In Sleeping with the Enemy, Joseph Ruben established himself as a master of mise-en-scene, generating so much stillness, silence and poise that décor became a character in and of itself. He continued that project with The Good Son, working with an Ian McEwan script that revolves around an evil child. This kind of lush approach was especially characteristic of 90s telemovies, or releases that straddled the line between movie and telemovie, and The Good Son is very close to a daytime weepie in its opening scenes, which are pure melodrama. We follow Mark Evans, a young child played by Elijah Wood, from a soccer game to his mother’s deathbed, then to her funeral, and finally to his cousin’s house in Maine, after his father discovers that he can only afford to keep them both afloat if he brokers one last deal in Tokyo.
This compressed prologue effectively exhausts melodrama, forcing the film to migrate into horror once Mark arrives at his cousin’s place. Right from the start, there’s a profound sense of culture shock here, and not just because Mark hasn’t seen this side of the family since he was a baby. Mark grew up in New Mexico, so the Maine shoreline is profoundly strange – he’s served a full lobster for his first dinner – while the presence of water is uncanny in and of itself. Gradually, Mark learns that one of his cousins, Richard, drowned in the bathtub, although he’s soon distracted by his friendship with another cousin, Henry, played by Macaulay Culkin. Henry quickly draws Mark into his circle, and he’s edgy enough to be genuinely compelling, even if something is clearly off about his mannerisms from the outset.
That strangeness is foregrounded from Henry’s first appearance, when he hangs down the staircase in a slasher-like mask. Apparently Culkin’s father would only agree to sign him up for Home Alone 2 if he was given the role here, and in many ways The Good Son is like a darker version of Home Alone 2 – a more authentic evolution of the character that brought Culkin such fame. In Home Alone, Kevin McAllister kept the burglars at bay because he had to, but by Home Alone 2 he was deliberately luring them in and torturing them for pleasure, giving rise to the popular fan theory that he grew up to be Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. The Good Son plays more seriously with that sociopathic side of Kevin, and Culkin’s screen persona, offering it as a source of melodrama, and then horror, rather than as crude physical comedy.
That’s not to say that The Good Son isn’t funny, though, since Henry is wonderfully evil. It’s a small step from precocity to sociopathy, both for Culkin and Kevin, so you sense Culkin reflecting, in his own way, on his star image at moments here. While Henry does things that are transparently threatening, Culkin is most memorable when channelling the sociopath’s capacity to dissemble and mimic normal behaviours. In fact, his offbeat comedy stems from precisely this sense that Henry, like Culkin, is mimicking normality, but not quite getting it right, even though it’s not initially clear why he’d even need to mimic it in the first place. On top of all that, Ruben shoots certain scenes as clear homages to Home Alone, making the film a kind of riff on what audiences expect from child stars, and what it means to be a child star.
No surprise, then, that Henry is synonymous with the figurative field of the film as a whole. From the moment Mark meets him, Henry is a cipher for spatial exploration, spending their first night together taking Mark through the house, and their first day together taking Mark on a tour of their seaside town. This immediately bonds the two boys, and provides Mark with a new kind of worldliness, as Mark shows him the gazebo and treehouse on his property, and then takes him to an abandoned factory and railway line, before ending with a cemetery that offers a panoramic vista of the entire town and surrounding coastline. During this tour, and the explorations that follow, Henry reveals that he’s obsessively jealous of his mother Susan, which creates an odd synergy with Mark, who’s also, in his own way, fixated on maternal loss.
For Mark, then, growing up is quite a vertiginous and accelerated prospect around Henry – and the film takes this quite literally, elongating Mark’s sense of vertical space as Henry introduces him to the house and town. Early on that first day, Henry makes Mark accompany him into a treehouse that is so high, and so inaccessible, that no parent in their right mind would permit it, let alone construct it. Later in the day, they both balance on the edge of a huge well at the heart of the cemetery, as Ruben collapses the town below them into the yawning expanse of this shaft in the ground. Henry nonchalantly observes that he could push Mark into the well if he wanted, while asking him to shake his hand precariously over the top.
To some extent, vertical space here stands in for space itself, since Maine is so different from New Mexico that it’s as if Mark is experiencing physical space for the first time. On the trip from New Mexico to Maine, Mark and his father Jack pass through the most spectacular landscapes we see in the film – a series of baroque rock formations lit by the evening sun – but Mark is so buried in his grief that he can’t even look up from his Game Boy. Jack actually pulls the car over to console Mark by drawing attention to the beauty around them, suggesting that the first step in contending with grief is reacquainting oneself with the sheer majesty of the physical world. We only see Mark once before the grief sets in, during the opening credits, but he’s more engaged with physical space there than at any point before the third act – in the midst of a football game, light years away from the Game Boy console.
