Director – Joseph Ruben, Screenplay – Ian McEwan, Producers – Joseph Ruben & Mary Anne Page, Photography – John Lindley, Music – Elmer Bernstein, Production Design – Bill Groom. Production Company – 20th Century Fox.
Elijah Wood (Mark Evans), Macaulay Culkin (Henry Evans), Wendy Crewson (Susan Evans), Quinn Culkin (Connie Evans), Daniel Hugh Kelly (Wallace Evans), David Morse (Jack Evans), Jacqueline Brooks (Dr Alice Davenport)
After Mark Evans’ mother dies, his father decides that their best chance to obtain a secure future is for him to take a job in Japan for a year. Mark is placed with his uncle’s family in Rock Harbour. There Mark becomes good friends with his cousin Henry. However, the games that Henry drags Mark into become increasingly malicious. As Mark tries to prevent Henry from playing a game that will kill his sister Connie and maybe the whole family, the smiling Henry makes Mark’s attempts to stop him seem to the others that it is him being emotionally unstable.
This psycho-thriller reads like an unofficial remake of The Bad Seed (1956) – albeit minus the hereditary predeterminism debate and with the sex roles of the evil child changed. The modern psycho-thriller subsequent to Fatal Attraction (1987) has a recurring subtext about the family unit or middle-class life rent asunder. The Good Son has a clear subtext about a canker sitting inside the American nuclear family. Indeed, the headlined name of Macaulay Culkin, the obnoxiously cute, wholesome kid superstar from the Home Alone (1990) and My Girl (1991), is central here – The Good Son was an opportunity for Macaulay Culkin to trash his wholesome image, something that he does rather well with his smilingly evil and calculated plays on adult’s emotions.
Unfortunately, and despite a script by acclaimed British novelist Ian McEwan, The Good Son never manages its theme or subtext in anything other than a routine way. It fails to place the American nuclear family on the rack – indeed, the only journey the film makes at the end (unlike director Joseph Ruben’s excellent The Stepfather (1987) and its savage interrogation of the nuclear family) is not to question any concept of child evil and what gives birth to it psychologically but merely to restore the status quo of a happy family.
All the surprises are predictable – Wendy Crewson fate is spelt out from the moment she demonstrates a predilection for clifftop solitudes. What surprises there are are provided by Joseph Ruben. Ruben previously made two excellent psycho-thrillers – The Stepfather and the underrated Sleeping With the Enemy (1991). (See below for Joseph Ruben’s other films).
The best that can be said for The Good Son is that Joseph Ruben’s tension-racking does raise the film out of the routine – the scenes with the hunt through the house as Elijah Wood tries to protect Quinn Culkin; the cliff-edge climax; and particularly the scene on the ice where Macaulay Culkin throws Quinn out toward the thin ice and her seat-edge rescue from under the ice. Ruben brings to the film some stunning photography – making breathtaking compositions out of the ochre landscape of the opening Las Vegas desert scenes, which become a marked contrast to the majestic and hauntingly bleak Massachusetts coastline.
The Good Son was the most high-profile of a series of killer child films that came out around the same time. Others include Mikey (1992), Relative Fear (1994) and Daddy’s Girl (1996).
Director Joseph Ruben seemed a promising thriller director on the basis of The Stepfather (1987) and Sleeping With the Enemy (1991), although disappointed with subsequent efforts like Money Train (1995) and Return to Paradise (1998). He also made two science-fiction films, Dreamscape (1984) about psychic dream therapists, and the alien abduction film The Forgotten (2004). Screenwriter Ian McEwan is an award-winning novelist who produced the work that was the basis of the acclaimed Atonement (2007).