John and the Hole is described as a coming-of-age psychological thriller that plays out the unsettling reality of a kid who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.

Whatever you’re expecting from John and the Hole, you’re wrong

I started John and the Hole thinking it was sure to be a movie I enjoyed. Psychological thriller is probably my favorite film genre, and I was intrigued by the premise described in the simple logline. A thriller from the perspective of the bad guy, AND the bad guy is a kid? It sounds interesting! At the very least, I assumed if the premise didn’t actually live up to its potential, it would still fall into a sort of cheesy, overdone Lifetime-type story. (Which if not “good cinema” in an artistic sense, still provides an entertaining watch.)

I genuinely believed these were the only two routes John and the Hole could take. A solid, compelling thriller, or a goofy but enjoyable mess.

Somehow, the movie chose option #3: a real snoozefest.

Seriously, I cannot describe in words how bored I was watching this. The story plays out at an absolutely painstaking crawl. And not the good suspense-building kind. The kind where you’re left begging for something, anything to actually happen. In fact, I would argue it’s a real stretch to call this movie a thriller at all. It’s more of a weird family drama. 

It takes a while, but when John finally drugs his family and puts them in the hole (an abandoned, partially completed bunker on a nearby property), you expect things to pick up. I mean, this is where the thrills should happen, right?

Somehow, wrong again.

John may literally be holding his family captive in a hole, but for such an extreme setup, not much actually happens. Essentially, he just goes about his daily life as usual, but with the added freedom of “no parents” that lets him adjust his day-to-day slightly. (Now he can play video games upstairs in his room.) Think Home Alone, except not funny, endearing, or justified by an annoying and overbearing family life. He brings his family food sometimes. He invites a friend over. He goes swimming. He goes to tennis practice. Eat, sleep, rinse, repeat.

What’s the deal with John?

I think my biggest issue with John and the Hole (besides its incredibly slow and meandering pace and the fact that it was mislabeled as a thriller), is that it just didn’t feel like the movie had much to say about John’s actions. 

He’s not framed as sympathetic per say, but he’s also not doing enough active harm to make the viewer hate him either. Yeah, he drugged his family and dumped them in a hole for inexplicable reasons. But he’s also bringing them food and water and blankets. He’s not torturing them or otherwise being particularly sadistic or manipulative. The family hasn’t done anything to deserve their predicament.

Mostly, it felt like John keeping his family in a hole in the ground was the equivalent of letting a kid have a pet hamster. They’re kind of responsible enough to keep it alive, but they need an adult to remind them of the responsibility to give it food and water. John put his family in captivity, and sometimes he gets busy hanging out with his friend and having some summer fun, so he forgets to go visit them and bring them homemade risotto. 

There’s a certain sinister edge to John’s actions – the way he practices a family member’s voice to pretend to be them on the phone as a coverup; the way he tests out his knockout drugs on the gardener first. But everything else is so flatly un-malicious and uninteresting. After a brief period of upset and disbelief, even John’s family don’t seem to be too bothered by his actions. Just another day, in the hole.

It leaves the viewer at just as much of a standstill. John doesn’t seem to know what he wants when he takes his family captive, and we as viewers don’t know what we want for John, either.

Growing up is hard to do

Swirling around John and the Hole are coming-of-age themes. What does it mean to grow up? John wants to know when he will start to feel like an adult, and what that means for him. Is this all just an experiment for John to pretend he’s an adult already? 

There’s definitely something in here about growing up too fast and not growing up at all – but what? (There’s also a few cutscenes of a different mother/daughter duo sprinkled into John and the Hole. Their story also focuses on growing up and abandonment, but the thread connecting it to John’s narrative is thin at best.)

Overall, John and the Hole disappointed. Maybe if you can dig deep enough to find the right thematic resonance, the film will pay off for you. This movie made me bored, but not bored enough to dig that hole myself.

John and the Hole arrives on DVD/Blu-ray March 15.