This sense that physical space can be a balm for grief extends to Susan, Henry’s mother, who mourns her son Richard by periodically communing with the most vividly vertical and vertiginous space in the film – an unbelievably precipitous promontory that Ruben can only capture by positioning his camera on an adjoining cliff face. This promontory was the main thing I remembered from the film after seeing it as a child – or, rather, I remembered vertical trajectories that corresponded to this promontory (and eventually converged on it). That memory suggests to me that the film is made for children as much as adults, since it taps into those vertical trajectories that are so primal for children, not unlike the early films of Steven Spielberg, or the dramatic high and low angle shots that animate Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol.
The camera thoroughly absorbs those trajectories too, moving through horizontal space as if it’s falling vertically. That’s not exactly to say that the camera moves rapidly, but that scale and perspective change very quickly, evoking the way that the ground and objects on the ground might rise towards you if you were falling. This is clearest in the establishing shots of Henry’s house, which split the difference between pans and dolly zooms. They often start low and come in high, or vice versa, moving past intermediary objects in ways that make it difficult to discern their scale, while collapsing different planes of space as they move through them.
In other words, Henry’s house is the epicentre of all the vertical sightlines of the film. But it also generates those sightlines by enabling Henry’s sociopathy in the first place, which means that this vertiginous quality extends to his sightlines in turn, even when they’re not strictly vertical. This is clear in the sightlines that Ruben constructs around Henry’s homemade crossbow, and dramatized more extensively in a prank that Henry calls “Mr. Highway.” The name already evokes horizontal space, which Ruben reiterates in two sustained lateral sequences – Henry and Mark walking along a rock face, and then along a road through a wood, as the camera mirrors their movement with the longest tracking-shot of the film. Yet these horizontal trajectories are quickly absorbed into the starkest act of vertical brinksmanship so far – setting up a life-size doll (“Mr Highway”) on an overpass and flinging him down into the cars below.
At this point, Henry frames his sociopathy by way of the most defiant riposte to vertical space yet – by confessing to Mark that he yearns to fly. As Mark looks on at the traffic piling up in horror, Henry glibly informs him that “once you realise you can do anything you’re free, you can fly” while cautioning him “don’t be afraid to fly.” When we return to Henry’s bedroom, his poster of “Eagles, Hawks and Falcons” feels that little bit more prominent on the wall, while Henry now seems to be summoning the film’s vertical trajectories into existence as so many preconditions for the sociopathic juncture when he finally leaves the ground altogether.
With Henry summoning space to receive his flight, space itself becomes more fluid as the film proceeds. While the Maine landscape is different in various ways from New Mexico, Ruben reduces it to one key ingredient – water. In the early scenes, New Mexico is just as vertiginous, but it’s all rock, while all the vertical trajectories in Maine tend to liquefy space and end with water or snow, from the treehouse perched above the ice, to the well in the cemetery, to the enormous promontory poised over the ocean. As remote as it seems, this promontory is a cognate to (or even a condensed version of) Henry’s house, since both spaces are frequently shot from vantage points that seem to situate them right in the middle of the ocean – the promontory from a second cliff, and Henry’s house from its own back porch. The ocean is always palpably and physically present too, roiling and bristling under the brisk winter winds.
This contrast is even starker in that the first shot of the film (and the last) pans into Mark as he stands on a desert promontory, as if staring out into the ocean. In that sense, the move from New Mexico is psychological as much as physical, a flooding of the desert with amniotic fluid, as Mark and Henry both try in their different ways to fall vertically back into the womb. Beyond a certain point, this isn’t a realistic Maine town, but one unbelievable promontory after another, so it makes sense that the film actually takes place in a composite of towns, as no single settlement could boast this many sublime vantage points. Watching The Good Son is like seeing the land from the ocean’s perspective – less a matter of discrete human points than a concatenation of those locations where the land intrudes most drastically into water.
