Written by: Stephen Lancellotti
Directed by: John McNaughton
Starring: Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, and Natasha Calis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
He can't come out to play.
Everything about The Harvest seems engineered to distract, deflect, and misdirect. Itís a film centered around hoarding secrets and carries itself just so, from its title to its spooky autumn atmosphere (which typically portends some supernatural doom), and itís a clever, creepy little return to form for director John McNaughton. After spending thirteen years away from features, heís crafted a film that mixes the outlandish twistiness of Wild Things with the grisly, domestic turmoil of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. What more do you need to know, really?
Actually, itís what you donít know that makes The Harvest so intriguing. A mystery film predicated on withholding just how deeply disturbing its secrets are, it naturally opens with a little league baseball game, where a child is hurt by a line-drive. After a trip to the hospital, a warm, comforting nurse (Samantha Morton) assures the parents that their child will be fine. The same cannot be said for her own child, Andy (Charlie Tahan), a nigh-invalid and terminally ill pre-teen who spends his days confined to either his bed or a wheelchair. Under the care of his somewhat overbearing mother and a father (Michael Shannon) who spends his days drinking away his despair, Andyís life is an uneventful parade of medication and video games. This changes when Maryann (Natasha Callis) moves into a nearby house with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) and attempts to befriend Andy, much to the weirdly hysterical dismay of his mother.
Her off-putting, overwhelming alarm towards Maryann is the first indication that somethingís just a bit off. At first, it just feels like natural overprotectiveness, as her boy is so sick that any intrusion or activity may weaken him further. However, thereís something weirdly cold and unfeeling hiding just beneath her motherly visage. Even as the situation develops, youíre willing to write it off as her having a bad day or succumbing to the stress of her life, especially when the film provides other distractions. The mere casting of Shannon feels like misdirection, as his natural intensity and simmering demeanor are so often harnessed in dark, wicked turns; you expect him to be the worse of the two parents, what with all his boozing and adultery (heís carrying on an affair with a woman who provides medical supplies for Andy).
But no, this thing ends up with its head turned upside-down, particularly once the inquisitive Maryann begins poking around Andyís house. Thereís a mid-movie turn of events that I dare not spoil (much of the filmís effectiveness relies on its revelation of secrets), but, suffice to say, it gives Morton the opportunity to revel in wickedness. Channeling the likes of Margaret White, Mrs. Voorhees, and other crazy matriarchs before her, Morton goes big and broad, with every new discovery allowing her to chew at the scenery a little bit more. Her directing pure hatred towards a couple of children is obviously disturbing, yet thereís a theatricality to it that hints at the filmís demented verve. Calling it fun or entertaining is perhaps a step too far, but itís not exactly as grim as the subject matter entails. Itís somewhere approaching the neighborhood of The People Under the Stairs but stops just short.
That said, there are some tonal issues at work here because the film ultimately wants it both ways: itís both a tragic story and a wild, fucked up one thatís built upon on one outlandish discovery after another. As such, some of the more emotional beats donít land like they should--I found myself gawking at the sheer audaciousness and weirdness of each new plot development instead of investing in the emotional underpinning. Which isnít to imply that the characters are weak or incidental to the narrative: Morton evolves from overbearing matriarch to wicked witch with unforgettable gusto, while her two targets remain plucky, likable would-be victims. Itís a testament to everyoneís performances (and McNaughtonís tense, slow-burn direction) that even a sequence where Maryann has to conceal her presence from the mother (who arrives home earlier than expected) is intense and harrowing as hellóyou donít want these two to be caught and thatís before you realize the mom is nuts.
With the summer sun currently beating down unmercifully, The Harvest also provides nice, chilly counterprogramming with its fall setting: fallen leaves have pooled around every tree, and the proceedings are almost constantly bathed in the fading, autumnal light that lends a golden sheen. Even thisóand the fact that Andy grows a corn crop outside of his windowóis a calculated red herring since itís so often associated with the goblins and ghosts of the season. Here, itís more of an aesthetic juxtaposition highlighting the disparity between appearances in reality. In this seemingly Rockwellian haunt, the real horror lurks within rather than without; hereís a case of characters discovering that theyíve already been hanging out in that one house in town everyone wants to avoid. Buy it!
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