Review: The Harvest

2014/10/12 18:46:55 +00:00 | Becki Hawkes

On screen, the parents of seriously ill children are often (probably quite accurately) portrayed as unsung heroes, battling the system, denying themselves, and doing everything they can to protect their kids. In The Harvest, the long overdue return to cinema from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton, it’d be easy to initially mistake Samantha Morton’s character, Katherine, for one of these parents. But it soon becomes clear just how completely off the mark this impression is.

The film focuses on Katherine’s relationship with her pre-teen son, Andy (Charlie Tahan). Andy is sick. He’s so sick, he can’t walk. He needs a cocktail of specialised drugs, which Katherine, a doctor, breaks the law to obtain for him. At first, her overprotectiveness seems understandable, if a little intense. But things get worse. Andy mustn’t have friends: friends might infect him. He mustn’t ever go outside. The family home is buried in the heart of the woods, to ensure that Andy won’t be disturbed. (Tellingly, we’re never told exactly what is wrong with him.) When 12-year-old Maryann (Natasha Calis), the new girl next door, attempts to befriend Andy, Katherine is determined to stop her.

There’s a thin line between overprotectiveness and child abuse, and Morton spends the first portion of the film treading uncomfortably close to that line, creating a tense, uneasy atmosphere of buried pain and rage: she lingers like a fierce bruise, daring people to prod her. Later on, she unleashes a madness and an aptitude for psychological torture that rivals Piper Laurie’s performance as Margaret White in Brian de Palma’s Carrie. Both Katherine’s son and her painfully ineffective husband Richard (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon) are on eggshells around her.

Morton has proved herself a versatile actress in the past, but here she unveils a new, dark side that audiences haven’t seen before. Quite simply, she’s one of the scariest things to hit cinema screens in a long while: whether she’s binning Andy’s toys as punishment for going outside, physically harming him, or telling him she loves him, she manages to be equally compelling.

The burgeoning secret friendship between Andy and Maryann, sensitively conveyed by Calis and Tahan, provides the film with some rare moments of tenderness and humour. But it’s never enough to shake the growing sense of dread evoked by the threat of Katherine’s return: Morton dominates the film both on-screen and off.

At times, The Harvest almost feels like a fairy tale, with Katherine cast as the witch. When Maryann creeps through the forest, evading Katherine’s wrathful gaze, and enters Andy’s room via his window, it’s hard not to think of Rapunzel. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful: lush, warm Autumnal colours and sweeping shots of Andy’s comfortable, superficially inviting home make the film look as if it should be a heart-warming family drama, rather than the chilling, slow-burn horror it becomes.

As events take an increasingly dark turn, it becomes apparent that this is definitely a fairy tale more akin to the traditional Grimm tales than the sanitised versions given to children today. Nothing in the film is quite as it seems: various authority figures are unmasked as ineffective or evil, “loving” parents turn on their own children and a hideous secret – revealed in a devastating final twist – lurks inside Andy’s family home.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was famously, explicitly violent. But with The Harvest, McNaughton has created a more restrained, mature kind of horror, with the power to disturb in far more subtle ways.

Movie Score: 4/5