Looking into that hole.
"Hasta la vista, baby." Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Eerily bizarre and deadly serious, John and the Hole is a film with a lot of questions. Notably: What if the kid from Home Alone was kind of a sociopath, a kid who manipulated his circumstances so he didn't have to be around his family?

The answers John and the Hole gives its questions aren't exactly satisfying, but this kid, who keeps doing inexplicably awful things just because he can, is definitely, uh, interesting.

The kid in question is John, played by a quiet yet creepy Charlie Shotwell. The last time audiences would have seen Shotwell was in last year's The Nest as a kid who was in the unfortunate position of having a menacing Jude Law as his father.

Now it's the son who is the source of menace in the family.

The hole in question is actually a partially constructed bunker in the woods near John's home that his parents vaguely suggest could serve as a shelter for a storm. Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle play the parents in question, and both appropriately capture the horrified reactions any parent would have when discovering their son has trapped them in a hole and won't let them out. Their shift from denial to panic—especially when their daughter, played by Taissa Farmiga, realizes what is going on before they do—is deeply upsetting.

That the film's writer Nicolás Giacobone co-wrote, with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014's Birdman is unsurprising, even as it lacks the similar kinetic energy to the dialogue and flow of that story. What it has in common is a sensibility punctuated by persistent dread. A simple scene of John drinking orange juice or eating chicken nuggets becomes tense in context.

The direction by Pascual Sisto, in what is his first feature, is cold and calculated. The color palette is often bleak, with repeated use of shallow-focus compositions. It mimics John as he begins to commit increasingly horrifying acts. John, of course, isn't a criminal mastermind; he's a kid. He doesn't think through his actions, although he lies with such ease it makes the skin crawl.

Support The Stranger

There are plenty of distractions in the film. Many moments start with a random conversation about a blue balloon between two unknown characters. It feels purposeless, and when it's revealed to be crucial to the story, it's done in a way that undercuts nearly all of the dramatic tension. The film's methodical, measured pace regains its footing, but it's irritating.

Between this and We Need to Talk About Kevin, I think I've been convinced never to have children. You don't know when one of them will trap you in a hole.

You can watch John and the Hole on-demand via Sundance starting Sunday, Jan. 31.