In other words, the film is shot from the imaginary womb space that Henry and Mark are both striving to occupy – Henry by killing off any other children who compete with him, and Mark by trying to figure out how to honour his mother’s assurance that she will always be with him, and that he will always be connected to her womb. The tipping-point comes at the most precarious space between land and water – a pond that has only partially frozen over. Taking his sister Connie right up to the threshold where the ice becomes unstable, Mark flings her past the safety markers, into an amorphous zone where solid and liquid water vie for supremacy. Finally, Connie succumbs, as Henry watches on, and while she’s saved, it requires the paternal spectacle of lumberjacks with axes to bring her back – all so many surrogates for the father who you feel must be Henry’s final victim if this killing spree is allowed to continue.
This moment is a tipping-point in more ways than one, since it allows Henry and Mark to clarify their shared project to each other, along with their different and competing ways of getting there. There can be no doubt to Mark that Henry is a sociopath after witnessing this display, and yet Mark also realises, and tells Henry, how he can honour his mother’s memory as well – by finding surrogate mothers, starting with Susan, Henry’s own mother. This prompts Henry’s first threat, the only expletive in the film, and the only overt reference to sex – “Don’t fuck with me, Mark” – as Mark slides down the rope that leads to the treehouse, now framed as an enormous umbilical cord. By the time he gets down, he and Henry are on opposite ends, determined to cut off the other, while assuring themselves they’re each on the womb side.
No surprise, then, that Henry turns out to have drowned Richard, a gesture that both captures his jealousy and his need to punish anyone who’s closer than him to the amniotic fluidity that the camera encapsulates. Yet this very revelation introduces a new comic dimension to the film, as if Kevin McAllister absorbed all the bullies in the McAllister family into one perfect study in sociopathy – or revealed the family to be that study in sociopathy as an institution in and of itself. While Mark would be the first of many brilliantly plaintive roles that Wood perfected, this last act completely belongs to Culkin, who brokers his comic capacities into an increasingly Gothic finale, for the most significant evolution in his career after Home Alone.
Ruben draws out this comedy by accentuating a contrast that has been building throughout the film – between the plush serenity of Henry’s house and the total lack of supervision from Henry’s parents, who propel him and Mark towards industrial (factory) and infrastructural (abandoned railway) spaces that seem totally at odds with the cosiness of their hearth and home. In Sleeping with the Enemy, Ruben focused on a psychopath who beat his wife because she could never quite locate herself within his domestic décor with the right amount of tact, and a complementary process occurs here, as Henry’s parents repress what they must already know – that he murdered Richard – by erecting a plethora of rich interior design. In both cases, lush décor forms a kind of repression, a denial of atavistic impulses that are very much present even or especially as they seem to have been smoothed away on the cusp of the 90s.
Mark’s initial response to this situation is quite concrete – he tries to outdo Henry’s power to liquefy the house, most viscerally by dumping all the food in the kitchen blender after Henry suggests he might have poisoned something. But he soon realises he has to address the house itself as a blind spot, which means he has to address Henry’s parents’ wilful oblivion to their son’s sociopathy – and Henry’s own assurance that they could never suspect their own son of murder. Again, this oblivion, and reassurance, plays out as comedy as much as horror, most enjoyable when the parents go out, leave the three children alone in a remote three-storey house, and comment blithely about their safety as all the lights go off in the background. In effect, Henry occupies all the sightlines and spaces, all the blind spots in the house, that you’d expect from a slasher, especially after cutting the fuses for this blackout scene, when he prowls from room to room and terrifies Mark as a John Carpenter-like synth theme emerges.
In order to contend with the supreme oblivion of Henry’s parents qua house, Mark has to opt for a more elective model of parenthood, and a queerer model of parenthood. At a critical moment of vulnerability, when Mark is mourning his mother, and Susan is also mourning Richard, he asks her if she will embody his mother for him and, remarkably, she agrees. This leads onto an even more remarkable ending, in which Susan, now apprised of Henry’s sociopathy, finds herself clutching onto both boys after a scramble on her promontory, and chooses to let Henry fall to his death, in a darkly comic riff upon the finale of Sophie’s Choice.
We only see the aftermath of Susan’s Choice figuratively, as Ruben now cuts back to Mark on that opening cliff, staring out at the desert as if he’s gazing at the ocean, though the inflection is different now. Even in the depths of the desert, he’ll always be assured of the ocean’s presence, and his mother’s amniotic caress, just as it took her death to bring him to the sea in the first place, and so realise that he could elect to find her wherever he chose. It’s a powerful vision of elective parenthood, and queer parenthood, of children choosing parents, rather than vice versa – a gesture of hope that still feels futuristic thirty years into the future.