The Harvest derives a surprising amount of tension by compelling the audience to guess whether it intends to follow the narrative framework of a sappy children’s tragedy like My Girl or go full-tilt crazy a la Misery. Director John McNaughton, once an agile orchestrator of seemingly incompatible tones (particularly in his underrated crime-comedy hybrids Mad Dog and Glory and Wild Things), has retained his talent for teasing insinuation. Quite a bit of this film can be read two or three ways: literally, as presented; ironically, as a vague comment on some sort of intangible domestic evil; or occasionally even satirically, as illustrated by any moment that features Peter Fonda gleefully chewing the scenery as a hippie grand-pappy all too eager to dispense progressively tolerant flower-power platitudes. Like a number of recent horror films, The Harvest plays with the notion of withholding the conventional horror element for so long as to potentially cancel itself out, reveling in the heightened forebode of unconfirmed malevolency.
The plot initially scans as a disease-of-the-week tearjerker. Katherine (Samantha Morton) is a doctor privately caring for her son, Andy (Charlie Tahan), who suffers from a mysterious illness that confines him to a wheelchair and necessitates his homeschooling. Andy’s father, Richard (Michael Shannon), has quit working to care for his son while Katherine tends to her practice during the day in an arrangement that’s clearly taking a toll on the couple’s relationship. Richard feels emasculated, while Katherine is empowered with an increasingly obsessive form of entitlement that gradually comes to resemble abuse, particularly toward Andy, whom she shelters from proper rehab as well as every other tenet of the outside world. Disrupting this unstable arrangement is Maryann (Natasha Calis), a little girl who moves in with her grandparents next door to Andy, immediately proceeding to befriend the desperately lonely boy, to Katherine’s escalating chagrin.
The lingering question, of course, pertains to just how crazy the parents really are, as well as to the exact nature of Andy’s sickness. Most of the actors, particularly Shannon, hit the right intangibly “off” notes that are necessary to sustaining this sort of suggestive, nearly surreal unease (Morton, though commanding, eventually goes uncharacteristically over the top, tipping the film’s hand). McNaughton effectively complements the performances with a formal gambit that might be borrowed from A History of Violence, staging most scenes so that the action is dead center in the frame, with pointedly few spontaneous visual flourishes. This straightforwardly pared aesthetic leaves one feeling both constricted and suspicious in such potentially sinister contexts, eager to plumb the images for something that might be hiding in plain sight. (A good, sick twist rewards this scrutiny.) A pat, rushed conclusion dampens the spell a bit, but The Harvest is still a nasty and accomplished thriller that serves as a disquieting throwback to McNaughton’s earlier work.