Discounting some scattered television work, director John McNaughton has been off the grid for 13 years as far as features go. Even then, you’d have to go back all the way to 1998 and “Wild Things” to find the last movie he’s made with any kind of traction, with a certain swimming pool scene featuring Denise Richards and Neve Campbell doing the rounds on an assortment of seedy list articles. And you’d have to rewind the tape even further to 1986’s “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer,” to find the McNaughton film most likely to remain the ace in the cult director’s deck so far. In “The Harvest” McNaughton returns to add to the rich cinematic tradition depicting depraved parenting, and gets the best possible welcome back party at Montreal’s genre film festival Fantasia.
The film kicks things off in clever and symbolic style. A junior baseball game is in progress, with the cheerleading parents watching from the stands. With a batter at the plate, he gets strikes on the first two pitches that come his way, and a tinge of tension tiptoes its way onto the scene thanks to some ominous music and subtle camera work. The batter hits the third ball, but it strikes the pitcher directly in the chest, stirring panic and alarm from the coaches and parents. The kid is rushed to the hospital, and the nice doctor Katherine (Samantha Morton) tells the concerned mother that her boy will be fine. With the unsettled tone set, we quickly find out that this is the story of Katherine and her husband Richard (Michael Shannon), who used to be a nurse but quit his job in order to take care of their sick son Andy (Charlie Tahan). Andy is suffering from a debilitating disease that sees him strapped on a wheelchair and, under the strict rules set by Katherine, barely allowed to leave his bedroom, let alone the house. You see, one of the many entertaining twists of this tale is that Katherine isn’t very nice at all; she’s more like the wicked stepchild of Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes from “Misery.”
When Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves in a few houses down the block to live with her grandparents, her curiosity leads her all the way up to Andy’s windowsill and the two of them strike an immediate bond. But Katherine will allow no visitors or friends, no matter how (rather meekly) her husband Richard protests. As Maryann’s stubbornness keeps clashing with Katherine’s slightly psychotic overprotective nature, Richard’s undermined status starts catching up to him, while all little Andy wants to do is play X-Box games with his new friend. Oh, and watch his corn grow outside his window. It’s not an ordinary setup but stick with it, because the third act is filled with enough edgy twists, pitch black humor, and psycho Samantha Morton to go around to make things hellishly entertaining.
McNaughton may not be the biggest name in American cinema, but he clearly has enough of a reputation to get the likes of Morton and Shannon on board for his comeback. Throw in a bit of Peter Fonda for some far out hippie measure, and you get yourself one of the best looking casts on this year’s Fantasia slate. Even with Morton stealing scene after scene as we get closer and closer to the berserk finale, Shannon isn’t far behind with a performance that is very much against type. And while we’re on acting, the two kids more than hold up their own. Tahan and Calis impress in major ways as sympathetic and imprisoned Andy, and spirited and witty Maryann, respectively. Watch out for Calis especially, because if “The Harvest” is any indication of early talent, he’s going to grow into very expensive shoes for many, many future red carpets.
Written by Stephen Lancellotti, a man who appears to have no previous writing credits to his name, the film is very much on the nose with its drama and humor. A scene that sees Katherine frantically drill nails into Andy’s window to stop Maryann from entering unawares is played a little too obviously for laughs, and it’s one example out of many. Characters make some inane decisions, and react beyond any common sense, but they’re part of a film that welcomes a flippant attitude towards real-life and as much as some scenes could have your eyes rolling, others will have you silently winking at McNaughton for being in on the gag. What saves “The Harvest” from being just another film destined for the sales bin at Wal-Mart, is the third act which manages to answer most of the pestering questions whirling in your head, and in quite morbid fashion too. Even those audience members who rightly predict the big twist will no doubt enjoy its satirical message about parenthood.
The illusion of safety and innocence fenced around childhood from the film’s opening sequence comes back tenfold by the time the film is over, and it makes one realize that there’s more to “The Harvest” than waiting for the big reveal or proving how well Samantha Morton can act outside of her regular range. John McNaughton’s return after too many years of absence is a dark look at the nature of overprotective parenthood, and how volatile it can become under particularly difficult circumstances. With that said, you’d do well not to take “The Harvest” too seriously but more, like its deliciously simple and 70s B-movie horror title suggests, as a wickedly fun time. And we’d bet that John McNaughton wouldn’t have it any other way. Good to have you back, sir. [B]