Though it is little more than another peek inside a sick and diseased family, a movie wrapped in pretensions of an important social message, "My Son Johnny" is nonetheless a compelling -- and repelling -- piece of drama.
This based-on-fact CBS movie, which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, is allegedly trying to rip the covers off the problem of sibling abuse -- brothers and sisters beating and killing each other, a crime that, like spousal attacks, all too often remains a family secret.
It tells of Johnny and Anthony, brothers in a family that's set in Baltimore. (The actual events did not take place here, according to CBS.) Johnny plays with guns and knives. Anthony plays the saxophone. Johnny is charismatic and dangerous. Anthony is shy and vulnerable. The combination is volatile.
The boys' father has been dead for a number of years but his outmoded macho code continued to rule the house after his death. According to that code, Johnny's violent activities, particularly those directed at his brother, were just a case of "boys being boys."
Indeed, in the view of the father and their ultimately ineffectual mother, Johnny's bullying would do Anthony some good, toughen up his soft personality for the battles he would face out in the world, turn him into a real man.
As the story opens, Johnny is returning home after a stint in California. Exactly why he's back is not clear and, when confronted for details, Johnny is able to fast-talk his way out of every corner he is backed into.
But it is clear that Mom is glad to see the son that, despite his problems, is still the apple of her eye. And it is equally clear that Anthony is terrified that Johnny is back in the house.
Consider that this is a house with locks on the various family members' doors to keep Johnny from stealing and you get an idea of the type of environment you are entering when you watch "My Son Johnny."
The centerpiece of the film is a trio of fine performances. Rick Schroeder, who shed his "Silver Spoon" sitcom image in "Lonesome Dove," continues to stretch his considerable talents, making Johnny constantly dangerous but always able to draw quickly back from the edge and turn on the character's considerable charm.
Corin Nemec of Fox's "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" is given the tougher role of the more conflicted Anthony. Though, just as his character never could compete with Johnny, Nemec can't match the bravura work of Schroeder, he does manage a creditable characterization.
Michele Lee again shows that "Knots Landing" fans were watching a fine actress at work for all those years as she is completely convincing as the boys' mother.
Johnny's torment and abuse of his younger brother -- dramatized in flashbacks of horrible memories from their childhood -- come to a head one night, and Anthony finally talks back in the only language he has ever been taught -- that of violence. He gets his father's stashed-away gun and kills his brother.
Then the mother faces a "Sophie's Choice" of her own. In order to save her living son from a charge of first-degree murder, she must condemn her dead one.
And to do that, she must open doors on parts of her family's past that she had long since shut away. And she must open them so the whole world can see, violating a code of privacy that had clearly been drummed into her from an early age.
Convincing her to do just that is an attorney played by Rip Torn, who is given almost all the film's many didactic lines, the ones that list the number of sibling assaults and murders, the ones that talk about the reasons for such violence and its frequent cover-up.
But Torn is a fine actor in good company and comes through with some good work in the film's contentious courtroom scenes.
"My Son Johnny" has its problems. It has no hero, no up side, no good news. It is a visit to a land that offers little but trouble and despair. It also loses a few of its storylines. One major development -- an apparent revelation that Johnny has come back to work undercover for the FBI to get out of a drug charge in California -- gets totally lost in the shuffle. But there is still something resonant about Johnny, who can charm the adults like an Eddie Haskell but has to use muscle with the peers who see through his act.
"My Son Johnny" might be one of those movies that ultimately has the appeal of an auto accident: It's hard to keep from slowing down and looking at it.