Joseph Ruben’s “The Good Son” (1993) gives us mixed feelings right from the start.
The opening credits’ font and Elmer Bernstein’s score suggest a tender family drama, akin to “My Girl” (1992), both of which star Macauley Culkin. The twist is that, whereas Culkin became a massive star from the PG-rated mega-blockbuster “Home Alone” (1990), and “My Girl” is best remembered for the shocking tragedy surrounding his onscreen character, “The Good Son” was something else altogether.
Ruben’s film was famous for positioning Culkin, among the biggest and youngest movie stars in the world, in the lead of an R-rated psychological thriller where he would play a 1990’s variant on “The Omen” (1976).
Understandably, lots of kids attended the film’s opening weekend and were horrified that their star was murdering people on screen, as opposed to setting up wacky/ghastly traps for the deserving Wet Bandits.
Film periodicals reported that Culkin was receiving a giant paycheck to star in “The Good Son,” but also that the film was a part of family deal making, as the star’s father wouldn’t allow his son to make another commercial vehicle (the second “Home Alone”) without stretching in a non-comic role.
Hence, here’s Culkin, acting alongside Elijah Wood and failing to keep the would-be Hobbit from stealing his big dramatic movie from him.
Wood plays Mike, whose mother has passed and is sent to stay with his cousin Henry (Culkin), who needs a friend and a partner for the havoc he’s about to unleash on his household.
Even the poster felt like a bad call, with a tight picture of a smiling Culkin, under a tagline that read “Evil Has Many Faces.” Informing your audience that you’re not supposed to like the most endearing child star of his generation seemed like a stretch.
The Good Son. This movie traumatized me as a kid because I loved Macaulay Culkin after Home Alone. Plus it’s not like he’s supernatural evil, he’s just regular person evil in a kid. pic.twitter.com/LsWcrne6di
— Shoshana Kessock 🌻 (@ShoshanaKessock) June 1, 2023
Culkin’s introductory scene, where he emerges wearing a mask not out of place in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992), poses a problem; is he too cute to be playing such an evil character or is the character too evil for an actor so cute?
Coming only a year after “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992), this far-too-early career stretch for Culkin fascinates in its unsteady attempts to embrace the darkness of the story.
Wood carries the film, and the premise is lean and direct enough to provide for entertaining trash. The problem is that it’s Wood who provides the film’s center, and not Culkin’s look-how-bad-I-am turn, that powers the movie.
Culkin’s self-aware line readings were funny in “Uncle Buck” (1989) and “Home Alone” but come across as amateurish here. Perhaps he and Wood should have swapped roles. Culkin has some good moments, but his self-conscious acting is a stark contrast to the always believable Wood.
Ruben is a good director, but he nailed this kind of material in “The Stepfather” (1987), which also sported a perversely riveting concept (based on a horrific true story) and was anchored by Terry O’Quinn’s unforgettable performance.
Too light for horror movie fans and too sick for children, “The Good Son” has none of the bite of the Damien Thorn films (any of them) and can’t hold a candle to latter like “Joshua” (2007), the best version of this genre of movie.
Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood on the set of the movie The Good Son. 1993 [1200×941] pic.twitter.com/HstPixXPXt
— Historyland (@HistoryIand) August 22, 2023
“The Bad Seed” (1956) is cited as a key in this subgenre, but Ruben’s film wants to go all-in and embrace the madness of “Bloody Birthday” (1981) and “The Children” (1980) but keeps pulling back.
There is social commentary and parental reflection to gauge within these types of movies, but the story’s twisted potential is softened by an overly safe approach.
It’s a weird experience watching “The Good Son,” in that we want the film to get much gnarlier but cringe whenever the film is cruel enough to suggest that Kevin McCalister would stoop to killing a dog for fun.
The screenplay is by Ian McEwan and likely would have played better without the stunt casting. McEwan’s novel, “The Comfort of Strangers,” became a jolting Christopher Walken-led 1990 Paul Schrader drama.
I had an especially strange experience seeing “The Good Son” in a theater on opening night.
It was playing on multiple screens and the usher accidentally sent my father, brother and I into a sold-out theater where there were almost no seats left and the film was 20 minutes from finishing.
The three of us sat down, got to hear the adorable young star declare “Don’t f— with me” to a theater full of gasps and, just a few scenes later, the movie was over.
We realized what had happened, and my dad arranged for us to see the film from the beginning. Yet, seeing the film in its entirety was almost exactly like watching the extremely truncated version: we’re there to watch Culkin majorly misbehave and do really bad things, then the movie is over.
The perverse attraction of the film was present in either experience.
In the final scene, a mother makes a choice that allows for a feel-good voice over before the end credits. Had the mother made the trickier, more dramatically richer choice of choosing to save a different kid, it would have made for a darker, more thought-provoking conclusion.
Everything about “The Good Son” is like that – as ugly as this gets, it barely earns its R-rating and soft peddles a story that needed filmmakers unafraid of whom was playing the very bad seed.