The Harvest ✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
What starts out as an almost elegiac tale of loneliness and stifled friendship eventually turns nasty in John McNaughton’s long-shelved “The Harvest,” a two-year-old indie shot in upstate New York that melds “The Secret Garden” and, of all things, Georges Franju’s lyrical mad-doctor opus “Eyes without a Face.”
I was ready to give up on this film after, oh, about 20 minutes. It opens with a Little League game and then meanders along, like an AfterSchool special with a Stephen King aftertaste. That I didn’t bolt was in deference to director McNaughton, best known for the truly horrifying “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” which is so graphic it makes “Silence of the Lambs” look like a stroll in the park. This is McNaughton’s first feature in 12 years.
And while hardly a genre benchmark, it has much to recommend it, including a deceptively bucolic setting (I was reminded of Hitch’s autumnal “The Trouble with Harry”) and solid performances by the two young principals, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan. There’s also a genuinely unsettling turn by England’s Samantha Morton, here playing a small-town doctor with the strident bedside manner of Annie Wilkes in “Misery.” Morton’s Dr. Young has a strange way of ministering to her partially paralyzed son, Andy (Tahan): She berates him for the smallest infraction and doesn’t allow playmates. Michael Shannon plays Morton’s spineless, mostly inert husband.
Recently orphaned and now living with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles), Maryann (Calis) is just as starved for companionship as Andy. So, against the protestations of the not-so-good doctor, she taps on Andy’s bedroom window and keeps him company. Well, they sit on the edge of his bed and play video games. (McNaughton’s comment on what passes for friendship these days?)
Maryann, a Nancy Drew type, does a lot of snooping, frequently climbing into and out of windows. What she discovers in the Youngs’ basement comes as a shock. But, like the kid-who-cried wolf in a Cornell Woolrich story, no one believes her. Her grandfather, as played by Fonda, is particularly infuriating. Like some befuddled throwback to “Easy Rider,” he says “Far out” a lot. So, why doesn’t Maryann go to the police or, better yet, the local paper? This is one of many plot inconsistencies.
Still, McNaughton does the best he can with the hand he’s dealt. By Act 3, things are fairly tense and the girl detective and often delirious shut-in have forged a credible alliance, despite the tantrums of what we first believe to be an overly protective mother. Morton’s character flips out so much we half expect her to rummage through Andy’s closet, shrieking, “No wire hangers, E-E-EVER!”
THE HARVEST ✮✮1/2 With Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan, Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Peter Fonda, Leslie Lyles. Directed by John McNaughton; scripted by Stephen Lancellotti. 104 min. Unrated (could be PG-13 for graphic makeup effects, intense moments)