Buckle up, guys. John McNaughton’s long-awaited return to film after a 13-year void is a powerhouse story of human horror. It’s a unique story that would’ve come across as ridiculous if made by a lesser filmmaker, but in the hands of McNaughton, The Harvest stays grounded throughout as it plays out its devastating drama exploring the darkest sides of humanity. Driven by the strong performances of Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton, and two impressively solid child actors, The Harvest is set to floor audiences (whenever the hell it gets released). McNaughton is back in a big way, rejoice, you swine.
Morton stars as Katherine, a skilled pediatric surgeon married to Richard (Shannon), a former nurse who had to quit his job so he could care full time for their sick son. Andy (Charlie Tahan) is bedridden due to an illness that makes his bones weak, but it doesn’t stop him from dreaming of playing baseball. He’s tucked away in his room all day while his parents perform experimental treatments on him, but their little bubble bursts when Andy befriends the new girl in town, Maryann (Natasha Calis). She comes in through Andy’s bedroom window and keeps him company, which causes Andy to come alive a little bit. Richard is okay with their friendship and the sparkle it puts into Andy’s eyes, but Katherine doesn’t want any strangers coming in their house and she lashes out at Andy and Maryann to a disturbing degree.
With her performance as Katherine, Morton joins the ranks of wicked movie moms, right up there with Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. She see-saws between matriachal warmth and shattering rage. Surprisingly, Michael Shannon comes off as the sanest parent in the film. I don’t think I like watching any actor lose his mind as much as I do Shannon, but it’s nice to see him give a reserved performance. An even bigger surprise is Tahan and Calis, who steal the show several times with their breakthrough performances. Child actors are typically the worst, but these two nail it. Also in the mix is some guy named Peter Fonda.
My only problem with the film is Fonda’s character. He plays Maryann’s grandfather and he’s given some miserable dialogue to deliver. First-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti doesn’t seem to know what to do with his character, so he’s left to spout off some lines ripped from the monologue practice book. Fonda’s such a great actor, it’s a shame he wasn’t given more interesting material to work with. There are other traces of mediocrity in the script, though the tremendous performances and McNaughton’s craftsmanship help elevate these faults.
Through these crushing performances, McNaughton crafts a tale not easily shaken from the mind. The Harvest twists and turns through your guts, leaving behind a sinister trail of human wreckage and leaving no easy answers. Just as viewers settle in to the direction it seems the film is going, a massive and disturbing curveball is thrown in, entirely changing the stakes. The twist is orchestrated very smoothly, with no hints of being over-the-top. In the context of the story, it makes perfect sense.
The Harvest is a triumphant return for one of indie cinema’s edgiest directors. Lucky for horror fans, McNaughton returns to the genre with a bleak fairy tale of dark behavior and unspeakable human evil.
PS: It’ll be interesting to see what rating The Harvest is given upon its release. There’s no dirty words, gore, or sex, but this one will definitely fall under the MPAA’s “intense images” category.