For its first 45 or so minutes, The Harvest plays like a creaky, made-for-TV domestic drama, until a barely foreshadowed twist turns the film into a lurid (though still creaky) adolescent-wish-fulfillment potboiler of the V.C. Andrews variety. Its imagery is symbolic house fires, secret medical procedures, hidden children, and all sorts of things that should sustain interest on their own, but will struggle to keep viewers’ attention from drifting elsewhere—namely, to the wallpaper and the sweaters.
Snowflake sweaters with coat toggles, cable-knit turtlenecks, shawl-collar cardigans, and even one of those floral-pattern-and-leather-epaulette combos that seem to go straight to the Urban Outfitters clearance rack: The Harvest features the most thorough and diverse collection of sweaters ever assembled for a feature film. But if the most interesting thing about a movie is the sweater selection—and if said movie features Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon as a pair of creepy parents—then something is wrong.
Morton and Shannon play Katherine and Richard Young, longtime residents of a small community in upstate New York. She is a pediatric surgeon; he is a former nurse. They spend most of their days keeping watch on their teenage son, Andy (Charlie Tahan), who has been left bedridden by a lifetime of mysterious illnesses. Homeschooled and forbidden to go outside, Andy makes a friend in new neighbor Maryann (Natasha Calis), an orphan who shares his (and the movie’s) inexplicable obsession with baseball.
The Harvest’s setting—a secluded two-story colonial, surrounded by woods, with an ominous padlock over the cellar door—is prime yellowed-paperback gothic, spiced up with a little medical sensationalism. Here, everything is a stylization of common fears, both marital and filial: the couple who have come to resent each other, but are bound by their duty to a bizarre secret that is, in itself, a parody of parental instinct; the child’s suspicions toward the parents who literally control his body. But given that the movie’s reveal offers, among other things, the sight of the Youngs nonchalantly scrubbing up in a makeshift surgical tent and of Morton running through the woods wild-eyed and screaming, it feels surprisingly off-hand, not so much dry as sucked of all juice.
It might be that just about everyone involved—including director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer), making his first feature in over a decade—is both overqualified for the material and doesn’t seem to know what to make of it. (The exception is Shannon, who makes Richard all the creepier by playing him as an ordinary human being.) McNaughton has long shown a flair for trashy, heightened camp, whether in Wild Things or in his Samuel Fuller-scripted Showtime quickie Girls In Prison. Here, however, he plays it safe and anonymous, giving only a faint whiff of the dark comic sensibility that has always distinguished his work.
The result is a movie with no shortage of the potentially macabre and no sense of perspective on it. The film—which premiered two years ago, had a very limited theatrical run earlier this year, and is now sneaking into home video—operates on the auto-pilot setting of thoroughly competent film style, concerned in large part with getting from plot point A to plot point B in the least disruptive way possible. The few exceptions—like an early shot that finds the camera mounted to a rattling gurney—only hint at how much more there could have been, if Stephen Lancellotti’s script were only given a touch of the outré. Without it, boredom sets in, and the eye can’t help but wander—to the armless red accent chairs that the characters never sit in and the impeccable blue wallpaper of the Youngs’ hallways.