the sea, in the type of Gothic mansion that’s often see in horror movies. Even though Amanda could be isolated, she welcomes having visitors.

And that’s a problem for Maud, who thinks it’s best for Amanda to live the type of quiet and hermit-like life that Maud has when she’s in her own home. Even though Maud hasn’t been taking care of Amanda for very long, Maud shows a very possessive and manipulative side in how she handles her relationship with Amanda. Maud acts inappropriately jealous when Amanda has visitors who show a sexual interest in Amanda.

One of these visitors is named Richard (played by Marcus Hutton), who dotes on Amanda and around the same age as she is. Richard used to be one of Amanda’s suitors. It’s clear that Richard still has feelings for Amanda, but there’s no romance between them. In fact, Amanda is somewhat rude to him and at one point tells Richard: “Don’t be an idiot.” When he leaves, Amanda tells Maud that Richard is a “pompous asshole,” and Amanda makes a snide comment about Richard’s hair plugs.

The other visitor is more problematic for Maud because Amanda is very fond of this person. Her name is Carol (played by Lily Frazer), who’s about 25 years younger than Amanda. When Carol comes over to visit, and she and Amanda are heard laughing in Amanda’s bedroom, Maud spies on them and sees that Amanda and Carol are lovers. It isn’t long before Maud comes up with a scheme to try to get Carol out of Amanda’s life.

Maud isn’t as uptight as she first appears to be, because there’s a scene in a bar where a very different Maud emerges. She’s literally got her hair down, she’s drinking beer, and looking for some sexual company. One night at the bar, she meets a man (played by Jonathan Milshaw), they exchange looks, and the next thing you know, she’s giving him a hand job in the bathroom. They don’t even bother to find out each other’s names.

And then on the same night, she goes home with another man (played by Turlough Convery) and has sex with him. What’s the name of the man who’s this one-night stand? Christian. Oh, the irony. During their sexual encounter, Maud starts to hallucinate, she has a little bit of freak-out, and Christian tries to calm her down, just so he can keep having sex with her.

Back in Amanda’s home, Maud projects an image of being very religious and modest, almost like a nun. Amanda even jokes that Maude could be Amanda’s “savior.” Amanda senses that Maud is a born-again Christian or a recent convert. Maud confirms that she’s recently become a devout Christian when Amanda asks her about Maud’s spirituality. And when Maud confides in Amanda that she can feel God’s presence, Amanda says she can feel it too. But is Amanda telling the truth or just playing along as a way to amuse herself?

“Saint Maud” is one of those movies where there’s an unreliable narrator, and what might be seen on screen could be a hallucination. As the story goes on, there are scenes of Maud in literal agony and ecstasy as she gets deeper into her religious obsession. Sometimes she pants heavily and writhes on the floor as if she’s in an orgasmic state. Sometimes she engages in some self-harm that might be too hard to watch for people who get easily squeamish.

Clark gives a memorable performance as the tortured Maud, who tries to appear “normal” on the outside, but is falling apart on the inside. Ehle gives a more straightforward performance as Amanda, who has a cruel streak but who also admits her flaws and tries to make amends when she can. It’s obvious from the beginning of the movie that things are not going to end well, but viewers will be curious to see how bad things get.

“Saint Maud” has its gory moments, but most of the movie’s horror has more to do with losing one’s grip on sanity rather than any violent acts that might be in the movie. Glass shows a lot of promise as a director who can tell an intriguing story. Where the movie falls short is in leaving questions unanswered about Maud’s background to give some context of what led her to this point in her life.

There was that incident in her hospital job, but it’s never explained if she discovered religion on her own or was taught. There’s no mention of Maud having any family, friends or love interests. There’s no sense of what kind of upbringing she had or how long she’s had issues with mental health. A little backstory for Maud would’ve gone a long way with this movie.

However, what will keep people interested is the fascinating range of emotions that Maud shows in her present life. She’s one of those “quiet people” whose rage comes out in flashes, from her face distortions when she’s alone, to how she lashes out when things don’t go her way. The visual effects in the movie are used sparingly, but when they’re in the movie, they make an impact.

Some viewers might be surprised by how long it takes before any real violence happens in “Saint Maud.” That would be missing the point of this horror film. This isn’t a dumb slasher flick with a killer on the loose. Sometimes the most terrifying things can happen in the trappings of a sick mind.

A24 released “Saint Maud” in select U.S. cinemas on January 29, 2021. Epix will premiere the movie on February 12, 2021. “Saint Maud” was released in Europe and Canada in 2020.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix