It's always interesting to return to films I enjoyed as a kid and find out if they still hold up. In many cases they do, even if it is with a heavy dose of nostalgia. And then there are times when the problems with a flawed film that I was able to overlook as a young one become far more apparent with adulthood. The Good Son is one that definitely falls into the second category. Controversial when it was released mainly because of it's casting child star Macaulay Culkin as a murderous kid, today comes off a like a bit of a dud.
The film opens with young Mark (played by Elijah Wood) having recently lost his mother. His father (played by David Morse) is leaving him in the care of his Aunt Susan (played by Wendy Crewson) and Uncle Wallace (played by Daniel Hugh Kelly), while he goes away on a very important business trip (How important? Apparently after it, he and Mark will be "set for life." Wow, that is important. And also annoyingly vague. Oh well, I'm here for homicidal pre-teens not family drama so onward with the half-assed plot machinations!). Once they arrive in the picturesque Maine village where they live, Mark gets settled and meets his cousins, the clearly odd Henry (played by Culkin) and Connie (played by played by Quinn Culkin). Henry starts introducing his cousin to his dark and twisted world slowly, taking him up to his ridiculously high tree house. How high is it? If anyone fell from there, it'd be a guaranteed death*. Which begs the question why anyone would let the kid build it in the first place? Its just the first of many red flags that the parents in this movie are terrible. This is followed by a run through the graveyard and a smoke by the old well.
Things escalate from there as Henry shows off his homemade crossbow/bolt gun contraption to Mark which leads to them first trying to scare the ultimately unfazed family cat, or so Mark thinks since Henry says in his even keel monotone that the sight isn't right yet. Second time out, Henry manages to successfully take out a vicious dog that apparently just runs freely around the village (because it just shows up in one scene out of nowhere with no explanation of where it came from or where it belongs). Still reeling from that little bit of animal homicide, Henry then introduces Mark to a dummy he constructed that he has named Mr. Highway. Mark and Henry haul Mr. Highway out to a nearby overpass and Henry tosses Mr. Highway off the side, causing a ten car pileup because people thought it was an actual person and swerved out of the way. Mark finally decides to tell his Uncle Wallace what has been going on but is stopped just before he does by Henry, who threatens Mark with blaming everything on him. For whatever reason, Henry continues to include Mark in his future plans which include offing his sister Connie much like he did his baby brother Richard a few years ago.
It's at this point that a film that is already straining plausibility to the max falls headfirst into cliche and Idiot Plot Syndrome. For those not familiar with the term, Idiot Plot Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like; in order for the plot to progress everyone has to act like a complete idiot. In this case, it's all of the adults. Everywhere Mark turns Henry pops up and apparently Henry has them all charmed into thinking he's a good kid and that Mark is the one troubled. He even manages to fool the town's child psychologist Mark had been visiting with, which strains credibility even further because not only is she a trained professional, but the stuff Henry says sounds so unconvincing and so much like utter bullshit I can't believe anyone buys it.
There are two big problems in this movie. One is the plotting is all wrong, with none of the adults raising any concern or noticing Henry is a twisted little brat. The kids are allowed to run freely around the village and surrounding areas, including some extremely high cliffs, which seems unlikely at best, build ridiculously high tree houses and play around old and very deep wells. The second is the larger problem and it's Culkin's performance as Henry. It's just not convincing. As a kid I thought it was fairly creepy the way he spoke in a soulless monotone but now it's almost annoying. Then around adults he puts on an act of being a sweet little goody two shoes, except every note of is unconvincing. He's just trying too hard to be a sweet innocent kid and therefore it all rings false. The fact that the parents, the psychiatrist and literally anyone else doesn't pick up on this hurts the credibility of the film. Given Elijah Wood's future acting roles, I can't help but wonder if the movie would've been better if the two kids had switched roles. Wood does well in the hero role, but as the more talented actor, he could have made Henry a more compelling and convincing character.
It's funny to revisit this film after so many years with a more mature sensibility. What I once thought was a creepy little film now just appears as a poorly thought out and at times terribly cliche one (it even has Henry holding a flashlight below his face at one point. Honestly, was that ever scary?). The film does have a memorable and suspenseful ending but after an hour and twenty minutes of absurd melodrama, does it even matter? Even that is ruined with some really cheesy narration from Mark. In the end, not only does The Good Son not hold up well as a film, I find myself wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.
*This is an intentional reference to a far better film about troubled kids, Moonrise Kingdom. I wholeheartedly recommend watching it over this movie.