The Harvest is one of those movies that took me completely off guard to where I had no real idea of where it was going. That’s a very rare experience for me when watching movies these days as I usually have a pretty good idea of where things are going to end up, so that makes the latest film from John McNaughton (his first directorial effort in a decade by the way) all the more effective. While the pacing feels off at times, The Harvest keeps you within its grasp to where you constantly guess as to what will happen next.
The movie’s prologue serves to mess with your head a bit, so I prefer to let audiences witness it for themselves. We come to meet Maryann (Natasha Calis), a young girl who has just moved into her grandparents’ house following the death of her parents. This causes her great discomfort because, aside from losing her mom and dad, she is forced to start all over again in a new town where she’ll have to make new friends again. Being uprooted at such a young age is a real pain.
Eventually Maryann does make a new friend in Andy (Charlie Tahan), a very sick young boy who is confined to his home 24/7 and cannot move around without a wheelchair. Andy is looked after constantly by his parents Katherine (Samantha Morton) and Richard (Michael Shannon) who are constantly in conflict over how to best take care of him. Katherine is a doctor who constantly keeps Andy in a medicated state, and Richard constantly urges her to ease up and not overdo it. Suffice to say, these two people don’t have the same relationship they once had.
That’s all I really want to tell you about the plot. What I can say is that Maryann comes to make certain discoveries that turn hers and Andy’s life completely upside down. Watching The Harvest is like peeling away at an onion; you keep going through various layers in order to get to the center of things, and McNaughton and screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti keep stringing us along to the very end. Before we get to the revelation at the movie’s core, we can only guess as to what’s going on with these characters and we dare not take our eyes off the screen.
It’s great to see Samantha Morton here as she has not been in many movies in the past few years, and she gives The Harvest’s best performance as Katherine. It’s a very multi-layered performance as we see her go from being understanding and caring to becoming very uptight and furiously angry. When Morton stares down Calis in one scene, it makes for an incredibly tense moment as Morton looks like a snake just waiting to strike. It’s a very impressive performance and the kind that’s not always found in horror movies. You’re never sure when to empathize with her or fear her presence, and it’s all a reminder of how powerful an actress Morton is.
Michael Shannon is one of the best character actors working today, and he has a tricky role to play here. As Richard, he has to play an emotionally muted character of sorts. At first it seems like Shannon is doing too little onscreen, but the reason for his character’s emotional numbness does become clear as the movie goes on. This is the kind of role where most actors get self-conscious and feel like they’re not acting enough. Shannon, however, doesn’t make that mistake and it makes for another one of the compelling performances we have come to expect from him.
McNaughton is the same filmmaker who gave us the feel-good movie of 1990, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I’m not even going to bother comparing The Harvest to it because Henry is a one of a kind horror film that is hard to top in terms of bleak realism. The Harvest is more of a dark fairy tale that gets darker and darker as it goes on, and it shows how gifted McNaughton is at creating suspense and maintaining it throughout a feature film.
When you look at McNaughton’s resume, you see that his work has not been confined merely to the horror genre. He gave us the comedy-drama Mad Dog and Glory which had Robert De Niro, Bill Murray and Uma Thurman giving some of their most underrated performances ever, the erotic thriller Wild Things which didn’t even try to hide how gleefully trashy it was, the concert film of Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and the crime drama Lansky which starred Richard Dreyfuss as the famous gangster Meyer Lansky. It’s understandable that many can’t get past Henry to see how McNaughton has managed to go from one genre to the next as that film left such a gaping psychological scar on those who dared to watch it, but it shows how underrated a filmmaker he is and continues to be.
The Harvest does have its flaws, some of which come from it being an understandably low budget production. The pacing could have been strengthened at times, and we just have to get that one scene where a child tells the truth of what’s going on and is quickly rebuffed. It’s infuriating when adults quickly dismiss their children’s explanations as hooey as the young ones still see right through their parents’ hypocrisy. Also, the movie ends on a note that leaves too many questions unanswered. I’m all for ambiguous endings in movies, but The Harvest is not one which benefits from such an ending.
All the same, I admired what McNaughton was able to pull off with The Harvest, and it kept my attention from start to finish. It always seems difficult to pull off such a suspenseful thriller these days, but he does just that here. There’s also no forgetting Morton’s complex and frightening performance as a mother desperate to protect her child. Whatever you think of this movie, her work will stay with you for a time once the end credits have finished.