Motherly Love, by Tyler Smith
It seems strange that John McNaughton, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, would be capable of putting out a thriller as slight as The Harvest. One film is gritty and deeply disturbing, while the other seems like a Hallmark film that somehow found its way into theaters. This isn’t to say that the film is bad, necessarily; only that it somehow lacks significance.
The story is about a sick young boy being cared for by his doting parents, played by Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton. Soon, a girl moves in next door and tries to befriend the boy, only to be consistently shut out by the boy’s overprotective mother. The girl starts to wonder if there isn’t more going on than meets the eye and investigates. What she finds is unnerving, though not really as surprising as it feels like it should be.
A perfectly serviceable story. So far, so good. And the actors- particularly Shannon and Morton- are committed to their characters and play them sincerely. Michael Shannon shows us a man so beaten down by his circumstances that he barely seems able to stand. And Morton’s overprotection and domination of her son (and her husband) is underscored by fear and desperation. This isn’t a monster; it’s merely a woman afraid of losing someone she loves.
It is here that the film is at its most powerful. We are often told- in life and in film- that family is the greatest good there is. We should never go against the family. This is a fine sentiment, but what happens when one puts their own family above all else? At what point does choosing one’s family over the rest of the world become destructive?
These are the questions going through our heads as we watch the mother quickly devolve into a manic, furious monster. She will protect her son, even from himself. In an attempt to keep him from any further interaction with the neighbor girl, the mother breaks his toys, smashes his television, and even paints over the baseball wallpaper in his room. In essence, she removes everything that makes him an individual. She removes his identity, leaving the only thing that really matters to her: that he is her son.
These scenes are powerful, but they come a bit too late in a film that is languid and mostly pleasant. We aren’t really aware of what the stakes are until a solid hour into the movie, and, by then, the serene photography and casual pacing have taken their toll. It’s like a heartwarming kids movie was going on and then a horror movie broke out.
I’m sure this is probably the intention of the director, trying to explore what could be under the surface of what could be considered normal. However, this exploration has been done before. Hell, David Lynch made a career out of it. It requires a very precise ear for the music and the photography. There needs to be hints from the very beginning that there’s something we’re not seeing.
In The Harvest, McNaughton shoots everything in a straightforward manner, which can make for a very eerie thriller if done right, but here seems to mostly relieve tension and lessen the stakes. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make the film bad. It is not a bad film, just an unmemorable one.