Cinema Dispatch: The Prodigy

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The Prodigy and all the images you see in this review are owned by Orion Pictures

Directed by Nicholas McCarthy

You know, now that I think about it… I’m a lot more receptive to EVIL KID movies than I would have initially thought!  Sure you’ve got the classics like The Exorcist and The Omen, but I still maintain that The Boy is a pretty excellent horror film and I even enjoyed The Devil’s Due as ridiculous as it was!  Now clearly this movie is trying to ride the horror trend that was set by The Babdook and then buried into the ground by Hereditary, and not only is this obvious from the poster that’s blatantly ripping off the latter, you can see from the trailers that this is the horror film that has AMBITIONS!  The kind of horror film that’s at least shot like something you’re supposed to take seriously, so maybe we have something GREAT on our hands!  Oh wait; it’s a horror film in February.  Let’s uh… dial back those expectations, even if I’m STILL pretty sure I’ll like this more than Hereditary.  Is this the kind of horror film that’ll make the earlier parts of the year that much easier to get through, or is just another bump in the road as we try desperately to make it to the first Marvel film of the year?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with… well a lot of stuff happening.  Sarah (Taylor Schlling) and John (Peter Mooney) are about to give birth on the night that a woman named Margaret (Brittany Allen) manages to escape from a serial killer on the other side of town.  The good news is that she escapes and makes to someone who calls the cops for her.  The bad news is that she didn’t QUITE get away scot-free as the killer managed to take one of her hands before she escaped.  Said killer by the way, Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux), finds out that Margaret escaped and does the only thing he CAN do in that situation!  Run out the front door naked and screaming until the cops shoot him dead!  At the same time this is going on, Sarah has given birth to her son Miles and I’m SURE these two events won’t connect in some fashion!  Anyway, we cut to several years later where Miles has grown to be a super smart yet social awkward eight year old (Jackson Robert Scott) and seems to be exhibiting more and more behavioral issues as the days go by.  He attacks one of his classmates at the super fancy school, he starts saying inappropriate things to his parents, and he even starts to act like a total creeper which is freaking his parents out and each day the fear more and more what he is truly capable of.  Is there something wrong with Miles that can be fixed with counseling and well-regulated medication, or will this problem call for more… unorthodox solutions?  Will Sarah go to any lengths imaginable, and even some unimaginable, in order to protect her son even if he IS acting like a total jerk?  Is it just me, or is this kid trying out to be the next Hannibal Lecter?

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“Tell me about the lambs, Clarice.”     “Geez, you’re parents let you watch THAT movie?  No wonder you need help.”

Eh… this isn’t a bad movie, but it’s one of those films where the last five minutes evaporated any good will that I had built up for it.  Endings are difficult; something that I’m sure you didn’t need me to tell you, but it’s the most important part to get right because it’s the last thing you’re audience will leave with as well as the culmination of the story.  Sure some people might get turned off right away with a bad opening or maybe a saggy middle can rob the back end of a lot of its impact, but a bad ending will turn a great movie into something almost unwatchable; lest we forget that The Coen Brothers effectively split audiences in half with one of their best movies, No Country for Old Men.  Is there good stuff in this movie?  Yeah, certainly.  There’s even a decent story in this for the most part, but as things keep going along it becomes clear that we’re slowly heading towards a total train wreck that COULD have been avoided in much more skilled hands, but sadly they weren’t onboard for this journey and all we could do was brace for impact.

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“You monster!  That was the screenwriter!!  NOW who’s gonna finis the third act!?”

There are some creative (and also hilarious) jump scares throughout which do a great job of keeping the tension up, and the actors certainly pull their weight with the heavy material they’re working with.  Even the kid is pretty convincing, though there are moments that stretch credulity and possibly even good taste with what he’s asked to do at certain points.  Still, it’s a compelling premise at first which carries a lot of the movie through the first two thirds, and Taylor Schilling proves to be more than capable of handling this kind of dark subject matter with aplomb.  Also worth noting is how solid the cinematography is throughout.  At first I thought they were being overly stuffy in a vain attempt to be a “respectable” horror film, but once things get going and the scares start to pop up, the style really comes into its own in a big way.

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How does this kid keep finding more tools!?

Well that all sounds great, right?  For the most part I’d be inclined to agree… but then we get the ending, and this is one of those scenarios where the ending completely destroys what could have been a solid movie.  Maybe I’m overreacting a bit and I’ve been trying not to do that as often as I have in the past, but it’s hard for me to defend where this movie ends up going and what the implications are supposed to be.  In my opinion, a horror movie that just wants to make you feel bad is doing a bad job of being a horror movie.  That doesn’t mean there’s no room for nuance in that answer (you can HAVE dour endings or deal with heavy subject matter in a way that doesn’t get fully resolved), but in this case I’d say that the film firmly falls onto the wrong side of that equation.  From my point of view, a sad ending is one that has to make you think; something that ties into some overriding theme that the rest of the movie is building up on.  I’m trying to think of one, and the only answers I can KIND of come up with are in no way flattering to the film.  What this movie is implying about the way the world works is pretty sickening and not in a way that GOOD horror movies are; rather ones that have no sense of taste to them.  I GUESS some people will engage with its utterly depraved and nihilistic “lore” if you want to call it that, but what it sets up is so hollow and plain that there’s no deeper meaning to be gleaned from it.  In order to be at least a LITTLE less vague here, I’m gonna dive into major spoilers so if you don’t want to know what happens, skip to the next part of the review.  I’ve still got some killer material to get to after the spoilers!  I promise!

