What’s with you and corn, Stephen King? You got something against grains when they’re especially tall?
In 1922, a movie from 2017 based on a novella by Stephen King, a farmer spends a lot of time in his corn field. Doing weird stuff. Were this Children of the Corn, you would know what I mean by weird—that whole “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” thing. Here though, the corn field there just for atmosphere. SK sees corn as creepy, so we must too. But I tell you the weirdness going on is the farmer, standing among fully grown, taller-than-a-man stalks of corn, feeling the need to poke a shovel in the dirt, for absolutely no agricultural reason. He does this several times, all while having heartwarming conversations with his patrimony, his only son, on the topic of how and when the boy will help him kill Mom. (More on this later.)
What’s weird to me is—and here I must pause to play my trump card: I grew up on a farm, and therefore may speak with ten thousand times the moral authority of you pathetic, etiolated urban dwellers—that business with the shovel. I can assure you that, even in the past, in—just to pick a year at random—1922, farming in the heartland of America was mechanized sufficiently to justify precisely zero poking of shovel around the roots of fully mature corn stalks. Particularly when there are no weeds in sight.
(Warning: the following paragraph contributes nothing to this review. It exists only to show off the reviewer’s deep knowledge of farming. Readers are urged to skip it.)
One could presumably do some non-mechanized, hand shovel-type weeding of a multi-acre corn field if one were experiencing a highly localized but intense outbreak of weeds, probably broad leaves (i.e., not crab grass or any of the other weed grasses, but something along the lines of velvet weed or maybe burdock), that is, the kind of weeds that are both highly visible and fairly easy to uproot … except such an outbreak is probably going to manifest itself early enough in the growing season that you would attack it before July 4, i.e., when the corn is still less than knee high. (“Knee high by the Forth of July” was the old saying that was relevant until the modern era of hybridization. I.e., still relevant in—to pick a year purely at random—1922.)
Okay: have I established my farm cred? Trust me when I say that an early sign of this movie’s vaguely non-seriousness were those scenes—I believe there were more than one—where Pa (that is, Wilfred James, played by Thomas Jane, whose clenched jaw performance of a hardened homesteader is easily the best thing about this movie) feels a need to go out among the corn and jab meaninglessly at the good earth with a shovel while Junior (that is, Henry James, played by Dylan Schmid, an actor best remembered as the endearing Baelfire from Once Upon a Time) and he debate the relative merits of matricide. (For you ignorant city slickers: matricide is not something you use to kill bed bugs. Not that Wilfred James wouldn’t have been glad to get his hands on some pest repellent. But more on that later.)
But anyway, so, yeah: corn. Hey, Mr. Stephen King, sir, what is it in corn you find so atmospheric? Why you so creeped out by the tall green stuff?
We got Mom. Arlette James (played by Molly Parker, making the most of a limited and contradictory role) agrees with her husband that matrimony is a fifty-fifty proposition, which means each spouse should do his or her fair share to sabotage it. Unfortunately, Ma comes to this conclusion belatedly, and that’s my second (after Stephen King’s weird corn fetish) beef with this movie. Ma starts out a mere victim—an innocent receptacle for her husband’s poured out wrath. We easily believe Wilfred is capable of homicide, without Arlette egging him on. But when Wilfred begins to recruit the son Henry to the killing, it’s as if the script writer (Zak Hilditch) woke up to the realization that nobody, I mean zero percent of the audience, is going to believe that sweet, innocent Baelfire—whoops, I mean Henry—would ever agree to murder Mommy. Not in a million years.
That’s my third beef with the movie: Henry’s eventual participation in the conspiracy. We don’t believe he’s capable of it, not even after Ma’s unbelievable conversion—a shockingly abrupt conversion—into a hard drinking, foul mouthed pervert who enjoys taunting her pubescent son amidst his first romance. This scene is painful to watch and seems to have no motivation other than the author’s (King’s or Hilditch’s) desire to motivate Henry’s subsequent decisions.
I won’t spoil the rest. I hardly could if I tried. You know how this plays out: it’s a morality tale of the kind the horror genre was made for. (Horror is to holiness as crime fiction is to law and order. Each reveals through absence.) Wilfred and Henry are now haunted and invaded by guilt—and Wilfred soon will be haunted and invaded non-metaphorically.
Viewed through a Lutheran lens, the wages of Wilfred’s sin are 100 percent law, zero percent Gospel. There is no forgiveness in this story. There’s no balance—no crop rotation of the soul (to go with a agricultural metaphor), no seeds of grace sown among the tares of judgment. Just row after relentless row of vertical, rigid recompense.
Why do we love it: watching the guilty do their horrible guilty acts and pay the price without hope? Why is vicarious justice so satisfying? So…fun? I don’t know, but King, an increasingly reluctant skeptic from what I can tell, puts into Henry’s mouth a classic reversal of the old argument against God, that the idea of a heavenly father is mere wish fulfillment. Henry, just before his guilt drives him off the edge, observes what a good thing it would be, from the point of view of a murderer, if Heaven and Hell does not exist. Cue the John Lennon song … but don’t be fooled about the motive for writing it!
So, Henry falls quickly into a moral death spiral, while stoic Wilfred holds up longer. Still, in the end, he cannot escape the coming two pronged attack.
The two prongs—I suppose this is a spoiler—are ghosts and rats. I think the forked approach is a mistake. Switching back and forth between the ghosts and the rats weakens the impact of each. To continue the metaphor, I think a thrust from a single-bladed knife was called for, not a fork. Either rats or ghosts—that’s how King should have played it. As both have been done before, have in fact become horror tropes, King would have needed to be especially inventive to make this story worth our time. In 1922, what originality we get is in the combination of ghosts and rats, which is not effective.
And that corn! The corn is simply not scary. Not to an old farm hand like me. To you weak, timorous city folks, though—well, who knows what y’all might be a-fearin’?