The Good Son (1993)

12 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Good Son” is a thriller that features a good nephew, but not a good son. But as the parents see it, it’s the nephew that concerns them more than the son, whose deeds are surprisingly unnoticed by them. Of course, he seems like the sweet innocent kid that the parents would like to think they’ve raised him to be. But instead, the boy—named Henry—is a diabolical little demon that makes his cousin Mark’s life a living hell while also causing great harm to family members, innocent bystanders, and a dog.

As if poor Mark didn’t have enough to go through already. He’s already lost his mother after making a promise that he wouldn’t let her die. His father leaves him in his time of need at his brother’s house on an island in Maine for a couple of weeks so that on his business trip, he’ll have enough money for them both to be set for life. Mark gets along well with his aunt and uncle, and their two children—one of whom, of course, is the little demon spawn named Henry. Henry and Mark become good friends and hang out around the island. But later on, Mark has his suspicions of Henry’s true nature as Henry kills a dog with an invention he made that shoots nails and screws. He becomes even more convinced that the kid is sick when he throws a man-size dummy on a highway, causing multiple cars to crash into each other.

Henry’s sole explanation as to why he’s this way is revealed only to Mark, as he tells Mark that he was as scared as he was before he found ways to get away with doing certain things. But those “certain things” wind up harming innocent people. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the screenplay had been written so that another part of Henry’s influence was watching violent action movies? Wouldn’t it make a more effective, chilling message if movie violence were the cause of the development for a child’s sociopathic mind?

But no—Henry is just plain evil at a shockingly young age, and I suppose that’s enough reason for us as a movie audience to be frightened by him. Henry is played by Macaulay Culkin, the sweet, charming kid from the family hit movie “Home Alone.” He’s playing against type in “The Good Son,” but sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t. In the first half of the movie, he does very well at keeping the balance between guilt and innocence. He just seems like the kid whom everyone his age would like to be friends with, but he still gives hints about his true nature that would fool them. The development that leads Mark to really see his true nature is handled effectively as well. Mark befriends Henry, they hang out together, Mark is suspicious of him after a while, and then he sees something that really convinces him that Henry is not a “good son.” But the problem is that Culkin isn’t convincing when playing sinister. He speaks in a monotone voice and with a deep, twisted philosophy that a James Bond villain would have—only to Mark, of course. Where did he learn to talk like this? His parents are good-natured, he doesn’t watch TV, and he’s already stated that he doesn’t read comic books. This can’t be natural, but to be fair, I think this has more to do with the writing rather than Culkin himself.

Culkin does seem like an innocent child whom you wouldn’t suspect of any wrongdoing, so that gives him an edge. And when Mark tries to tell people about the boy’s psychotic antics, no one believes them. They don’t want to—they want to believe that Henry is the good little boy that he only pretends to be. And soon, it is Mark they all come to fear. But here’s the main problem with “The Good Son”—with his sophisticated speech that I’ve already mentioned, Henry doesn’t seem much like a kid. No kid talks the way he does. And it’s hard to believe that later in the movie, the parents and even a child psychologist can’t tell that this little robot is lying.

The script has many problems like that. One in particular is with that scene in which Henry and Mark watch the cars pile up after the dummy falls onto the street. We see a brief news report about the incident, but the dummy is never mentioned. Neither are the two kids who were in plain sight on the bridge above. There’s another moment in the middle of the movie that is inexcusable. It’s when Henry takes his little sister (played by Culkin’s real-life sister Quinn) to go ice-skating on a frozen pond and then pushes her onto some thin ice, which she falls through. Get this—she falls through the thin ice and yet her rescuers walk on it fine…and use an axe to break through it and save the girl! What conveniently thin ice.

Elijah Wood, as Mark, gives the film’s best performance. He’s the kind of kid that Henry’s parents see Henry as, and Wood has a natural screen presence that doesn’t bore us or make us want him to go away. It’s so hard not to feel sorry for Mark in this truly messed-up situation.

The ending is the more suspenseful piece of filmmaking to be found here. It involves the two boys and Henry’s mother (Wendy Crewson) on top of a cliff. Without giving too much away, it leads to a masterful climax. But then immediately following it is the film’s final line, which is completely unnecessary and kind of sick, the way it asks about the mother’s choices. To sum up “The Good Son” is like this—Elijah Wood’s performance is effective, the setup is good, the photography is lovely (the way it captures the island as if it were a painting), and the climax is suspenseful; but the writing is devoid of substance and reality. And the question that it all comes down to is, “Do we really want to see Macaulay Culkin in an R-rated movie about a young killer?”

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