Despite director John McNaughton’s best efforts, The Harvest is plagued by a host of cinematic parasites that eat through every scene until only an empty, shallow husk remains. Although its theatrical poster showcases a quaint little house that’s engulfed in raging flames, the actual film proves to be quite timid, blandly underacted, and exhaustively flat – a false representation of the chaos that’s dangled in front of our faces. That’s not to say misrepresentation ruins The Harvest outright, but the movie on-hand is about as lifeless as they come, and puts this poor Bessie out to pasture within mere minutes. I never thought I’d see the day where I wanted MORE out of Michael Shannon, but that’s why I never say never.
Stephen Lancellotti’s story revolves around a young boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan), who suffers from a crippling disease that requires him to stay safely plopped in a wheelchair for mobility. His mother, Katherine (Samantha Morton), and father, Richard (Michael Shannon), both have the benefit of being medical professionals, so they elect to care for their son without the aid of hospitals. Trapped in his own room, Andy spends most of his days playing Xbox alone until a curious new girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis) appears at his window. The two strike a quick bond, based on Andy’s excitement in finding a companion, but Katherine sees the curious girl as a threat to Andy’s health. Will Andy’s new friend drive a wedge between a boy and his caretakers, or can Katherine successfully scare away the only bit of happiness Andy seems to have?
Of course, The Harvest is nothing near to what it seems. Just a quick warning – spoilers will flow in the following paragraph, so read on at your own peril.
Katherine’s want to demolish the bond between Andy and Maryann is quite confusing in the film’s earlier scenes, but her craziness becomes a little more acceptable once Maryann discovers an even sicker boy being held in a basement room that’s gussied up like a patient’s ward. We learn that this is the REAL Andy, and that Tahan is playing a kidnapped-at-birth boy named Jason, who Richard and Katherine plan to use as an organ donor. It’s kind of like Little House On The Prairie, except inside that little house are two maniacal parents who hold a dark secret.
Even with the film’s calculated twist, The Harvest is riddled with performances that are either grossly understated or goofily overplayed. Samantha Morton’s unraveled mother/wife character flies off the handle at the drop of a dime, abuses her son in violent ways, and lashes out at Shannon’s character only minutes after confessing how much she needs Richard in her life. There’s absolutely no constant to her moods, as she takes Kathy Bates’ performance in Misery and jacks it up to cartoonish levels of dramatic incompetence. Lancellotti’s script is so grounded and understated, yet Morton’s performance sticks out like a psychotic sore thumb that becomes a confusing distraction even when her motivations are revealed.
Michael Shannon exists on the complete opposite side of the crazy spectrum, as his performance barely registers any signs of life. He spends the entire film being undermined by his bossy, controlling wife, and every attempt to knock her down only ends in Richard’s apologetic, dead-inside tone. There are hints of a drinking problem thrown around, but you’d never notice through Shannon’s solitary scenes, and we never actually get a sense of who Richard really is. Even at his angriest, Richard seems like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and his contrasting persona to Katherine’s soon-to-be mental patient pairs together two characters who appear to be from completely different planets.
Worst of all, The Harvest is scored by a sleepy, made-for-TV piano soundtrack that hits upon the notes of a melodramatic farmhouse soap opera (cheap and hokey). Visually, tonally, musically – no matter where you look, it just seems like everything is working against what could have been a gripping, emotional journey. McNaughton fails to generate any thrilling moments of dark tension, which is a shame given the haunting nature at times, as the film meanders aimlessly between shots of Andy playing baseball video games and Maryann yelling at her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles). There’s no balance to Katherine’s outbursts (just like there’s no reason for Richard’s complacent nature), Peter Fonda is utterly wasted the whole film (not drunk, like there’s no reason for his involvement), and it’s almost impossible to invest in a single character. This is seriously from the same guy who made Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer?!
There’s supposed to be a larger theme of parents struggling together to protect the child they love, despite their own circumstances, but such a message is quickly forgotten after being stunted by so many different tonal flops. The Harvest is begging to be something grittier, something that speaks to families who are trapped by dire circumstances, but it blandly settles for being a watered-down, Lifetime-esque attempt at parental horror.
The Harvest is a thriller that's plagued by tonal miscues, weak leading performances, and a complete lack of tension despite the film's dark, seedy nature.