A contemporary gloss on THE BAD SEED, THE GOOD SON rests on the pale shoulders of HOME ALONE star Macaulay Culkin, who plays the psychotic brat who's got everyone but his wide-eyed cousin fooled.
Ten-year-old Mark (Elijah Wood) suffers a double emotional blow when his mother dies and his father (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is forced to take a lengthy business trip to Japan. Mark is sent to stay with his uncle Jack (David Morse), Aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson) and cousins Connie (Quinn Culkin) and
Henry (Macaulay Culkin), who's his age. At first, Mark and Henry get along like a house on fire, indulging in childish pranks on the order of smashing windows, scaring cats with a homemade crossbow and playing war games in the picturesque Maine woods.
Mark soon realizes there are unsuspected depths to Henry, who threatens to topple Mark from a sky-high tree house ("If I drop you, do you think you could fly?"), heaves a lifelike dummy into traffic for the fun of seeing the cars pile up, kills a dog with the crossbow, and insinuates darkly that
he drowned his younger brother in the bathtub. But Henry's perfect son facade is so convincing that no-one believes Mark; everyone is convinced that he's just acting out the trauma of his mother's death. Mark believes that his mother has been reincarnated in Susan, and makes the mistake of
confiding this to Henry. Additionally fueled by jealousy, Henry's clandestine reign of terror escalates, and he hints that he intends to kill Connie. But even after she has a suspicious skating accident, Mark's fears are dismissed.
Only after Susan discovers Henry's secret playhouse (where the decor runs to hanged dolls and homemade lethal weapons), and finds the rubber duck missing from her dead baby's bath, does she begin to suspect the awful truth. THE GOOD SON's spectacularly literal climax involves a rocky cliff,
pounding waves, and the desperate Susan clinging to both boys, one on each arm, each a hair's breadth away from death. It becomes apparent that she can save only one: which will it be? Ultimately, she chooses Mark over her own son, whose body plunges into the sea below.
Directed by Joseph Ruben, whose credits include SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, THE STEPFATHER and TRUE BELIEVER, THE GOOD SON is less enigmatic than the title suggests. Written by British novelist Ian McEwan, whose "The Cement Garden" and "The Comfort of Strangers" (both of which have been made into
films) are darkly ambiguous stories of desire, deceptive appearances and hidden violence, THE GOOD SON is a second-rate thriller with first-rate production values. On a lower budget and without the hottest child star in America in the cast, Ruben and McEwan might have made a meaner, tougher and
more successful thriller.
From Henry's first appearance, wearing a scary mask of his own making (and carrying another, identical, one for Mark), it's painfully obvious what's going to happen, and the viewer is left to squirm at the criminal stupidity that afflicts everyone but Mark. The only real question is whether
Henry will actually die; fortunately, the constraints of formula dictate the little malefactor's demise, and Ruben and McEwan don't buck the trend.
THE GOOD SON's weakest link is Culkin, whose lush lips and kewpie-doll eyes are far less appealing on an adolescent than they were when he was a pre-teen, however questionable that attraction may have been. Henry was clearly meant to be a breakthrough role for the bankable Culkin (and the
movie's production was held up to accommodate his schedule), designed to prove that childish comedy is not the limit of his talents. Unfortunately, it proves nothing of the sort. Culkin's line delivery is flat--even when the line is as wonderful as, "I feel sorry for you Mark. You just don't know
how to have fun," delivered after Henry has caused a dreadful highway accident--and he's unable to suggest the menace that must lie just beneath the skin in order to generate any sort of proper suspense. Second billed Wood (whose credits include THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and FOREVER
YOUNG) is a far better actor, and his scenes with Culkin bring the child star's limitations into painful relief. (Violence.)
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