Starring Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Charlie Tahan, Natasha Calis
Directed by John McNaughton
Do director John McNaughton a favor and don’t even watch the trailer for his latest, The Harvest, and definitely don’t pay attention to the poster which is such a bad photoshopped poster that it looks like it’s actually making fun of other bad photoshop posters. All you need to know going in is that it’s directed by the same man who cut his teeth with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the man whose hand you need to shake for filming Neve Campbell and Denise Richards topless making out in a pool (okay, ladies… and Kevin Bacon naked in the shower) in the sunset-soaked pulp hit Wild Things.
Oh yeah, it also stars Academy Award nominees Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton and the original Captain America, Peter Fonda.
If this were a Hollywood pitch meeting, The Harvest would be described as a cross between Hansel and Gretel and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a comparison McNaughton himself has used to set the stage for what is essentially a demented fairy tale where a desperate mother (Samantha Morton) and her reluctant husband (Shannon) obsessively care for their sick child, Andy (Charlie Tahan), at the detriment of their entire family. The classic bedtime story elements come into play when a neighboring girl, Maryann (Natasha Calis), exposes the wickedness of Andy’s mother and Andy begins to realize that escaping alone into the woods might be a better alternative to his wallpapered prison.
Michael Shannon plays to one of his established strengths as a weak submissive; and his nuanced, subdued, ultimately explosive performance could easily serve as a description of the movie as a whole. Stick with the opening, measured setup; and just as the unnerving family drama digs in, suddenly, new revelations unfold that really transform The Harvest into a mystery that’s been hiding closely nearby, praying not to be discovered. Shannon is great, of course, and his Chicago theatre background shines through, but it’s really Samantha Morton’s movie to command, and as a real-life mother of three, it’s a brave performance that forces her to go mad through her own grief and desperation. She loves her son as a fanatic and not as a mother, terrified that “pathogens” will infect him, but she is so controlling that it’s impossible not to be suspicious of her. Do they really have their son’s best interest in mind, or is there something else they want to protect?
Screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti takes some story cues from author V.C. Andrews that he and McNaughton use to take The Harvest into a territory that is usually reserved for the darker corners found in Gothic literature and horrific children stories like the ones lurking inside the pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. There’s a black crow that torments Andy from outside at the beginning of the film that serves as an ominous warning to him and to us, and it immediately signals that death isn’t far off.
If there’s any moral to The Harvest, it can be gathered from this, Michael Shannon’s first line of dialogue: “What’s the difference between God and a doctor? God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.” Of course, Peter Fonda’s last line that also happens to be the last line of The Harvest is pretty great, too.