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‘The Good Son’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 24, 1993

Combine Dennis the Menace with Hannibal Lecter and you'll have some idea of the character Macaulay Culkin plays in the marginally interesting new thriller "The Good Son." As it happens, the kid's name is Henry, making the film even easier to peg. Just think of it as "Henry: Portrait of a Pint-Size Serial Killer." Henry is not a nice boy. His idea of fun is tossing a dummy off an overpass, causing a 10-car collision. Or plugging a mangy watchdog with a customized weapon of his own creation that shoots bolts instead of bullets. For Henry, these are trifling diversions, mere child's play. But to Mark (Elijah Wood), the 12-year-old boy who comes to stay with Henry's family on the coast of Maine while his father (David Morse) is away and who becomes Henry's unwitting accomplice, they are something else. "You're sick," he tells Henry, whose only response is "I feel sorry for you, Mark. You just don't know how to have fun."

As Mark soon comes to learn, though, this casual savagery is merely the tip of the iceberg. The accidental death of Henry's baby brother was, it seems, anything but an accident. And when Henry's little sister (played by Culkin's real-life sibling, Quinn) becomes too much of a nuisance, he lines her up in his sights too.

Of course when Mark, who has already been traumatized by the recent death of his beloved mother, tries to tell Henry's mother (Wendy Crewson) that her oldest boy is the spawn of Satan, she slaps him across the face. "Never come to me with these lies again!" she screams.

With the sometimes inspired director Joseph Ruben working from a script by the acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan, there was reason to believe the picture might offer more than a rounding-up of the usual suspects. But Ruben and company appear to have been completely content to approximate the standard excitements of the genre. And without much enthusiasm either.

In "The Stepfather" and "Sleeping With the Enemy," Ruben showed a keen eye for the seismic fissures in the foundation of the so-called "average" American family. In "The Stepfather," he used the conventions of the thriller to create a withering portrait of domestic horror -- the dark flip side of "Father Knows Best." And during the first section of "The Good Son," which shows Mark struggling desperately to comprehend the meaning of his mother's demise, the film has real gravity. At this stage, the filmmakers appear interested in looking seriously at the death of parent through a child's uncomprehending eye, but as soon as Culkin begins his high jinks, the demon-seed plot kicks in and the picture degenerates into a campy mess.

The mere presence of the adorable baby star, in fact, seems to throw the whole film out of whack, making the picture play more like an inadvertent comedy than a thriller. By design, the film is meant to show Culkin in a vastly different light, but from conception it seems wrongheaded and even cynical. It's one thing to cast a child star as popular as Culkin as a killer, but it's quite another to have him cuss like a sailor. This seems to be the picture's main selling point, though if this is a thrill for anyone, it's certainly a cheap one. But then what can we expect from a film whose star can't even see it without the presence of a responsible adult? The real question is, where were the responsible adults when this thing was made?

"The Good Son" is rated R for violence and language.

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