The Good Son

(Joseph Ruben, USA, 1993)


The early 1990s saw the rapid rise and fall of a popular sub-genre known as the intimacy thriller: psychodramas where the villain who threatens home and hearth is closely related to the family in a personal or professional sense. In this cycle, it could be argued that movies including Single White Female  (1992), Poison Ivy (1992) and Unlawful Entry  (1992) have a discernible art cinema pedigree. Harold Pinter was, in his way, creating the model for these disturbing and often ambiguous stories in his script for The Servant (1963), not to mention his own plays such as 1957’s The Birthday Party (filmed ably by William Friedkin in 1968).


Ian McEwan is a respected UK novelist who clearly owes something to Pinter in the way he infuses classic thriller plots with a thick air of existential mystery. The film that brought their talents together, Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers  (1991), in fact help inaugurate the ‘90s intimacy thriller cycle. Little wonder, then, that an old McEwan script lying around Hollywood should form the basis for Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son.


What might have been an enjoyably terse and perverse narrative in the Pinter style is here presented in a tiresomely bombastic and emphatic manner. Young Mark (Elijah Wood), grieving and irrationally guilty over the death of his mother, goes to stay with his cousin, Henry (Macaulay Culkin, bearable for once). Although every adult around Mark, including his psychotherapist, is all too ready to suspect that he is the cause of the strange and violent incidents that begin occurring, Henry is really the resident American Psycho in this too-perfect household.


Like many a thriller or horror movie, The Good Son kicks around an old chestnut: can evil behaviour be explained in a rational manner? Once it has figured out that it has precious nothing to say on this topic, the film staggers around in search of the dramatic ambiguities and frissons that are de rigueur in this genre.


When all else fails, Ruben turns to raising the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock.


It will be news to no one that the contemporary thriller genre is massively influenced by the legacy of Hitchcock. Purely on the level of verbal and written discourse, it would seem that the word Hitchcockian has become the most abused and least discriminately applied adjective in the sorry annals of film publicity and reviewing hype: every second psychological thriller in the video shop claims on its cover to be Hitchcockian, if not “more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock”!


Yet the almost surreal indefinition that the term Hitchcockian has reached finds its valid mirror image in many of the films actually being produced. Often, it is as if these movies were the product of some swirling feverish dream, where various themes, motifs and devices from the Hitchcock canon float and combine in a disembodied, sometimes quite incoherent fashion. We may or may not choose to consider this a postmodern phenomenon – I do not doubt there are a few very knowing postmoderns (in many parts of the world) who raid Hitchcock for their preferred filmic citations.


But generally, I would propose that this slightly deranged, all-pervasive air of mannerist homage to Hitchcock is not necessarily such an intellectual or self-conscious gesture. A routine level of intertextual quotation reflects a moment in the history of film culture when many aspiring creators are natural-born movie-nuts. For them, coming up with a good idea for a new film is a process of welding together, in a fairly spontaneous act of automatic writing, a large number of beloved memories, choice moments and prime influences from previous classics of the medium. This how I believe Brian De Palma goes about inventing his (finally highly structured) scripts; it is probably also the method of Quentin Tarantino, despite all the ex post facto movie-nut explication of which this director is boundlessly capable.


To gauge the extent of Hitch’s influence on contemporary thrillers, one need only take a random example: hence my choice of The Good Son. Ruben, like Harold Becker (Sea of Love, 1989) or Curtis Hanson (The Bedroom Window, 1987), is generally identified in the industry as a popular director of thrillers; his previous work included The Stepfather  (1987) and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). Where McEwan’s influences are probably Pinter and Roman Polanski, Ruben immediately turns the material of The Good Son into a shameless, and sometimes pointless, Hitchcockian homage – at the very least, a disconnected patchwork of allusions.


The bayside setting recalls The Birds  (1963); the house in which the central action occurs looks in certain shots like the Bates mansion from Psycho (1960); the final cliff-side clinch evokes the denouement of North by Northwest (1959); Elmer Bernstein’s music score regularly dips into a Bernard Herrmann pastiche; and, stylistically, there are pop-out overhead angles and bravura tracking dolly shots mimicking well-known moments from many a Hitchcock classic.


As to the essential intrigue, it is easily recognisable as the Strangers on a Train  (1951) template: tracing the relationship between two characters (here, the two boys) where one relatively “normal” person becomes implicated (and also, perhaps, psychologically and morally complicit) in the evil crimes of another. This is one of the four most prevalent Hitchcockian models ruling modern (i.e., post-Hitchcock) horror-thriller cinema – the others being the Rear Window  (1954) voyeur story (as reprised, for instance, in De Palma’s Body Double [1984]), the Vertigo  (1958) story of obsessed love (see De Palma’s Obsession [1976]), and the Psycho story of schizo identity (see Bigas Luna’s Anguish [1987], Friedkin’s Cruising  [1980] and most of Dario Argento’s films). Other Hitchcock films come around less often: the Devlin-Alicia relationship from Notorious (1946) is borrowed for the excellent B action piece C.I.A. II: Target – Alexa  (1992), and elements of Shadow of a Doubt  (1943) are clearly reworked in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).


The Good Son, however, unambiguously belongs with other Strangers on a Train homages including Hanson’s Bad Influence (1990), Martin Campbell’s weird Criminal Law (1989), and the Linda Gray telemovie Accidental Meeting  (1993). It is interesting to note, however, in most of these cases, that the supposedly direct or pure Hitchcock influence arrives freighted with a certain supplement: precisely the interpretations that have been added to the original films by the annals of criticism, or at least those interpretations which have themselves become canonical through repetition and popularisation.


I am thinking here particularly of the famous transference of guilt theme first attributed to Hitchcock’s films by Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer in their book of 1957 – referring to a certain strange twist of complicity, often coming at the very end of a story, which spreads the aura of evil associated with the just-vanquished villain to other characters hitherto considered (or assumed) innocent.


The Good Son, like Tim Hunter’s Paint it Black (1989) and several of Chabrol’s own films, reaches for this final, putatively Hitchcockian frisson any way it can – even if the gesture makes not much dramatic or thematic sense.

MORE Ruben: The Forgotten

© Adrian Martin November 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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