Culkin's 'Good Son' falls far short of divinely sinister 'Bad Seed'

September 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Good Son"

Starring Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Woods

Directed by Joseph Ruben

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R

... **

The big hoot of the 1956 movie season was the treacly ending Hollywood tacked onto its version of Maxwell Anderson's famous stage hit "The Bad Seed."

Whereas on Broadway, murderous little Patty McCormack had been allowed to go chillingly free, the then-potent Production Code mandated just desserts. Thus, McCormack wanders out onto a dock in a rainstorm in the film's last few minutes where the old Special Effects Master in the Sky sends a convenient lightning bolt to turn her into medium rare Patty-kebab.

Yet as cornball as that is, it is infinitely superior to "The Good

Son," a kind of content-free clone of "The Bad Seed" adjusted downward for '90s' tastes. You might think of "The Good Son" as the ultimate high concept movie: the concept, in fact, was so high they filmed it instead of the story.

The concept: Macaulay Culkin, with his angelic cuteness, as killer.

That's it. That's the movie. There's nothing more.

"The Bad Seed," however clunky and stagy it may have been, was at least animated by an idea; it argued that the predilection for crime was genetically determined. The McCormack character was literally a "bad seed," and despite her corn silk hair, freckles and gingham dresses, was so infected at the genetic level (as inherited from a bad father) she could not help disposing of several playmates and working people who got in her way.

"The Good Son" supplies no theory at all behind its corn silk-haired young star's penchant for mayhem and director Joseph Ruben has worked hard to strip the film of all nuance or subtext. Even the most fundamental details of the story -- what people do for a living, how they ended up where they did, all those things that make a story believable -- go ignored. The movie is clutter free, baring the stage for Culkin's Henry, who turns out to be merely a pint-sized version of Jason, the hockey-masked psycho from the "Friday the 13th" series.

Entry into Henry's home, an imposing seacoast mansion in Maine, is achieved via 12-year-old Mark Evans (Elijah Wood), a cousin dropped off there when his recently bereaved father must fly to Tokyo to close a mysterious business deal. Mark soon notes that cousin Henry, behind his cuteness and apparent lovability, is chillingly remote and manipulative. At the same time, Mark bonds intensely to Henry's grieving mother who has herself recently lost a child -- Henry's young brother, dead in a suspicious bathtub drowning.

The clear implication which goes completely undramatized is that Henry has an insanely furious attachment to his mother which causes him to react homicidally when a challenger for her affections -- such as little brother or visiting cousin -- approaches. But so one-dimensional is the Culkin performance and so one-dimensional is the Ruben direction that it never becomes a factor in the family dynamic. The family has no dynamic.

This stands in contrast not only to "The Bad Seed" but to Ruben's best film, "The Stepfather," which played with a similar device. One family member saw through the facade of seeming perfection of the new family member to his heart of evil but could get no one to believe her, until it was almost too late. But in that one, Ruben did a brilliant job of evoking the nuances of the Stepfather's pathology; he was a terrifying exemplar of parental authority and sitcom notions of domestic perfectibility gone wacko.

In "The Good Son," the logic behind the story is all visual: Henry is evil simply because he's fair, quiet, and exquisitely beautiful and thus the contrast between his outer and inner selves will be more shocking. It's the same ancient notion as the discredited femme fatale: that evil is more dramatic when concealed behind beauty.

And that's it. What's left is a random accumulation of neural impulses and idiotic scenes. In one, the "good son" pulls out a "homemade" crossbow so complex that it couldn't have been built by the MIT physics department on a $250,000 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. In another, Henry makes a flamboyant attempt on his sister's life in plain view of about 200 people, none of whom notice.

But "The Good Son" reaches its height of appalling idiocy in a climax that's nothing less than that old chestnut from six decades of cheesy westerns, the fight at the edge of the cliff. Yet there's something pitifully coarse about small boys made to act out such absurd rituals of adult violence; it's heartbreakingly vulgar and deeply offensive. I much preferred the lightning bolt. It may have been cornball, but it certainly wasn't blasphemy.

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