DIRECTOR John McNaughton WRITER Stephen Lancellotti STARS Samantha Morton; Michael Shannon; Charlie Tahan DVD 22 June
Originally titled The Harvest (a more fitting title given the subject matter), Can’t Come Out To Play is John McNaughton’s first feature film in over a decade. While perhaps more subtle than his previous offerings like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and trashy thriller Wild Things, it’s no less provocative or compelling. No stranger to exploring the darker side of humanity, the director builds a sense of dread and unease from the outset and takes his time to establish the characters before plunging them, and us, into hellish domestic chaos.
The idea of defenceless children at the mercy of tyrannical parental figures has more than a touch of the Grimm fairy tale about it, and childhood fears are mined for maximum impact. Notions of parental abandonment, domestic abuse and familial dysfunction form the core of the story. Sickly Andy (Charlie Tahan) has been ostracised from the outside world thanks to his domineering mother whose overprotective tendencies have rendered him a veritable prisoner in his own home, while recently orphaned Maryann (Natasha Calis) finds that she has no one to turn to when her grandparents don’t believe what she reveals to them. A particularly outré twist is well enough executed to ensure the audience isn’t completely jolted out of the story and the sudden change in tone isn’t too jarring. Even before events descend into blatant horror territory, there’s a strong sense of unease and tension generated by the central couple’s obvious marital strife.
While several moments arguably border on the far-fetched, they are rescued by the performances, which perfectly convey the chilling psychological implications of the couple’s actions. Andy’s parents may be deeply flawed and increasingly unhinged, but they are also human enough to evoke some sympathy despite the heinous things they’ve done. As the monstrous matriarch Katherine, a resplendently formidable Samanta Morton ensures her character never becomes two-dimensional, despite a screenplay which oversimplifies everything. In the hands of a lesser actress her character could very easily have descended into camp parody, but Morton treads a very fine line and ensures the audience are all too aware of Katherine’s desperation. As the downtrodden husband Richard, Michael Shannon, also an imposing screen presence, impresses with a performance that aptly conveys his character’s inner turmoil and he maintains enough ambiguity to keep us second-guessing his trustworthiness.
While Stephen Lancellotti’s screenplay is rather pedestrian, McNaughton’s measured direction and some disarmingly powerful performances really help to elevate it and increase the intensity. What could have easily been melodramatic drivel is rendered surprisingly powerful with certain moments packing a hefty emotional wallop. Several scenes are genuinely shocking and while certainly not graphic, are particularly haunting because they depict harm wrought upon the young by those who should be protecting them.