We good?  Alright, so the movie sets up, without any sort of connection to a specific cultural understanding or even its own fully realized mythology, the idea of reincarnation which is what’s happening with Miles.  For WHATEVER REASON, the serial killer who died that night was reborn upon his death and his soul was infused with the baby’s; more or less creating a split personality.  The movie name check’s “Eastern Religions” with seemingly no understanding of their belief system (if they DO have an understanding it certainly doesn’t show up on screen) and unlike something like Child’s Play where the “soul transference” happens entirely due to the killer’s actions, this one gives no indication that he was in fact planning on being reincarnated.  So what are we supposed to assume from that?  That God or Thor or whatever deity of your choosing had the world set up so that murdering rapists can just be reborn for no reason?  See, this is why so many possession movies invoke Satan or demons because, at least to most audiences, there’s a cultural understanding of what that means and the kind of world that such a story would exist in.  Even something like Frailty which also has a dismally grim worldview managed to tell a compelling story and still kept things at least somewhat ambiguous because it was ABOUT SOMETHING!  God gets evoked in that movie rather than Satan and so the film raises the specter of Christian fundamentalism and even religiously invoked violence.  There are thematic underpinnings that and many other similar movies that are COMPLETELY ABSENT here!  What exactly am I supposed to think about when (and here comes the BIG spoiler!) the movie ends with the serial killing rapist effectively killing off both of the boy’s parents, his last victim Margaret who managed to escape from him before he died, and presumably gets to live happily ever after in the body of a child that he hijacked and “murdered the soul” of?    Like… I know this sounds kind of histrionic, but WHAT GOD WOULD ALLOW THIS!?  I ask because if they bothered to give us SOMETHING there (maybe some deity DID allow this!), then maybe you can gleam something from this ending, but there’s nothing there to chew on and for all its grimness, it just ends up being completely hollows; not to mention the skeevy nature of watching a victim’s tormentor given the opportunity to find and SUCCESSFULLY MURDER them.  I mean bad things can happen to good and undeserving people in horror movies, but that feels like a step too far into appropriating a very specific and real fear that many victims have to live with.

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“What do you want for your birthday?”     “FOR THE BLOOD OF THE UNCLEAN TO BE SHED AND FOR THE WORLD TO TREMBLE IN FEAR OF MY POWER!!”     “Yeah… how about a skateboard?”

You know what movie is REALLY underrated?  Damien: Omen 2.  Yeah, the sequel to The Omen is actually a pretty solid horror film, and frankly does everything this movie is trying to do but better.  In that film, Damian is a fully realized character who is stuck with a terrifying destiny, but is given the free will to react and deal with it in whatever way he sees fit, and his transformation from confused and terrified to ultimately embracing his dark half is what keeps the movie going; not to mention the idea that there are forces in play such as capitalist and the military that would WELCOME the coming of the Anti-Christ.  The ending of that film is admittedly not any less dark than this one, but it manages to be less… I guess I’d say LEERY about it, and those ideas about opportunists being the harbinger of our own destruction still rings true to this day.  I’ll give this movie some degree of credit for not doing the obvious thing and making it SATAN, but what they come up with and where they decided to end it shows that either they didn’t know what they were doing or they knew EXACTLY what they were doing; neither case being one I’m willing to reward the film for.

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“Well at least it’s not ‘Atlas Shrugged’ bad.”

So basically I spent most of this review critiquing the last moments of the film which either points to me being oddly obsessed by to just how badly they dropped the ball.  I’m HOPING it’s the latter, but I am at least mostly confident in my assessment because looking back at what was good about the movie, it was never good enough to overshadow the doubts that I was having throughout.  I could see a few places the film was going and I wasn’t liking many of the options, but I tried to stay in the moment and analyze the film for what it was doing on a scene by scene basis.  However, as we approached the ending and they had to either find themselves a way out of the road they were going down or embrace its most ugly implications, it was hard for anything else to stand out at that point.  Now that I know what this film really is about, is there enough good to compensate for its ugly message; intentional or otherwise?  To me, the answer is no and I advise that you skip this movie in favor of better options like the aforementioned Damien: Omen 2.   At least THAT movie would be an interesting bit of trivia!  Did you know they made a sequel to The Omen and it WASN’T terrible!?  The only way people are gonna remember this movie is if they confuse it with better horror movies like The Boy, which by the way is ALSO a better use of your time than watching this!

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