The Prodigy (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
There are a dime a dozen horror pictures that leave such a terrible first impression, they never recover. Right from the opening shot involving a creepy-looking door and jump scare, I knew immediately where it was heading: a kidnapped woman (Brittany Allen) goes sprinting through the woods and onto the highway. A driver, enjoying a peaceful night drive on the road, makes a sudden movement to swerve in order to avoid hitting the anguished woman. There is pause and silence. The camera moves slowly toward the passenger window. It is so predictable, we know the exact point on the frame from which the escaped victim would appear suddenly. Cue the booming score. I rolled my eyes; I braced myself for a likely torturous ninety minutes. Then it proved me wrong.
Those looking for creepy children horror movies will get exactly what they expect from “The Prodigy,” written by Jeff Buhler and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, and then some. I refuse to reveal the precise machinations of the plot, but trust when I say that the material takes a concept and simply goes for it—not half-heartedly but all the way. Some viewers may scoff at it, especially since some developments are so ludicrous, but those who are open for a suspenseful and thrilling ride are certain to notice the steady rising action, that each turn of event is becoming increasingly unsettling. Eventually, we begin to detect a hopeless feeling because the challenge involving the boy comes across as seemingly insurmountable.
The boy is named Miles and he is played with great energy by Jackson Robert Scott. The young actor impresses not because he must deliver two performances but because of the way he tends to muddle the line between good Miles and bad Miles. No, the film is not a simply an extreme case of bipolar disorder or dissociative identity disorder. It is much worse, if you can believe it. Scott’s performance, to my surprise, matches that of Taylor Schilling, who plays the mother, the latter on the verge of breakdown due to the nightmare that has taken hold of her once happy home. It is required, for the sake of believability, that the two performances function on a similar level.
The titular character is highly intelligent and an exceptional liar. Tension accumulates because there is always the possibility that Miles is already two steps ahead of his parents (the father played by Peter Mooney) who realize they do not feel safe in their own house. When Sarah and John whisper in the middle of the night, for example, we squint at the carefully framed shadows. Could Miles be lurking there? The director is wise to employ numerous wide shots in order to arouse suspicion among the environment. We already know how terrified the parents are and so focusing on close-ups would have taken away from the rising action. I enjoyed, too, that there are moments when Miles does not have an inkling that his parents might be up to something. By changing it up once in a while, it keeps us on our toes.
“The Prodigy” surprises, too, when it comes to its level of brutality. There are implied violence… and then there are those that are so in-your-face, I caught myself looking away suddenly due to a mix of horror and utter shock that certain images are actually, daringly, shown. And yet it does not come across as gratuitous, you see. The reason is because the filmmakers actually care about telling a particular story first and foremost. The inevitable violence is a byproduct.