SPOILER ALERT: This review gives things away that you will probably guess anyway.
How far would a parent go to save a terminal child? It is a nightmare almost unimaginable to anyone without children. Parents, especially young parents, worry endlessly even when their kid is born healthy. The Harvest, directed by John McNaughton who made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Borrower, follows the worst case scenario to its inevitable conclusion.
The Harvest may not appeal to most horror fans, but it is a horror movie. You don’t know it’s a horror movie until a full 44 minutes into it. Not quite as extreme as Stephen King’s Duma Key, where the reader passes almost a thousand pages before the first hints of horror unfold. The Harvest could almost be a Lifetime movie about a handicapped child with an overbearingly overprotective mother until then. But that overprotective mother Katherine, played by Samantha Morton, is a scary, and very real, character in the vein of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.
You know something’s off because the mother clearly is. At first it looks like the tensions of any family dealing with an ongoing tragedy. Katherine clearly browbeats her long-suffering husband Richard, played by The Ice Man himself, Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon. It slowly appears that Andy, the boy with the open window policy played by Charlie Tahan, is the victim of Munchausen-by-proxy. But the mystery deepens into something more insidious. The terror comes from another parental nightmare, the kidnapping of a child from a hospital room.
Katherine is a doctor. Richard is a nurse. They both work long hours and then have to put in more hours at home caring for terminal children and performing DIY surgery. Richard is the ultimate enabler. He is under some form of control as his wife can cower him with the suggestion of a look. It is a learned reaction from a lifetime of abuse.
The hero, a young orphan girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis), is stuck in the perennial horror movie quandary: She knows there’s something going on, but no one will believe her because she’s just a kid who’s new in town with a computer. Maryann is living with her grandparents, the easy riding Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles, who are understanding and yet completely dense. Mixed messages abound in that house, especially when compared with the clear message of menace from the house beyond the woods with the tiny corn garden.
I saw all the twists coming a half hour before they hit, but I chalk this up to watching so many twisty pix that I pull them over me like a comforter. Everything is obviously the opposite of what it seems and the obviousness about it shows further flaws. The boy with the window display should probably be the one holed up somewhere. And what happened with the kid who got hit in the chest with the baseball in the opening scene. The payoff to that was so horribly saccharine it was terrifying in itself.
The acting is very committed, very real. The kids don’t force anything. The details of transferring an unresponsive body from a wheelchair to a bed or toilet are, for the most part, accurate. The distance from a cell-phone on the floor is much farther if you have limited mobility and are carrying dead weight as part of your living flesh. Shannon is always a tempered performer and he underplays here. Morton is a Pavlovian dictator, forgiving her husband for his transgressions and then immediately grounding him into milquetoast mincemeat with her actions.
The makeup is first rate. The early scene with the stitches looked very real. Grin and bear it real. The abdominal scar after the liver surgery made me itch. But it was the smaller details that might go under the radar that were the most impressive. Andy’s crushed fingers in the splint looked painful. The fingernails on the unconscious kid in the bed is a masterful example of how the attention to precise particulars register as real day-to-day horror.
The Harvest loses a lot of points because of its copout ending. For a movie that took so long to unfold, the ending is just a bunch of shortcuts to get to a preordained happy finale. Well, not happy for everyone. The broken family at the center of the movie perish unhappily and that’s not what they deserved. The snail’s pace that led to the horrific revelations promised an intelligent alternative to cookie cutter horror. They really took their time getting to the scary and once they got there they kept up the pace for a while, but then dropped it. It was like they looked at the clock and said – oh my god, we don’t want this to be a two hour movie, wrap it up – wrap it up quick, making the movie more disappointing, a half-attempt with a great start.