That Boy Ain’t Right
Let’s face it: some kids are just creepy. If they weren’t, the bad-seed trope wouldn’t be such a workhorse of a horror premise, still bearing fruit eons after its inception. The fear of our own offspring turning against us is disturbing on a primal, universal level, unconfined to any one culture or time period. Speaking more generally, the perversion of innocence has always been an upsetting prospect, and what could possibly be more innocent than a child? Truth be told, there’s not much left to do with the creepy-kid genre, but while The Prodigy doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it delivers an uncommonly solid execution of the formula.
We open with a prologue showing the police’s apprehension and shooting of serial killer Edward Scarka. At the exact same moment, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to her son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). Eight years later, Miles is extremely intelligent for his age, but exhibits occasional bursts of disturbing behavior. As these incidents – which are well-done enough to not spoil here – pile up, Sarah and her husband John (Peter Mooney) become increasingly desperate and find themselves turning to spiritualist Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) for help.
One of the most welcome aspects of The Prodigy’s story is that it doesn’t play coy about the nature of Miles’s ailment. From the first scene, we’re acutely aware that he’s possessed by Scarka’s spirit, and seeing the other characters slowly learn this and deal with it becomes the foundation for the movie’s skillful use of suspense. Not that The Prodigy isn’t above gore or jump-scares, but it deploys them in the service of creating a greater atmosphere of dread, and does so subtly and skillfully enough that their inclusion never feels too cheap. The jolts in particular deserve special mention; they’re used just infrequently enough to remain effective, and their music cues avoid the deafening shrillness of many a counterpart.
It also must be said that this is a great-looking movie, and not just for its budget. Its palette of blue-greys and muted purples is gloomy and atmospheric, but never murky. There’s a complete absence of visual warmth, a stylistic choice executed with enough subtlety that it adds to the movie instead of distracting from it. And though the dialogue occasionally falls prey to clunky exposition, the movie generally opts for visual storytelling, with images strong enough to stick. They’re clearly the work of a director who not only wants to go the extra mile, but also has the chops to do so.
As with all creepy-kid movies, much of the impact rests on the shoulders of the actors; Schilling and Scott, as the mother-son duo, prove more than up to the task. Schilling does the movie a great service by committing to the material, refusing to sleepwalk or resort to camp. She sells us on the unimaginable horror of Sarah’s predicament, and because the screenplay dodges the horror pitfall of sudden-onset protagonist stupidity, she holds our sympathy throughout the movie. The same cannot be said of Scott, who creates an utterly loathsome little psychopath in Miles, committing unspeakable acts one minute and hiding behind puppy-dog eyes the next.
The worst thing I can say about The Prodigy is that almost none of it is original. It borrows a pinch of Child’s Play here, a dash of The Exorcist there, a healthy portion of The Omen, and a soupçon of The Good Son to top it all off. Even its tagline, “What’s wrong with Miles?,” is cribbed from its 2009 counterpart Orphan. But what does feel fresh is how ruthlessly competent it is, hitting its age-old marks with a finesse that reminds you why this subgenre has endured for so long. Like a classic magic trick performed by an old pro, it justifies its existence through pure showmanship.