Our culture insists on the innocence of children. Even the exceptions are proof: ”The Omen”’s Damien couldn’t be just a brat, he had to be Satan. But we know better, and so does The Good Son, a nasty and rich pop thriller that looks at a child and sees the numb blandness of a future serial killer. Directed by Joseph Ruben with the craft that made his 1987 film ”The Stepfather” a B classic, ”The Good Son” is ”Strangers on a Train” in knee pants.
The key to the movie’s power is that it stars a young actor with the talent to take us across emotionally raw terrain — but that actor isn’t Macaulay Culkin. Don’t get me wrong: Mac is fine and spooky here, but his performance stays well within the opaque limits staked out by the ”Home Alone” movies. It’s Elijah Wood, ”The Good Son”’s real star, who grabs our sympathy. As Mark Evans, sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in Maine after his mother dies, Wood balances fierce smarts and wounded sensitivity. At first, Mark holds his own with creepy cousin Henry (Culkin); they break windows, tease Henry’s kid sister — standard kid stuff. But Mark quickly sees that Henry’s cruelty is cold, logical, and unfathomably deep.
”The Good Son” delivers its knuckle-gnawing set pieces with a skill that makes other thrillers look logy. When Henry pushes his ice-skating sister onto the thin part of the pond, for example, the movie daringly stops in its tracks to listen to the ice bellow before giving way. But Ruben and his screenwriter, Ian McEwan, are most daring when they tap into something we rarely admit about childhood: Where most kids learn to temper any innate sadism with ethics, some just don’t. There are people who will despise the movie for that. Intentionally or not, it forces unpleasant connections — to what we know about Jeffrey Dahmer’s youth, for instance, or to increasingly frequent news photos of of blank-faced teen killers. They’ll despise it, too, because the movie presents its dark vision so well.
Make no mistake: There is artistry here, not least in the film’s resonant emotional undertones. In his grief, Mark becomes convinced that the spirit of his dead mom has entered his aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson), and ”The Good Son” develops into a tussle between him and Henry over Who Gets Mom. Anybody with siblings will relate, but Ruben ups the Freudian ante in the staggering climax by putting Aunt Susan in a position where she has to choose. She does so, and in a way that will hang in your mind for a long, long time.