How do you follow up on a masterpiece? There can be few greater burdens to bear for a director than knowing that you redefined a genre. And it's the inescapable shadow that hangs over John McNaughton every time he gets behind the camera.
His epoch-shaping creation was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the undeniable progenitor of the revisionist serial killer movie. Hitting the festival circuit in 1986, the same year that Hollywood was plundering the slasher tombs with Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and just months before Freddy became a post-modern pastiche with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, it was a splinter to the eyeball of horror. It established exactly how far underground horror was prepared to go in the name of authenticity: but it was also so revolutionary to art-house horror that, without it, it's hard to conceive of a Funny Games, or a S&Man, or a Man Bites Dog, or a Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
It was McNaughton's feature debut, his 1984 lurid, archive-footage documentary Dealers in Death notwithstanding. Yet, while he is best known as a horror innovator, the true (or at least fact-based) crime connection between the two is really what he should be known for. Henry was a gruesome character study of self-confessed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas (portrayed with chilling authenticity by Michael Rooker), and it was the springboard to gritty work, like his five episode run on Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Just about every time McNaughton stepped onto a TV set, people have paid attention. But his post-Henry film career (barring the deliciously salacious Wild Things) has never really ignited. In fact, his latest narrative feature, The Harvest, is his first since the awkward comedy of 2002's Speaking of Sex. But this is the Henry guy, so it will immediately get that first look that a lot of other directors handling the same material might not.
It actually begins with an extremely made-for-TV, Lifetime movie vibe. A doctor (Katherine, played by Samantha Morton) and a nurse (Richard, Michael Shannon) are raising their son Andy (Charlie Tahan, Gotham's own future Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane) in splendid isolation. Wheelchair-bound and increasingly frail, he finally develops a friend with young orphan Maryanne (Natasha Calis, The Firm, The Possession).
When you stick the disk in, the first act seems unlikely fodder for McNaughton, like a slightly bleaker My Girl. Maryanne comes into Andy's room through the window because Katherine doesn't approve, and teaches him about baseball and friendship and why he should keep his collectibles in their original packaging. She's two inches away from being a teen manic pixie girl, while Andy is so fragile that his death seems permanently imminent (no bee stings required).
But there's clearly something deeper and darker at play. It's in how Katherine both coddles and bullies Andy, and the tense interplay between Katherine and Richard, as she undermines him constantly and he tries to keep the fragments of their family together. Occasionally, Morton tips her hand a little, verging on histrionics, but she is kept grounded by the peerless Shannon as a relentlessly nurturing but conflicted father.
As for McNaughton, he keeps the inevitable turn into further darkness well hidden under the simple veneer of a family drama. In reality, he's gently guiding the story into the dark fairy-tale neighborhood of similar broken-home tales as Paperhouse and The Glass House. It's far from perfect (the cinematography is functional, and the soundtrack is uninspired), but McNaughton's great strength has always been in reminding audiences of the fraility of human morality, and how easy it is to fall into the worst habits. Unlike the sociopathic Lucas, the malevolent forces here are doing the worst things for the best possible reasons. It's a tragedy of delusion, and while it may not redefine a genre, it's a moving portrait, painted in fine details.
The Harvest (IFC Midnight/Shout! Factory) is avilable now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.
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