After a very lengthy hiatus into directing for TV, ranging from single episodes for John From Cincinnati to Masters of Horror, John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer) is back with his first feature film since the turn of the century. Most people will recall the hysterically trashy noir from the late 1990s, Wild Things, the one that featured then popular starlets Neve Campbell and Denise Richards have a lengthy spot of erotic mingling; I believe they also showed the world Kevin’s Bacon.
He chooses a painterly, often cloying, small town Americana vibe in The Harvest, such that it first appears that the director has taken up the mantle of restrained, simple drama — to the point of somnambulism, but gradually, and with care, the film builds into full blow horror hysteria. Good things come to those who wait.
In the small town of Russet, USA, a doctor – nurse married couple are caring for their wheelchair bound young son Andy (Charlie Tahan) at their home. They have built for him the perfect bedroom, full of pristine looking toys and vibrant wallpaper and state of the moment electronics. The caveat is that he is not allowed to leave his room, for fear of ‘pathogens.’ He’s imprisoned from life, in a kind of kept-stasis by the very parents that should be allowing him to live.
An array of expensive looking medical equipment remains just out of sight, while Andy’s large picture window looks out at living damp, forested landscape where you can feel the fall chill in the air. A row of ripe corn slightly blocks his view, and it appears to be attracting crows. If not for this classic gothic image, kind of W.P Kinsella meets Edgar Allan Poe moment, you’d never know you were in the kind of People Under The Stairs remake that McNaughton and his first time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti have arrayed out for the unsuspecting viewer.
Michael Shannon plays the Andy’s dad, Richard, who is seen early on driving far afield to get illegal and experimental drug treatments from one of his former co-workers. This is a kinder, gentler Shannon performance than is typical, here playing a nurse of all occupations, although he only has one patient: his son. Samantha Morton, in a bid to take the ‘world worst movie mom’ laurel form Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin) – indeed along with Morton (Movern Callar) both have graduated from the Lynn Ramsay school of complex and aloof females. Morton gives puts herself out there to the lynchmob audience that is going to arrive with pitchforks and torches to seize her Dr. Frankenstein mom-megalomania.
In The Harvest, most viewers will want to see mom get some serious comeuppance for being the ‘doctor playing god’ with the quality-of-life of her boy. Constantly shrewish and berating of her her meek husband for not being helicopter parent enough for her; when Andy asks her why she stopped having children after he was born, is a blindside-ingly powerful moment that almost singlehandedly elevates the sleepy setup. That is a damn serious question for a son to drop on his mom, and the movie earns some dramatic weight, which it with then gleefully repurpose to abject nuttiness. God bless this kind of genre filmmaking.
If hubby won’t stand up to his overbearing wife, enter Mary-Ann, the little girl who moves in next door and quickly befriends Andy through his window to the point where she thinks nothing of just climbing right in. If they weren’t so young, the scene would be down right sexy.
The sparks fly between mom and would-be girlfriend, and offer some much needed energy leading into act two, which continually ramps towards several legit surprises (to this jaded reviewer) which will not be spoiled here.
Suffice it to say, I am a sucker for ‘parenting films.’ And much of the meat on the bones of The Harvest is the consideration of bubble-wrap parenting of the 21st century. There is an opening prologue about the perceived dangers of pitching in a little league baseball game that is true, but please, first world suburban society let the damn kids play their baseball.
The transformation of Morton’s calmly superior, pro-active medical professional and mom, into a furiously punishing tyrant, drilling shut window sills, Lady Macbeth style scrubbing the wall paper with holy, germ-proof white acrylic is such that it has to be seen to be believed. It’s fucking magnificent. Her jealous emotional basket case of nerves and focus is one of the films chief delights – that she takes it out on a very willing and kindly Michael Shannon is icing on the cake. Watching these two perform against type, but really kind of spot-on-type, is worth the price of admission.
Poor Andy, who willingly and almost desparately befriends the fierce and independent young Mary-Ann (Natasha Calis, looking every bit the part of a spunky young Anna Paquin) much to his parents anxiety and chagrin, is stuck in his room, while she is free scheme to get him outside, and live a little in the fecund and misty air. In any other movie, this would be about sneaking the first sexual experience, but marvellously true to american puritanism, it is merely to play, ahem, catch…with a baseball. And it is not entirely familial or platonic with the children, sexual tension and a kind of frustration hover way off in the periphery for those who care to see it.
If you think of a wheelchair bound boy playing catch with a pretty young girl is too cloyingly sweet, well, this movie will beat those notions out of you quick enough when Mom and Dad return with some pretty ambitious plans to keep Andy and Mary-Ann apart.
Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles play Mary-Ann’s ex-hippie grandparents, who are better parents to her than Andy’s are to him, but, in a baffling concession interested in making the screenplay work, they are obligated against all common sense and character to fail to listen to Mary-Ann when bad shit comes to light.
It is the movies cardinal error, almost breaks it in fact, that they don’t even slightly take her seriously, despite acknowledging her fierce independence, when she starts making heavy accusations of the neighbours. The notion that Mary-Ann recently lost her parents, and is struggling to adjust and make new friends in a new environment is almost valid enough, but seriously, someone for Christ’s sake make a phone call to the police already. It doesn’t have to be a full swat team, just an officer taking a peak around what the neighbour are doing with all that medical gear in the house. And while I’m nitpicking, as much as I really like late-career Peter Fonda, the dude has to stop saying “Far Out, Man” from this point onward. He’s great, but the line is painful.
Much of the reason for the current crop of nostalgia-films wanting to mimic the tone of Amblin Entertainment (from The Goonies to Poltergeist for instance) is that parents are so damn overprotective and paranoid of any hurts coming to their children. They are now stifling their children one ‘protected’ experience (or lack of experience) at a time. The Harvest, amps this idea, the fear of it as far as it can, while echoing the look of well-lit 1980s movies while telling something new. The chill fall air, warm apple pie, and sprawling ball diamonds remind me of the classic Disney chiller, Something Wicked This Way Comes as much as the Andy’s household hints towards the mad underbelly of America in Blue Velvet.
While The Harvest is a bit TV movie-ish at times and not quite in the league of those films, it comes dangerously close at times. Welcome back, John, we missed your particular sensibility, and yes, good things come to those who wait.