I was probably a good half-hour into The Harvest when I wondered why the hell I was watching it. I partially remembered that I wanted to review it because I had a read a description that made it sound up my alley, but what was unfolding across my screen seemed to be a movie-of-the-week about a possibly terminally ill kid. And while it wasn’t terribly bad to that point – Frankenweenie star Charlie Tahan does a good job of making you believe he’s eternally ailing and unable to walk – I wondered what the hell I was doing sitting through “sick kid makes friend” when nothing I was seeing seemed relevant to Topless Robot readers in any way.
It takes a long time but, well, as the poster suggests, there are developments that push things into very different territory. And I’m going to try to finish this review without explicitly mentioning any of them.
When the end credits ran, and “A film by John McNaughton” appeared, it was a “duh” moment – OF COURSE I wanted to see the latest film by the guy who brought us Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and by extension, our big-screen Yondu and small-screen Merle Dixon by making Michael Rooker famous. McNaughton hasn’t directed a feature since the little-seen 2001 comedy Speaking of Sex, and before that the guilty, trashy pleasure Wild Things, so this is something of a comeback. And it’s a tough one – realistic horror (as opposed to straightforward cop-vs-serial killer “thriller”) isn’t a big sell in these days of found-footage ghosts, if indeed it ever was; Henry was hardly a box-office champ, having attained critical and popular appeal gradually, in the days when video stores gave such things new life.
Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton play Richard and Katherine Young, the doctor and nurse parents of atrophying Andy – in a reversal of expectations, she’s both the doctor and the scary one. They pretend to Andy that everything’s going to be fine, and use Richard’s philandering with a fellow nurse to get illicit extra samples of pain medication. But the strain of the reality is pulling their marriage apart in frighteningly realistic ways: she becomes unyielding and driven in her emotional moments, while he tries to calm things down and keep it all human, even as she blames him for everything.
Meanwhile, new-to-the-neighborhood Maryann (Chloe Moretz lookalike Natasha Calis) has had both her parents die, and is living with grandparents Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles. In search of a new friend, she happens upon Andy’s window, and they strike up a friendship centered around Andy’s love of both baseball and his cornfield outside, for which Maryann determines she will build a scarecrow. Katherine will have none of this budding bonding, however – believing Andy doesn’t have long to live, she’d rather keep him bedridden and friendless, seemingly so he won’t get his hopes up too high.
Or, at least, that’s how things appear for quite a while. For much of the movie, Katherine is frightening enough on a normal level as the spouse from hell (albeit a somewhat relatable one) who reacts to stress by taking it out on her family and everyone else. But once you’ve acclimatized to that, more things are revealed that make her outbursts understandable…and flip the script in ways a disease-of-the-week film most definitely would not dare to tread. I’m often insulted when somebody says such-and-such is “a movie for grown-ups,” as if action movies or whatnot can’t be enjoyed by adults too, but you’ll definitely get more out of this movie if you’ve been in an adult relationship under pressure than if you’re, say, a teen looking for cheap scares.
There’s a bit of a David Cronenberg vibe to the proceedings – like him, McNaughton is often lauded as a “master of horror” even as both seem more interested in chilly human relationships than buckets of gore. The contrast between the clinical and the tempestuous is most embodied in Katherine, a character who is both tempestuous and a skilled surgeon, but the whole tale is imbued with it, to very deliberate, unsettling effect.
And oh yes…there will be blood.
The Harvest opens today in Los Angeles, and is currently available via VOD